The reviewer, a Washington science writer, is the author of a college textbook on evironmental citizen action.

If asked to name the disease you fear most, you probably would answer, "cancer." You may be a victim of "cancer-phobia." There plainly is a cancer "epidemic," as the obituaries daily demonstrate. And the health establishment responsible for protecting us may be guilty of benign neglect. "Malignant Neglect," with its felicitous-pun title, explains that "cancer results from exposure to chemical and physical agents present in our evironment." Then it assures us: "Through appropriate regulatory policies and altered life styles, we can take positive steps to prevent cancer in the future."

Cancer clearly is a problem which must no longer be neglected. One in four now living, or 54 million Americans, will suffer from it at some time.

Cancer is a selective killer. It is the leading cause of death of women between ages 30 and 40, and of children from 1 to 10 years old. It is second only to accidents in killing men and women under 35, and children over 10, Lung cancer leads in rate of incidence among men. It has increased almost twentyfold in the last 40 years. Breast cancer is the form with the highest incidence among women.

Those and other shocking statistics underpine chapter one, on the nature and scope of the cancer problem. Whereas medical authorities might have chosen a different context in which to have interpreted the figures, the authors of "Malignant Neglect" chose geography, the workplace, and the physical environment. The authors are six toxic chemicals specialists (primarily Joseph H. Highland, a biochemist) of the Environmental Defense Fund, a public interest group of lawyers and scientists, with Robert H. Boyle, an environmental writer.

"Despite the high toll cancer takes, if would be folly to consider the disease inevitable," the authors assure us. "Not 'everything' causes cancer . . .

Cancer may be caused by carcinogens in the polluted air we breathe, the contaminated water we drink, or the kind of food we eat. Cancer may also be caused by occupational or personal exposure to chemicals, cigarette smoke, sunlight, or X-rays. Thus the incidence of cancer can be reduced by diminishing or eliminating human exposure to carcinogens. Prevention, not 'cure', is the key."

The book is perhaps most interesting when focusing on investigations in which one or more of the authors were personally involved, as Robert Boyle was in the clean-up of PCBs from the Hudson River.

"Malignant Neglect" charges that "federal and state governments have failed to protect both the environment and citizens from a flood of hazardous substances, including carcinogens. Even when legislation has required federal agencies to take steps to protect citizen health and the environment, the responses of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have been slow and weak."

The last chapter, "The Solution to the Problem," disappoints by being a potpourri of simple tips: Don't smoke, sunbathe with discretion, eat less fat, etc. Only one of the 17 tips is aimed at the kind of citizen action which can get at the major problems discussed: That is, become involved in the regulatory process, and undergird it with good science and technology and good people, so that our government can adequately protect us.