Devra Davis Takes Aim at the War on Cancer

Somehow, I missed Devra Davis’ powerful essay Off Target in the War on Cancer which appeared in the Washington Post last week. Davis, a well known environmental epidemiologist, is the author of the just published The Secret History of the War on Cancer. In the Post essay, she makes a very convincing case that there is much we can do to reduce cancer risk. While we don’t know all the answers, from a regulatory point-of-view its better to be safe than sorry:

Consider the icon of American cancer, the cyclist Lance Armstrong. He’s hardly alone as an inspiring younger survivor. Of the 10 million American cancer survivors who are alive five years after their diagnosis, about one in 10 is younger than 40. Could exposure to radiation and obesity-promoting chemicals help explain why, according to a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the rates of the testicular cancer that Armstrong developed nearly doubled in most industrialized countries in the past three decades? Should we wait to find out?

I’m calling for prudence and prevention, not panic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Working Group have confirmed that American children are being born with dozens of chemicals in their bodies that did not exist just two decades earlier, including toxic flame retardants from fabrics. A new study by Barbara Cohn and other scientists at the Public Health Institute in Berkeley, Calif., finds that girls exposed to elevated levels of the pesticide DDT before age 14 are five times more likely to develop breast cancer when they reach middle age.

Why don’t we know more about the environmental causes of cancer?

True, there are many uncertainties about environmental cancer hazards. But these doubts should not be confused with proof that environmental factors are harmless. The confusion arises for three different reasons. First, studying the ways that our surroundings affect our cancers is genuinely hard. Second, public and private funding levels for research and control of environmental cancer are scandalously low. Finally, those who profit from the continued use of some risky technologies have devised well-financed efforts to sow doubt about many modern hazards, taking their cue from the machinations of the tobacco industry. The best crafted public relations campaigns masquerade as independent scientific information from unimpeachable authorities.

As the country begins to rethink our broken public health regulatory system, Devra Davis’s work needs to be a central part of the discussion.

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