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.
"We see the out-and-out manipulation of research or suppression of it," said Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' scientific integrity program in Washington. "The fact she is putting these things together maybe will get people to ask more questions."
On the other hand, Bruce Ames, a retired University of California biochemist and National Medal of Science winner, said Davis is fanatical and "has gone completely overboard about traces of chemicals versus what is out there -- bad diets and smoking."
Elizabeth M. Whelan, president and founder of the American Council on Science and Health, a New York group of doctors and scientists who question the reliability of the science government uses to regulate, agrees with Ames. She called Davis's book "fringe." The real health risks, Whelan said, are tobacco, exposure to sunlight, obesity, and for women, sexual habits, childlessness and drinking too much.
The Donora accident from childhood prompted Davis to write her first book, "When Smoke Ran Like Water," which became a National Book Award finalist after it was published in 2002. It took 20 years and the loss of both parents to cancer for her to write her new book.
Equally important in shaping her views, Davis said, were the years she spent in Washington. She worked on toxicology studies at the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s. She spent a decade at the National Academy of Sciences, again focusing on environmental toxins. And President Bill Clinton appointed her head of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which investigates industrial accidents.
She said she learned in Washington how corporate lawyers had succeeded in setting the standard of proof for dangerous chemicals higher than it should be by arguing that it's hard to "prove" what the real cause of a cancer might be.
"In the absence of regulatory focus in the U.S. today and the lack of leadership, we are losing ground," Davis said. "The devastating impact on science makes McCarthyism look like child's play."
Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist with Bloomberg News. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.