An Epidemic Of Cancer Deception: The
Can't Trust Them
An Interview With
Originally published in
The Sun, March
A thousand Americans die every
day from cancer. Almost everyone knows at least one casualty.
According to Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the carcinogenic
effects of toxic and industrial pollutants in air, water, the workplace,
and consumer products, most of these deaths are preventable. But cancer
prevention in this society has, according to Epstein, come to mean
primarily two things: (1) stopping smoking; and (2) chemoprevention, such
as taking the highly profitable prescription drug tamoxifen to try to
prevent breast cancer. Sometimes it includes diet and exercise. But
missing from most discussions of prevention -- intentionally missing, says
Epstein -- is any mention of the probable cause of the current cancer
epidemic: the poisoning of our entire planet.
It isn’t really news that the
air we breathe, the water we drink, and the foods we eat are all
contaminated with carcinogens. Some toxicologists are predicting that the
future of humankind could be slow suicide by poison. Yet, Epstein asserts,
environmental toxins are ignored in cancer research, because reducing them
doesn’t serve the interests of chemical and pharmaceutical companies and
the "cancer establishment" -- mainly the National Cancer Institute and the
American Cancer Society.
Epstein has been fighting the
cancer establishment for more than thirty years. His prize-winning 1978
book The Politics of Cancer (Sierra Club Books), a 770-page tome, has
become something of a holy text to many who are combating polluting
industries. An updated version appeared in 1998 from East Ridge Press. He
is also the author of The Safe Shopper’s Bible (Macmillan, 1995) and The
Breast Cancer Prevention Program (Macmillan, 1998), among others. He has
worked closely with many Congressional committees and provided key expert
testimony that helped to ban such hazardous pesticides as DDT, Aldrin, and
Epstein says there was no
single moment when he decided to become an advocate; it just runs in his
family. His father -- a leading Talmudic scholar of this century and
author of a seminal book on Jewish ethics, Faith of Judaism -- "had a
fanatic obsession with justice and human rights."
Epstein’s own passion for
justice became evident early in his career as an M.D., when his boss, a
prominent research doctor at a leading pediatric hospital in London,
England, claimed to have discovered that massive doses of vitamin B12
cured one of the childhood cancers of the nervous system. Epstein was
skeptical of the claim and, when unable to get the raw data any other way,
waited till late at night, then broke into the safe containing the
patients’ charts. His suspicions proved correct: the claim was bogus. When
the hospital refused to stop the research, citing potential damage to its
reputation, Epstein threatened to go public. Research was halted, but he
resigned from his job to leave for the United States, where he established
the first laboratories of environmental toxicology and carcinogenesis at
Harvard in 1960.
In 1996, Epstein represented
the European Union at World Trade Organization talks about the use of
genetically engineered hormones in meat production. He has been president
or chair of many organizations, including the Rachel Carson Council (for
nearly two decades), the Society of Occupational and Environmental Health,
and at present the Cancer Prevention
Coalition, and he recently won the
Right Livelihood Award, commonly known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. He
is currently professor emeritus of environmental and occupational medicine
at the University of Illinois School of Public Health in Chicago.
Q: You have written that, in the last few
decades, "the incidence of cancer, including a wide range of nonsmoking
cancers, has escalated to epidemic proportions, with lifetime cancer risks
now approaching 50 percent." That’s a pretty startling
Epstein: To be precise, the risk is approaching
one in two for men and one in three for women. And that’s true not only in
the United States, but in all major industrialized nations. If similar
numbers of people contracted cholera or dysentery, the entire country
would mobilize against the disease. Yet the extent of this epidemic has
consistently been hidden -- as well as it is possible to hide something so
monumental -- and its causes have routinely been mystified.
A hundred years ago, pneumonia
and influenza were the top two causes of death in this country, followed
by tuberculosis, infectious gastrointestinal diseases, and heart disease.
Cancer was number eight, accounting for less than 4 percent of all deaths.
Today, cancer is the second leading cause of death (after heart disease)
and accounts for about 20 percent of deaths.
Now, some of this increase is
due to a decrease in the number of deaths from the flu, tuberculosis, and
so on. There is also the factor of increased longevity: living longer
increases one’s chance of developing cancer. But these factors don’t come
near to accounting for the total rise. Even within specific age groups,
there is a greater cancer risk today than there was fifty years ago. In
other words, a sixty-year-old man is much more likely to die of cancer
today than was his counterpart fifty years ago. Cancer is now the only
major deadly disease whose incidence is on the rise. Just between 1973 and
1994, the rate of cancer incidence increased by 23 percent -- more than 1
percent per year. This increase is very real, and it persists even after
statistically adjusting for an aging population and for
Q: So why are cancer rates
Epstein: I think the answer is terribly simple.
Parallel to the escalating incidence of cancer, there has been an
explosive expansion of technologies -- particularly in the petrochemical
industry, which really took off in the early forties. Between 1940 and
1990, the total annual production of synthetic organic chemicals increased
from 1 billion to more than 600 billion pounds.
Over the last few decades, our
total environment has become pervasively contaminated with a wide range of
toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, some of which are persistent -- that is,
long-lived. When I say "total environment," I mean our air, water, soil,
consumer products, food, and workplace. Even our own body fats have become
contaminated. This is true from the North Pole to the South, not only for
humans but for a wide range of marine life and wildlife, as
Q: I remember reading that polar-bear fat
is now contaminated with dioxin.
Epstein: Precisely. And at the same time that
the total environment has become contaminated, multiple lines of evidence
have linked different cancers with exposure to these various chemicals.
First, there is evidence from rodent tests that the chemicals are
carcinogenic. Second, we have seen major increases in cancer rates for
domestic pets and among fish and wildlife populations. Finally, we have
substantial evidence of increased cancer rates in human populations
exposed to various carcinogenic products or processes -- especially in the
There are innumerable ways in
which the general public is exposed involuntarily and unknowingly to
avoidable industrial carcinogens, but workplace exposure is often the most
clear-cut. There is usually well-documented knowledge of the hazards of
working in certain industries, though the specific nature of these
hazards, and their extent, sometimes remains poorly defined.
Although we have a massive
escalation of the incidence of nonsmoking cancers, the extent of these
increases is consistently trivialized by a variety of statistical
manipulations, with the public’s attention focused on allegedly decreasing
mortality rates that are largely accounted for by decreasing cancer
mortality in smoking-related lung cancer in men. And the public is denied
access to accurate information about the causes of nonsmoking cancers,
which lies buried in government and industry files and in relatively
inaccessible scientific literature.
Q: But everybody knows viscerally that
cancer rates are up, because we all know someone who has died of
Epstein: That perception may be common among
people you talk to, but in the wider society, I think the cheerleaders at
the New York Times, the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer
Institute, and the various carcinogenic industries are all doing an
extraordinary job of keeping the lid on information about this
Q: What about saccharin?
Epstein: Saccharin has been extensively tested
over the last five decades, but most of those studies are still
unpublished, because they were done by industry or government.
Nonetheless, the animal tests and human studies to which we do have access
show a clear connection between bladder cancer and saccharin.
Overall, the public is
tragically misinformed about the causes of cancer. People are under the
impression that the overwhelming cause of cancer is smoking. While there’s
no question that smoking is the single most important cause of cancer,
lung cancer accounts for only about one quarter of the overall cancer
increase since 1950. And at least 20 percent of lung cancers are caused by
factors other than smoking. The really major increases in cancer incidence
have been in a wide range of non-smoking-related cancers, such as prostate
cancer, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, with rates having
gone up 200 percent for each. Brain cancer in adults is up 80 percent;
testicular cancer, up 110 percent (up nearly 300 percent in men aged
twenty to thirty-five); breast cancer and male colon cancer, each up about
60 percent; and childhood brain cancer, up about 40 percent. And while the
number of deaths from smoking-related cancers is in a fairly substantial
decline for men, it’s still on the increase for women.
These figures apply to major
industrialized nations. In less-industrialized countries, the danger is
probably even greater. The major industrialized nations at least have the
basis of a regulatory structure, however grossly imperfect. But the
less-industrialized countries are now faced with two problems: major
increases in smoking, and the rush to cash in on the global economy. So
there’s a headlong move toward industrialization without any recognition
of the hazards involved.
Europe provides a powerful
example of this dynamic. In many ways, Europe can be divided into three
economic tiers: At the top of the heap are the Nordic countries. France
and Germany are in the middle. And at the bottom of the pile, you’ve got
Greece, Portugal, and their peers. In Greece and Portugal, the pressure to
industrialize is so heavy that we’re now seeing a major -- and, so far,
successful -- effort by the Canadian asbestos industry to establish large
asbestos-manufacturing and -processing facilities there.
Asbestos, of course, is a major
carcinogen, and debate about its use is the prototypical example of
industry evasion concerning the carcinogenic effects of a profitable
product. Asbestos is virtually indestructible, highly resistant to fire,
and has great tensile strength. It’s used in cement, asphalt, wallboard,
pipes, textiles, insulation, food and beverage processing, brake linings,
and so on. Unfortunately, its use leads to about fifty thousand deaths per
year, in the U.S. alone, from cancer and lung diseases.
As long ago as 1918, enough was
known about the dangers of asbestos to lead U.S. and Canadian insurance
companies to stop selling life insurance to asbestos workers. Since then,
numerous studies have linked exposure to asbestos with asbestosis, lung
cancer, and a host of other deadly diseases. Yet, from the beginning, the
asbestos industry fought any sort of regulation of workplace conditions,
stating (and this tactic will be familiar to anyone who has paid attention
to the tobacco industry) that asbestos doesn’t really cause cancer or
other diseases -- and that, even if it did, getting rid of the cancer risk
would result in severe economic dislocation and unemployment. Then, during
a lawsuit in the 1970s, a series of industry documents was discovered --
the "Asbestos Pentagon Papers," I dubbed them -- showing that the industry
had known all along how dangerous asbestos is and had worked tirelessly to
suppress studies and spread disinformation.
The danger, by the way, is not
only to asbestos workers. Mine wastes have contaminated drinking water,
construction sites are often heavily contaminated, and the use of asbestos
in so many products virtually guarantees that everyone will be exposed to
Against this backdrop, the
asbestos industry is moving aggressively into less-industrialized
countries, which, in the global economy, are put in a position of valuing
industrial growth over the health of their citizens. Because of their
lesser wealth, the governments of Portugal and Greece will willingly
expose their workers to risks the Scandinavians would never
Q: That reminds me of an infamous quote
by Lawrence Summers, then chief economist for the World Bank and now U.S.
secretary of the treasury: "I think the economic logic behind dumping a
load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable, and we
should face up to that."
Epstein: We see this attitude again and again,
the world over.
Q: You mentioned the American Cancer
Society and the National Cancer Institute. What are their roles in dealing
with the cancer epidemic?
Epstein: The American Cancer Society (ACS) is
the world’s largest nonreligious charity. It takes in more than $600
million a year, ostensibly to fight cancer, and its cash reserves approach
a billion dollars. But the vast majority of the ACS’s budget goes for
salaries, executive benefits, overhead, and other administrative expenses.
Less than 16 percent of all the money raised is spent on direct services,
such as driving cancer patients home from the hospital after chemo, or
providing pain medication. And the ACS’s money -- even that used for
research -- is spent in ways guaranteed not to offend either big polluters
or big pharmaceutical companies. Why? In part, because the board of the
ACS is closely interlocked with those same companies. So the ACS has
consistently come out in support of the pesticide industry, has actively
campaigned against the Delaney Clause (a federal regulation banning the
deliberate addition to food of any substance shown to cause cancer), and
has refused to support the Clean Air Act. It’s shocking -- or it would be,
if it weren’t so consistent.
The National Cancer Institute
(NCI) was founded by Congress in 1937. Its budget remained modest until
1971, when President Nixon declared a "war against cancer." At that time,
Congress was led to believe that a massive infusion of funding for cancer
research could produce a cure within five years. Not surprisingly, the
NCI, too, spends its money in ways guaranteed not to ruffle the feathers
of anyone in the pharmaceutical or polluting industries. There are many
reasons for this, but the most obvious is the old revolving door: the
director of the NCI’s Division of Cancer Treatment left to become the head
of drug research and development at Bristol-Myers Squibb; the director of
the Division of Cancer Etiology became the head of the National Soft
Drinks Association, where he vigorously promotes the use of artificial
sweeteners, including saccharin; and the NCI’s past director became
vice-president and chief scientific officer of IVAX, a major manufacturer
of cancer drugs. This is an old pattern.
Something else the ACS and the
NCI have in common, both with each other and with the industries they
strive not to offend, is the overwhelming use of "blame the victim"
tactics. The standard position of the cancer establishment is that
environmental and occupational exposures to carcinogens are relatively
trivial. If you get cancer, you’ve either chosen it through your
lifestyle, or else you got it because of genetic factors. Let’s address
the latter assertion first.
A tremendous amount of money is
being spent searching for the "cancer-susceptibility gene," even though
genetic factors are directly involved in less than 10 percent of all
cancers. And genetics can’t possibly be implicated as a factor in the
escalating incidence of cancer in recent decades: it takes tens of
thousands of years for a population’s genetic makeup to change.
As for lifestyles, smoking
obviously causes cancer, but even with it factored in, cancer rates are
still exploding. Fat is another suggested factor. Actually, the way that
fat is suggested is very revealing. For thirty or forty years, the NCI and
the ACS have been funding studies attempting to show that people with
high-fat diets are at risk for a wide range of cancers, but there is just
no evidence that a high-fat diet by itself causes cancer. Now, this is
where the choice of studies funded by these organizations gets
interesting. The NCI and the ACS have never studied -- and probably never
will -- precisely what is in the fat. Diets in the Mediterranean
countries, where cancer rates are significantly lower than in the U.S.,
can be up to 40 to 45 percent fat, because of the prevalent use of olive
oil. But the fats we eat in this country are primarily animal and dairy
fats, which are sinks for carcinogenic substances: pesticides, industrial
chemicals, dioxin, and so on. The NCI and the ACS have never studied this;
I’m sure you can guess why.
Q: Just yesterday, I read a quote from an
NCI spokesperson on the front page of a Chicago newspaper: "It’s proven we
can prevent cancer. It used to be a theory. We need more funding to expand
Epstein: That’s so typical. We’ve been hearing
this line for decades now. Claims that the cure for cancer is around the
corner -- we just need more money -- date back to the 1960s. But for the
majority of cancers, there’s been no improvement in survival rates, other
than what’s called "lead-time bias": if you can diagnose a lung-cancer
tumor early on, for example, there is a slight improvement in the survival
rate. But if you factor in this lead-time advantage, you find there’s been
no improvement for the overwhelming majority of cancers. For most
patients, with most cancers, chemotherapy is, at best, nothing more than a
There are, I must say, some
notable exceptions: testicular cancer has a pretty good response to
treatment and an 80 percent regression rate, with very prolonged
regressions. Similarly, there are very good results in treating childhood
cancers. But even these results are overstated, for three reasons: First,
there’s a high incidence of second cancers due to the treatment, which is
itself carcinogenic. Second, in the children who survive treatment, there
is often a recurrence of the original cancer. And third, among the
children who survive -- and a significant number do -- there’s a high
instance of neurological, behavioral, reproductive, and other problems
because of the toxicity of the treatment. That’s not to say that these
aren’t very real improvements. But we have to keep in mind that for the
great majority of cancers there has been no improvement
Q: So why the constant claims that we’re
on the verge of curing cancer?
Epstein: Funding. What did that quote say? "We
need more funding to expand the field." That’s what they always say. And
the funding they seek is always for chemotherapy and "chemoprevention" --
products that supposedly limit cancer risks for those who take them. There
is virtually no funding for limiting people’s exposure in the first place.
Why? Because that doesn’t make money for pharmaceutical companies.
Right now, funding for the NCI
is about $2.8 billion annually. Both the NCI and the ACS are putting
pressure on the administration to increase that to nearly $5 billion by
the year 2003. The overwhelming emphasis is going to be on damage control
-- diagnosis and treatment -- rather than on prevention. This is absurd.
You don’t just expose people to carcinogens and then try to repair the
damage by giving them a pill.
Take breast cancer, for
example. The ACS asserts that there is "nothing a woman can do to reduce
her risk of developing breast cancer." This, despite ample evidence that
many causes are largely, if not entirely, avoidable -- among them:
prolonged use of birth-control pills and estrogen-replacement therapy;
ingestion of high-fat animal and dairy products, which are heavily
contaminated with chlorinated pesticides; consumption of
hormone-contaminated meat; exposure to petrochemical carcinogens in the
workplace (putting about one million women at risk); exposure to
carcinogenic chemicals from hazardous-waste sites and petrochemical
plants; prolonged use of black and dark brown permanent or semi-permanent
hair dyes; insertion of silicone-gel breast implants; heavy smoking and
drinking commencing in adolescence; inactivity and obesity. So there is
plenty that a woman can do to lower her risk.
But let’s presume that we’re
going to take a pharmacological approach. If so, what would be the best
drug to take? In my 1998 book The Breast Cancer Prevention Program, I
recommend a drug that has been shown in five independent studies to reduce
the incidence of breast cancer by about 30 percent. It’s cheap and readily
available. But information on its breast-cancer-prevention capability
hasn’t reached the general public. Can you guess what the drug
Qn: I don’t know.
Epstein: Aspirin. And why haven’t women been
informed that aspirin, in addition to reducing the incidence of heart
disease and colon cancer, also reduces the incidence of breast cancer?
Because it’s not patentable, which means there’s no money to be made off
aspirin as a cancer-prevention drug.
Contrast this with tamoxifen,
which is the subject of the newspaper article you mentioned. The world’s
top-selling cancer drug, tamoxifen is manufactured solely by Zeneca, a
spinoff of Imperial Chemical Industries, one of the world’s largest
petrochemical manufacturers. Tamoxifen is expensive, and while it is
modestly successful in treating breast cancer, its claims of prevention
are dubious, to say the least. What’s more, tamoxifen is an extremely
dangerous drug. It triples the risk of uterine cancer. (One tamoxifen
supporter characterizes this as "no big deal," since uterine cancer can be
cured by hysterectomy.) It’s one of the most potent known liver
carcinogens, making it likely that a significant number of healthy women
receiving tamoxifen will die from liver cancer within a decade or so,
without any warning of this very grave risk. And there are other problems
as well, including blood clots and pulmonary embolism.
So here we have an
extraordinarily dangerous drug being given to healthy women on the premise
that it will cut their breast-cancer rates significantly, yet it’s been
shown that the incidence of tamoxifen-induced complications in healthy
women is higher even than the drug’s alleged reduction in breast-cancer
rates. In fact, that alleged reduction was almost certainly due to small,
as-yet-undetected tumors being treated by tamoxifen. And two long-term
European trials turned up no evidence that tamoxifen reduced rates of
breast cancer at all. So, at best, tamoxifen is an exercise in disease
substitution, not disease prevention. Nevertheless, it’s being pushed by
the ACS, the NCI, the New York Times, and, more broadly, the federal
government, while aspirin is being ignored.
Well, maybe ignored is too
strong a word. One of the things aspirin does is inhibit an enzyme known
as cyclooxygenase 2, or cox-2. Cox-2 inhibitors like aspirin block the
formation of new blood vessels, thereby discouraging cancerous tumors from
growing. This effect of aspirin is not exactly being ignored, because
we’re now seeing a variety of pharmaceutical companies racing to develop
patented cox-2 inhibitors, all of which will do the same thing as aspirin,
but can, of course, be sold at enormous profits.
And this actually points to
another problem. One of the excuses the ACS uses for not advocating many
common-sense prevention measures is the need to study mechanisms -- in
other words, exactly how a carcinogen operates -- before it can make
recommendations. But mechanisms are irrelevant in public health: what’s
important is the weight of evidence of causation. As a scientist, I am
extraordinarily interested in mechanisms and have spent a substantial
portion of my life investigating the specifics of carcinogenesis. But from
a pragmatic public-health standpoint, it makes no difference what the
mechanisms are, provided you block or interrupt the exposure and prevent
the resulting cancer.
Q: I work a lot on health
issues, and I see that delaying tactic used all the time there, as well.
We always hear, "We need to study for another five years whether its 100%
safe," or, "We need to study for another five years while we test it
on people." Of course, it’s just an excuse to
continue business as usual.
Epstein: That’s a good analogy, but I believe
it understates the seriousness of the problem with the cancer
establishment-industrial complex. The timber industries are merely making
money through their destructive practices, whereas there is a vast
research industry built around studying cancer mechanisms ad infinitum.
For example, a major impetus for the genetic-research industry -- which
feeds into gene therapy for cancer -- would be reduced simply by shifting
emphasis to prevention of exposure. So it’s obviously in the interest of
that industry never to let that shift happen.
Q: This makes me very angry, because what
we’re really talking about is death: people are dying because some
effective methods of cancer prevention don’t convert into high
Epstein: Time and again, we see that government
and industry are both willing to sacrifice human lives on the altar of
profits, with the mainstream media there to support them all the way.
Tamoxifen is just one of a vast number of examples, which include food
additives (many of which are purely cosmetic), pesticides, genetically
engineered foods, and female sex hormones. A vice-president of Ayerst
Laboratories, maker of the hormonal drug Premarin, had the effrontery and
ignorance to claim, "Nobody has shown a cause-and-effect relationship
between Premarin and cancer. It does not cause cancer. It just accelerates
Q: It’s criminal.
Epstein: Indeed. I was recently on a TV talk
show where I debated the safety of genetically modified food with someone
representing the Food Technology Association. I began with a brief
statement on the hazards of rBGH, the synthetic bovine-growth hormone that
is now present in nearly all U.S. dairy products. I described how, in
1989, someone dropped off at my office a batch of documents that had been
stolen from the Food and Drug Administration’s files on Monsanto, the
company that manufactures rBGH. Included was a Monsanto document from 1987
indicating that the company was fully aware of rBGH’s danger and was
conspiring with the FDA to suppress information critical to veterinary and
The industry representative
responded: "We’ve researched this question of genetically modified foods
very closely, and you don’t think we’d sell any product that would be
harmful, do you? We’d be shooting ourselves in the foot. We’ve done every
conceivable study, and we’re convinced it’s perfectly safe."
I said, "I hate to be direct,
but can you cite me a single study that Monsanto, or anybody else in the
industry, has published documenting what questions they’ve asked, what
tests they’ve done, and what are the results of those tests?"
She hemmed and hawed, saying,
"You can’t expect us to publish every study," and finally admitted that,
no, she couldn’t cite a single study. Basically, she was saying, "Trust
In spite of clear evidence that
Monsanto and the FDA have suppressed and manipulated information on
genetically modified milk since the 1980s, in 1994 they introduced a new
technology into the market, about which they have published minimal
information, particularly in regard to cancer risks for which there is
well-documented, independent scientific evidence. I see no difference
between these groups and the tobacco industry, which gave us these same
assurances for decades.
Q: In your books, you’ve introduced the
idea of public-health-crimes trials.
Epstein: That idea got its start about twenty
years ago, when I got a call from John Conyers, then chairman of the House
Judiciary Committee, saying that he was drafting legislation on
white-collar crime. He was wondering if there was something in the
environmental/public-health field that he could possibly bring into his
bill. I told him that, if he was serious about it, I would draft
legislation covering crimes with economic motivation and public-health
That initially took him aback,
but eventually I drafted something and went to Washington, D.C., to
testify. I presented examples of manipulation, suppression, distortion,
and destruction of data in half a dozen industries, and recommended that
criminal penalties be imposed on executives, CEOs, managers, and
scientists who perpetrated this conduct.
Henry Hyde was minority
chairman when I testified. As I read my testimony, he started getting red
in the face. Unable to rebut my arguments, he said, "I gather from your
accent that you’re not an American citizen."
I paused a moment and said,
"Sir, I’m more American than you are. You were born here and are American
by accident of birth. I chose to live in this country."
Hyde was furious. He said,
"You’re coming here to tell us that a law-abiding CEO of a company, who
goes to church and provides community services, should be thrown in jail
because somebody on his staff makes a mistake?"
I said, "You’ve misrepresented
what I said, but the answer, in principle, is yes. And, furthermore, if
for economic gain that CEO puts in place practices that damage public
health -- in other words, kills or injures innocent people -- I think we
should lock him up and throw away the key."
At this point, Hyde said, "I’m
not going to listen to this nonsense," and stomped out.
I’ve now come to believe that
we need Nuremberg-type trials to hold industries accountable for these
sorts of public-health crimes. The tobacco industry would be one example,
but there is a wide range of other industries whose executives we need to
begin holding accountable. Scientists, too. There are a vast number of
indentured scientists in this country willing to jump through any hoop for
the sake of profit. In addition, we need to bring to account regulatory
officials and members of expert advisory committees -- all the people who
are supposed to be overseeing public health but are instead facilitating
the poisoning of the American people, and, in fact, the people of the
I am dead serious about this. I
would like to see an international forum on public-health crimes, where
those responsible could be tried by jurists. We’re now seeing enormous
publicity for the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. If we
are able to assemble a collection of distinguished jurists and focus the
world’s attention on war crimes in remote Kosovo, how is it that we can do
nothing similar about the massive, premeditated withholding of information
on carcinogens by major multinational corporations?
Q: After the Gulf War, former U.S.
Attorney General Ramsey Clark helped assemble a war-crimes trial, which
tried George Bush, Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, and a number of
others for war crimes and crimes against humanity. They were found
Epstein: One of the reasons that tribunal
didn’t get more press is that Bush and the others claimed they were trying
to prevent even greater disasters.
Q: Couldn’t industries make essentially
the same argument? "We’re making the world a better place," they might
say. "Without formaldehyde, you’re not going to have plywood."
Epstein: I wouldn’t consider that a reasonable
argument, because if you expect people to take risks in exchange for
certain specified benefits, then you have to provide them with adequate
information concerning the risks. Also, for every hazardous technology,
there are nonhazardous alternative technologies.
I think it’s helpful to look at
cancer not just as a disease, not just as an epidemic, but also as a
paradigm. Cancer is a paradigm for failed democracy, because it’s an
expression of the devastating impacts on human beings of a series of
allegedly beneficial technologies that continue to be imposed on society
without disclosure of their known adverse effects. Cancer is also a
paradigm for runaway technology, and for the impact of toxins on the
Q: Besides putting people on trial, what
can we do about all this?
Epstein: I think there are a number of
straightforward things we can do. The first is the vigorous pursuit of the
"right to know." This is a fundamental democratic right, and to call for
its implementation is the perfect political strategy, because not even the
most corporate-enslaved politician can look you in the eye and say, "You
don’t have the right to information that affects your health and that lies
buried in government and industry files."
Another obvious step is to ban
hazardous new technologies, or technologies for which we don’t have
adequate information. This, of course, is predicated on first enacting the
right to know.
The next step would be to phase
out a variety of hazardous products and processes already on the market.
Interestingly enough, there’s good evidence that this is both practical
and cost-effective. For example, in 1989, the Commonwealth of
Massachusetts enacted a Toxic Use Reduction Act. This legislation was put
together by a coalition of activist groups, the University of Lowell
(which has a good school of industrial engineering), and some fairly
Q: Define reasonable.
Epstein: These industries said, "Look, if you
can show us how to go on about our business without losing money, then
we’ll work with you." The results of the law have been phenomenal. Over
the past decade, for example, hazardous organic solvents have been
substantially phased out and replaced by safer alternatives.
Here’s another example of
cost-effective cleanup: Xerox no longer focuses on selling copying
machines; instead, it largely leases them, effectively selling services
rather than products. When your machine wears out, the company replaces it
for you and recycles the old machine into a lower grade of copier. The
leasing strategy also works for Interface, one of the major carpeting
suppliers in America. Interface installs a carpet for you, making sure no
toxic or hazardous glues are used, and when the carpet is worn out, the
company picks it up, recycles it, and provides you with a new
The organic-food and
safe-products industries have taken off like a rocket in the last ten
years. Because there’s basically no regulation of consumer products,
marketplace pressure is beginning to kick in, and consumers are gradually
rewarding responsible industries and punishing reckless ones.
Q: I like that idea, but I have a
reservation about the marketplace taking care of these problems. For
example, labeling genetically engineered foods would be better than their
not being labeled, but genetically engineered foods would also be cheaper
than their nonengineered counterparts. This would imply that it’s OK for
poor people to eat less-healthy food.
Epstein: Actually, I recently expressed the
same concern when I was debating the biotech industry together with John
Hagelin, the presidential candidate for the Natural Law Party, who
advocates food labeling coupled with testing. Unfortunately, labeling is a
politically feasible option, whereas calling for an outright ban on
genetically engineered foods may well be pissing in the wind.
On the other hand, I’ve advised
the European Union not to allow hormone-contaminated meats in at all,
because the discrimination inherent in labeling would become a problem in
poorer countries such as Greece and Portugal. Eventually, the EU opted to
maintain sanctions on such meat.
But I believe if we combine
marketplace pressures with government-enacted policy, good things can
happen. Indeed, if national policies are directed toward phasing out
hazardous technologies, companies will follow suit. PVC -- polyvinyl
chloride -- is an example of this process. One of PVC’s major problems is
that it is manufactured by the polymerization of vinyl chloride, which is
highly carcinogenic. Back in 1974, we put pressure on BF Goodrich to try
to regulate occupational exposure to vinyl chloride, but Goodrich claimed
that doing so would cost something like $100 billion, thousands of jobs,
and so on. Eventually, we gave up on persuasion and moved toward
regulation, which was successful. And within eighteen months, Goodrich was
making more money, not less.
Epstein: Easy: they used a vacuum stripper to
recover the vinyl chloride that had previously been going into the air,
and they recycled it. Then they leased this technology to other companies
and made a profit that way, too.
Q: On both a social and a personal level,
what can people do to reduce their personal risk of cancer, and also to
help stem the epidemic?
Epstein: Well, the first thing is to recognize
that there is an epidemic. The second thing is to realize that the
National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society are largely
indifferent, if not hostile, to cancer prevention -- particularly the
prevention of involuntary exposure to avoidable industrial carcinogens,
which are now present throughout the environment. And everyone should know
that there is a total failure on the part of these organizations to make
information available to the public. Obviously, too, people can try to
avoid exposure to carcinogens and to educate themselves further about
On a social level, I would
encourage people to consider refusing to pay their water bill unless the
bill is accompanied by a statement of what carcinogenic contaminants are
present in the water. This will encourage municipalities to install
activated-carbon filtration systems, which are quite expensive. The local
governments, in turn, will become keenly interested in which industries
are responsible for the carcinogens they are now having to clean up, and
will put pressure on those industries to change their ways.
In any community with a
hazardous-waste site, or a petrochemical or nuclear plant, I would urge
people to find out exactly which chemicals are present at the site, and
what materials go into and out of the plant. On an ongoing basis, people
should get information on smokestack and other emissions and on reducing
pollution of their community air. This may seem like a hassle, but it’s
your life we’re talking about.
At the same time, I would
recommend boycotting the ACS and getting Congress to hold the NCI’s feet
to the fire by blocking any further appropriations for that agency until
it establishes at least parity for prevention programs with all other
treatment and related research programs. And we need to get the NCI to
tell the truth about its prevention programs. Very often the majority of
what the NCI calls "prevention programs" are unrelated studies in which
the word prevention is used. And most of the rest are based on
chemoprevention of the tamoxifen type. What I mean by prevention is
providing the public with information on the totality of exposure to
avoidable carcinogens in air, water, food, workplace, and the rest of our
Finally, we need to have a
registry on the totality of exposure to carcinogens, like the one the NCI
has on drug treatments for cancer, complete with a toll-free number for
information. There should be another one for food additives, and one for
all environmental exposures. The NCI has done no outreach or education
whatsoever in this area, nor has it ever provided Congress or regulatory
agencies with scientific data that might provide the basis for legislative
and regulatory actions.
The only way to break the "iron
triangle" of the cancer-industrial complex -- the partnership of
bureaucrats, industry, and politicians beholden to industry -- is by fully
establishing and exercising our right to know. The public must be aware of
the hazards it faces.
We really need to ask ourselves
why we continue to accept assurances from industries with dirty hands and
institutions that have shown themselves to be recklessly irresponsible.
They say they are winning the war against cancer. How long are we going to
from his book "Safe Shoppers Bible", 1995