Sandra Steingraber discusses the evolution, devolution, and re-evolution of our understanding of environmental factors' role in cancer. (Steingraber is also the author of the fantastic book Living Downstream, a "follow-up" of a kind to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.)
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...
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?
...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... [t]he new focus of the National Cancer Institute was on “lifestyle” explanations for cancer.
...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”.
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...
After the full introduction that excerpt is taken from, Steingraber goes on to review "Two new books [that] expose and explicate the ongoing social contest that is at the heart of our shifting understanding about cancer":
SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR ON CANCER
505pp. Basic Books. £16.99.
978 0 465 01566 5
Contested illnesses and the environmental health movement
356pp. New York: Columbia University Press. £19 (US $29.50).
978 0 231 12948 0
Read, learn, go. Hurry! Do it now!