Toxic Myth


The Apocalyptics: Cancer and the Big Lie, by Edith Efron, New York: Simon & Schuster, 512 pp., $19.95

This is a story that has to be told. It is one of the most extraordinary scientific scandals in decades. Years from now, our descendants may look at it in the same way we look back at the Salem witch trials.

It begins in the early 1960s when a diligent British scientist named John Higginson surveyed world disease patterns to see how cancer occurs. His object was to settle the dispute about whether cancer is a "hereditary" disease, carried in our genes, or whether it is initiated by factors in the environment.

After completing his study, Higginson came down emphatically on the side of environmental causation. All around the world, he noted, cancer patterns could be traced to local conditions and customs. In Southeast Asia, for example, those who chewed betel nuts suffered very high rates of mouth and throat cancer. Chinese peasants who often ate food "garnished" with bacterial molds suffered high rates of stomach cancer. A common cancer in Africa, called Burkitt's lymphoma, was obviously tied to the incidence of malaria.

Cancer, Higginson announced, is 90 percent an "environmental disease," meaning that about 90 percent of the initiating agents come from outside our body (the other 10 percent are probably caused by our own hormones). The genetic argument had been thoroughly refuted.

Fine and good. What Higginson could not anticipate, however, was that the United States was about to be overrun with a social movement called "environmentalism," which was to concern itself with air and water pollution, toxic chemicals, and the by-products of industry.

And try as they would, Higginson and others could not prevent these same "environmentalists" from claiming that it was what they meant by "the environment"—the products of an industrial society—that was causing "90 percent of all cancers." Thus, by 1976, Newsweek magazine was declaring that "it's now generally accepted that 60 to 90 percent of all human cancer is caused by man-made toxic chemicals" (emphasis added)—a proposition essentially made up out of thin air.

In The Apocalyptics, Edith Efron has undertaken the monumental task of tracing through the entire process by which false environmental alarms have become faulty legislation, faulty legislation has become "regulatory science," and regulatory science has turned into the hysterical "carcinogen-of-the-month" syndrome. Her effort is utterly comprehensive. She has assembled mountains of information. Unfortunately, the book is also of a barely readable length. Efron rarely misses an opportunity to go into lengthy biographical detail, to quote multiple sources, or to give us three paragraphs of congressional testimony where one sentence probably would do.

Like many critics of environmentalism, Efron expresses deep resentment about Rachel Carson's success in combining bad science with felicitous, accessible prose in Silent Spring, Carson's classic on the environment. Unfortunately, Efron does not seem to realize that a book as encyclopedic as her own cannot hope to have a very wide readership.

I would suggest that anyone put off by the length of The Apocalyptics skip the first three chapters and go right to chapter 4, where Efron has assembled a landmark inventory of information, "The Earth's Carcinogens: A Survey." The entire flavor of the book is conveyed right here.

Did you know, for example, that dinosaur fossils show ample evidence of cancer of the bone and blood vessels? Did you know that oxygen regularly shows up as a carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) in the bacterial assays that are commonly used to take sugar substitutes and food additives off the shelves? Did you know that 20 percent of the earth's elements are carcinogenic (and not because of their radioactivity)? Did you know that many essential nutrients, such as selenium, zinc, and manganese, are carcinogenic—and some of the same (selenium is the most notable) have also been shown to be anticarcinogenic?

As Efron so effectively demonstrates, the one thing that scientists have been able to prove about cancer over the last 15 years is that it is not the result of some simple-minded process of "one-time exposure to a known carcinogen." There are obviously layers of defense mechanisms in our bodies that separate us from the "sea of carcinogens" in which we live.

Yet this same simple-minded assumption—that we can drive all the "known carcinogens" out of the environment—has been the basis of the entire federal regulatory effort of the last 10 years. We wring our hands and cry "scandal" about a few parts-per-billion of some food preservative in our diet, while we regularly ingest much larger amounts of natural carcinogens with every meal. In this light, the nation's hysteria over "industrial carcinogens" looks more and more like the efforts of the medieval Flaggelants to cure themselves of the plague by stripping their own flesh to shreds.

As Efron also notes, the most obvious fact about cancer in the United States is that it is not increasing. Far from the public hysteria, scientists are quietly wondering about the "Paradox of Rehn": why has the increased use of industrial chemicals not caused an "epidemic" of cancers, as a Swiss doctor named Rehn had predicted in 1895?

America ranks far down the scale of industrial nations in cancer incidence. Some of the highest rates of cancer in the world are recorded in India, Africa, Southeast Asia, and rural Canada. Without the big increase in lung cancer—which is obviously tied to smoking—American cancers would be notably declining. Yet still, Dan Rather intones that "America leads the world in cancer," which he calls the "disease of the century."

The Apocalyptics is a truly heroic effort—the attempt by one lone individual to stem the tide of irrationality that has gripped the nation over the last 10 years on the cancer issue. Most remarkable is Efron's report that, out of the dozens of academic scientists who have praised the book in manuscript form, every one of them has requested anonymity! The peer pressure within the scientific community to "go with the flow" and blame industry for the mythical "epidemic of cancer"—instead of acknowledging the disease's obvious worldwide incidence and correlation with nonindustrial factors in our environments—has apparently reached the point where it can torpedo reputations and sink applications for government grants.

My advice to author Edith Efron and to publisher Simon and Schuster right now would be to take this monumental work and distill from it 120 pages of readable prose that could easily slip into the hands of secretaries as they ride home from work on the bus. Then this book will take on the dimensions of another Silent Spring, which it so richly deserves.

My advice to anyone who can't wait for that is to read this book now.

Contributing Editor William Tucker is a journalist who has written often on environmental issues. His book Progress and Privilege was published last year by Doubleday.