Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream: An ecologist looks at cancer and the environment, 1997, and Having Faith: An ecologist’s journey to motherhood, 2001.
Devra Davis SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR ON CANCER 505pp. Basic Books. £16.99. 978 0 465 01566 5

Phil Brown TOXIC EXPOSURES Contested illnesses and the environmental health movement 356pp. New York: Columbia University Press. £19 (US $29.50). 978 0 231 12948 0

One advantage of being a long-time cancer survivor – besides the obvious – is that it provides a front-row seat in the auditorium of ideas about the disease’s causation. Theories go in and out of fashion over the years, paradigms shift this way and that, and the patient is viewed differently by the medical community depending on which idea is currently on top.

I was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1979, when I was twenty years old and just at the beginning of my career as a biologist. At that time, US newspaper headlines featured Love Canal, the upstate New York community whose residents had been evacuated a year earlier when 20,000 tons of industrial chemicals were discovered buried under their basements. Toxic-waste activism in the United States was in the ascendant, the newly formed US Environmental Protection Agency was committed and passionate, and major environmental legislation had been recently enacted by Congress to defend clean air and clean water in the name of human health.

After breaking the bad news from the pathology lab, my urologist asked me about tyres: automobile tyres. Had I ever vulcanized tyres? His second question was about textile dyes. Any exposure to the colour yellow? And had I ever worked in the aluminium industry?

Back at the university, I began to research the causes of bladder cancer. Indeed, there were data on dyes and bladder cancer going back to the nineteenth century. In fact, there was absolute proof that certain textile dyes caused bladder cancer in humans. And yet, mysteriously, this evidence had not resulted in the abolition of these chemicals from the economy. Other suspected bladder carcinogens, for which the evidence was highly troubling, if not outright damning, were produced and used by the industries in my home town. The National Cancer Institute was generating maps of cancer mortality in an attempt to unveil other possible environmental carcinogens that could explain rising rates of cancer.

And then Ronald Reagan was elected President, and everything changed. No one asked me any more about my possible environmental exposures. In fact, by the mid-1980s, I was hard-pressed to find the word “carcinogen” in any pamphlet on cancer that I collected from my doctors’ various offices. Meanwhile, in the medical literature, the search for cancer clusters that might point towards environmental contributors became a disparaged practice. The new focus of the National Cancer Institute was on “lifestyle” explanations for cancer.

As a young adult I hadn’t really had enough time to develop bad habits. In fact, I was a vegetarian who ran four miles a day. Thus there was no explanation for my situation. “Some kind of fluke”, said one of my doctors. Wherever I lived, I dutifully submitted to cancer check-ups. By the 1990s, the new explanation for cancer was genetic, and I started receiving lots of questions from young intake doctors about my family history. I had fun with this. I would describe in detail my mother, diagnosed with breast cancer, my various uncles with prostate and colon cancers, and – the crowning point – my aunt who died of the same kind of bladder cancer that I had. The young doctors took furious notes. I would always pause a few beats before adding, “Oh yeah. And I’m adopted”. (There is no evidence for a hereditary link to bladder cancer. And there never has been.)

Today, I’m a forty-eight-year-old professor in Ithaca, New York, and during my last renal ultrasound, the technician asked me casually if I’d ever worked with textile dyes. I suppose Al Gore should get the credit: the environment is once again on the collective radar screen.

Two new books expose and explicate the ongoing social contest that is at the heart of our shifting understanding about cancer. They are both important and deserve to be read together. Devra Davis’s book examines the historical forces at work when doubt is cast on the environmental evidence. Phil Brown’s book explores the opposing social movements that are struggling to rescue this evidence and to bring about public health policy change based on it.

Devra Davis’s Secret History of the War on Cancer is a big, sprawling book whose argument is more implicit than it should be. Her autobiographical style – which served her so well in her earlier treatise on public health, When Smoke Ran Like Water – often gets in the way of her analysis here. Nevertheless, Davis, who directs the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, is an epidemiologist and public-health scientist at the top of her game. In her new book, she reveals what she knows about the interlocking structures of government and corporate interests, and how these relationships have affected the social construction of knowledge about cancer. Davis deserves to be taken seriously as a former adviser to the World Health Organization, a public-health servant in both the Carter and the Clinton Administrations, and the founding director of the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology in the National Academy of Sciences. …

The Secret History of the War on Cancer is a remarkable piece of sleuthing from one of our most brave and knowledgeable scientists, on a topic that affects millions. Having closed Davis’s book, one should immediately open Phil Brown’s Toxic Exposures, which focuses on the ways in which environmental- health activists and their advocates in science are challenging the carcinogen-deniers that Davis writes about. Like Devra Davis, Brown, a medical sociologist at Brown University, has been a researcher in the field of environmental health for several decades, beginning with his groundbreaking work on the Woburn cancer cluster, made famous in the Hollywood movie A Civil Action. His new book represents many years of work. Toxic Exposures can be read as a guidebook for those wishing to understand the environmental-health movement, which, according to Brown, is the Civil Rights movement of our times. As he demonstrates, almost all cases of cancer clusters and contaminated communities, from Love Canal onwards, have been discovered by citizen activists – not by scientists, nor government agencies. This is because no governmental agency or scientific body engages in routine surveillance that would uncover sentinel health events. It is also because cancer registries, which could function as early-warning systems, publish their results in obscure almanacs and do not actively investigate communities where cancer rates are elevated. Often, as Brown notes, these communities are never even informed that their cancer rates are statistically excessive. …

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