Author's Book on Cancer Fuels Flames Again

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Devra Davis spent part of her growing-up years in a Pennsylvania steel town that became famous for a lethal industrial fog that settled over the community and killed 20 people over five days in 1948.

So it's no surprise that Davis, 61, an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, has written controversial books drawing on her experiences. The latest, "The Secret History of the War on Cancer," claims that 10 million cancer deaths could have been avoided over the past 30 years had it not been for industry opposition to good science and regulatory inaction by the U.S. government.

Davis's message, hailed as courageous or fanatical and fringe, arrives at a time when the public is concerned about tainted domestic food supplies, lax import rules on lead-contaminated toys, and charges of doctored government reports on climate change.

"We want to believe we can cure cancer -- throw a lot of money at it and solve the problem," Davis said in an interview. "It hasn't worked because we want to kill the disease but don't look at what causes it."

A major theme of the book is that the battle against cancer is being fought mostly on the treatment front. The overall cancer death rate has declined in recent years because there are fewer smokers and better detection and treatments. About half a million Americans die of cancer annually, the National Cancer Institute says.

The hard work of identifying environmental factors that may lead to cancer is often not undertaken, Davis writes. Or the results of research are ignored, dismissed as lacking proof, or treated as a "trade secret" by the government and manufacturers.

Not enough attention is being paid, she says, to the effects of small doses of chemicals that, when taken together, may put people at risk.

Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at Pitt's cancer institute, raises a red flag on children using cellphones or bubble baths containing 1,4-Dioxane, a foaming agent that is banned in Europe because it has been linked to cancer in animals. She cautions people of all ages to avoid home insulation containing asbestos, to limit CT scans and to shun the use of aspartame.

"It's death by a 1,000 cuts for us and our children from these low-level toxins," she said.

"Unusual cancers" are popping up in younger people, she said, with a growing number of cases of childhood leukemia and brain and kidney cancer. Ten percent of the nation's 10 million cancer survivors are younger than 40.

Regulators should look at the combined risks of small amounts of hazardous substances and find safer alternatives, Davis argues. She would let companies tell what they learned about the hazards of their products from their own research, in exchange for amnesty from legal liability.

Davis's book is drawing predictable reactions from each end of the political-scientific spectrum.

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