Cancer remains such a prolific killer, says the author, because the medical community focuses on treatment rather than prevention of the root causes.
Davis (When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, 2002, etc.), an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at University of Pittsburgh’s Cancer Institute, offers a detailed history of workplace and environmental carcinogens that predates Nixon’s “war” on cancer in the ’70s. She reminds us of Sir Percival Pott’s observations of scrotal cancers in English chimney sweeps, the radiation-induced cancers that followed the discovery of X-rays, the Curies’ work with radium and, less well-known, the research of Nazi scientists who linked tobacco to cancer and led officials to discourage Germans from smoking during World War II. The German scientists were pioneers in the new field of epidemiology, which even today is denigrated by some since it involves methods like surveys (unreliable) and statistics (suspect). Much of the text makes for grim but fascinating reading as Davis reviews the tobacco story and describes conditions in steel mills, copper smelters, chemical factories and plastics plants, where workers are exposed to insidious and lethal solvents and agents such as asbestos, benzene, formaldehyde and dioxin. She also immortalizes the many poor people in small towns next to waste dumps or downstream from hugely polluted rivers who died from cancer or whose children suffered birth defects. In almost every case, the offending corporation lied, denied, delayed or bought-off complaints, recruiting the best legal talent and, sad to say, even highly respected scientists. Rather than engage in what has been a fruitless battle of litigation, vengeance and counterproductive legislation, Davis proposes a kind of truth-and-reconciliation approach to get industry and public-health experts mutually involved. But she notes that, unfortunately, it’s simply not happening fast enough, and she goes on to raise her own concerns about cell phones, Ritalin and aspartame.
One can hope, however, that Davis’s book will assure that proper attention is paid.