Magazine - This interview to Devra Davis, Professor of Epidemiology and Director of Center for Environmental Oncology at UPCI, and is the author of the Secret History of the War on Cancer, Basic Books, is related to the Lectio Magistralis she presents at the Festival della Scienza 2008, in Genoa - Italy on 27th October 2008.
As it is presented, your speech will deal with the problems caused to cancer research by specific interest (either of tobacco factories or of those doctors who felt threatend by the Pap test). What exactly you discovered? and what do you suggest should be done in order to prevent such things to happen again?
President Nixon formally declared war on the disease of cancer in 1971, ignoring then well known causes, including tobacco,asbestos, x-rays, sunlight, hormones, and mining. We began fighting the wrong war against the wrong enemies, focusing on the disease and not on the things then known to cause it. Those who urged that the war should focus on finding and treating the disease of cancer often came from the same industries that produced agents that caused cancer, including tobacco, industrial chemicals and synthetic hormones.
Bigger and bigger becomes the number of cancer cases in the world, but is it a truth that also belong to the third world or rather is it mainly a problem connected with Western countries?
Half of all cancer cases today occur in the developing world, where cancer rates are growing rapidly. while cancer occurs in industrialized nations, as developing nations acquire many of the technologies of industry, they will also acquire the health risks associated with some industrial practices
Lately there's also a tendency to talk about form of viruses that generate or rather characterise particular typologies of cancer? Could you please make specific reference to the womb cancer and to the recent vaccination proposed to young adolescent to prevent it?
HPV virus contributes to cervix(womb) cancer, head and neck tumors, anal cancer, and possibly breast cancer. Vaccination can reduce the chances that HPV infection will arise. It makes no sense to vaccinate only girls, since we know that boys also transmit the virus, and that gay men are at high risk of anal cancer. In addition, we do not have a well developed safety record regarding this vaccine. We need to be careful that the vaccine only be given to healthy girls without any immune problems or pre-existing disease. And we must monitor for adverse reactions very carefully.
On the other hand there's also a sort of alternative approach to cancer that look at it from a psychological and symptomatic point of view as the result of something that troubles us at the point of generating a dark zone in our body and the perfect soil for the germination of cancer. What's your position in relation to this attitude? How much responsability do you thing we have on our health and on the wellness of our body?
There is no evidence that the mind causes cancer, but there are impressive studies that the mind can be used through meditation, yoga, and a variety of other techniques to help people with cancer cope with the disease.
Could you please briefly disclose other main points of your Lectio Magistralis at the Festival della Scienza in Genoa on 27th Octorber?
I will also draw on these remarks...Last month, India banned smoking indoors, joining Uruguay, France, Italy, Ireland, Sweden and a growing number of industrial and developing nations. More than half a century ago, scientists understood tobacco’s deadly impacts on health. Why did it take so long to act against this dangerous habit? Carefully cultivated scientific uncertainties about tobacco became powerful public relations strategies justifying delay. A deadly rulebook explains why the world took so long to act against tobacco and why efforts to control other damaging modern agents remain largely stymied. .
When it was first launched in 1971, the official war on cancer was strangely silent on the need to control tobacco, or other agents then known to cause the disease. This was no accident. The addiction to tobacco and many cancer-causing products was not just physical but financial.
In the 1950s, the AMA received $10 million dollars to devise a safe cigarette, a program on which the U.S. government spent some $35 million through the 1970s. The first director of the American Cancer Society, Clarence Cook Little, became scientific director of the Tobacco Industry Research Council in 1954. Tobacco millions meted out to some of the world’s top scientists well into the 1980s provided quick and authoritative challenges to any report that surfaced on tobacco hazards. The AMA ran ads featuring smoking physicians touting health benefits of tobacco. In the 1950s, the ACS board ordered its staff scientists not to disclose their own research on tobacco hazards.
In 1957, Reader’s Digest, then America’s major monthly magazine, reported that cigarettes contained high amounts of tars and nicotine. Industry came up with a simple solution endorsed by eminent authorities: new and improved filters would produce smoother smokes. A carefully concocted strategy rolled out the first filtered cigarettes in 1953. With their lowered tar and nicotine levels officially tested by the AMA, Kent cigarettes worked too well. So what did these too efficient filters contain? Declassified government reports described a very special compound—asbestos—that could remove radioactive and other fine particles.
From 1952 to 1956 a little more than half a billion packs of Kent brand asbestos-filtered cigarettes were sold. Of course, asbestos was not solely used in cigarettes. Within short order asbestos became widely employed because of its ability to fireproof hardened materials, whether roof sheets, floor tiles, furnaces and wiring, or cement building blocks. Once invisible particles of asbestos are deeply inhaled into the lung, they can leave telltale scars that can give rise forty years later to lung cancer or to mesothelioma, a slowly suffocating cancer. When reports surfaced that asbestos was killing workers in the 1930s, medical experts tapped by industry provided soothing, scientific assurance that these were wrong.
Next week in Rome, a meeting of more than 100 nations that have agreed to the United Nations Conference of the Parties on the Rotterdam Convention on Toxic Hazards can end decades of delay in controlling asbestos. Two countries stand apart in refusing to act. The U.S. and Canada. Canada’s reason for resisting the listing of asbestos as a toxic hazard is simple—money. Like Russia, Kazakhstan, and Brazil, Canada is a major exporter of asbestos. The U.S. has not banned asbestos domestically and has not ratified the treaty.
In more than sixty developing countries, Canadian embassies regularly host asbestos promoting affairs. Drawing on more than $50 million of government funding to specially cultivated scientists and public relations experts, the fabulously successful Chrysotile Institute, formerly called, the Asbestos Institute, claims that chrysotile asbestos is safe—a position that differs from that of the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the American Public Health Association and the Collegium Ramazzini.
In a number of African nations and in India, imports of Canadian asbestos have tripled in less than a decade, as have imports of asbestos sheet cement into the U.S. from Mexico this century. Investigative photos of Indian asbestos factories in the Toronto Globe and Mail revealed dusty, dangerous working conditions of young Indians reminiscent of those depicted by Dickens. An epidemic of asbestos-related illness continues to afflict Quebec—the province where Canadian asbestos is produced and where women--few of whom have worked in mines-- have the highest rates of asbestos-related lung disease in the world.
Asbestos is not widely utilized in Canada at all today. Safer substitutes are employed. Yet, the government has been shamelessly promoting asbestos to developing nations. While boasting that its green Olympics were free of asbestos, China quadrupled mining of asbestos in Tibet which is widely used throughout the countryside.
Wherever it’s been produced, asbestos does not stay in factories. This year, Leigh Carlisle, a 26 year old British woman who never worked with asbestos in her short life, died of mesothelioma. Her only known exposure occurred as a girl walking past an asbestos-using worksite as she made her way to school. She is not alone. One in three cases of this lethal disease today occurs in people with no known workplace history of asbestos exposure.
Exporting asbestos to India is immoral, but it also needs to be made illegal. Nations like Canada and the U.S. with Premiers and Presidents that have won the Nobel Peace Prize can do the right thing and stop perpetuating the deadly legacy of this dangerous dust.
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