‘Believing where we cannot prove.”



Edith Efron: The Apocalyptics: Cancer and the Big Lie: How Environmental Politics Controls What We Know About Cancer; Simon & Schuster; New York.


“Edith Efron would like to shake the cancer-fighting agencies to their foundations with this book, and perhaps she will.”

                The New Republic.


“The shame of it all is that Miss Efron is highly skilled in the difficult task of translating science for the layman. She is a good explainer of the intricacies of cancer testing and interpretation. But when she proceeds on to political analysis and conspiracy theorizing, she gets swamped by her materials and preconceptions.”

               The New York Times Book Review


For nearly two decades, secular prophets have intoned warnings of the terrible impending retribution for our technological sins (beginning with the original sin of the Industrial Revolution). According to the aggregate disaster scenario of Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, the Club of Rome, and others, by now or very soon we should all be dying of cancer and/or starvation, on a poisoned and overcrowded planet depleted of all energy resources. True, the din of such ferociously righteous predictions has of late abated some of the nightmares having missed their appointments, know what they are talking about. As the list of cancer-causing substances becomes apparently endless, we shrug in dismay, wondering if perhaps there isn’t more to the story.

Several years ago Edith Efron set out to find the answer to this question. A graduate of the Columbia School of journalism and author of The News Twisters, she began by asking if the “epidemic” of environmental cancer (what one CBS report called “The Cancer Pox”) was being invented or inflated by the news media. She found instead that the media conveyed fairly accurately the tone and substance of the message given them by regulatory agencies and their scientists. But that message itself was distorted. It is the regulatory bureaucracy and not the press that she holds responsible for the myth of a cancer epidemic which has disquieted the public. Journalism, limited to coverage of daily events and the surfaces of actions, simply conveyed the official version of the dangers of “environmental cancer.” Ideologues like Ralph Nader wailed about “corporate Cancer” and a “carcinogenic century.” But it was the regulatory agencies, by policy decisions and public statements, which obscured the fierce and unresolved scientific de­ bates, the acknowledged uncertainties, and the leaps of faith behind the dire judgments the agencies handed down.

How did it happen that the healthiest people in human history came to see themselves as the helpless prey of hidden chemical killers? Part of the answer lies in the apocalyptic inte1lectual climate of the early to middle 70’s, a doomsday faith which sees Faustian technological man destroying himself and his world. Amid such hysteria, every problem of pollution or disease could be envisioned as only thelatest instance of corporate genocide. Tinged with such paranoia, the public and its legislators asked: How can we really know all these new chemicals are not secretly destroying us? That there might exist no evidence of danger from any particular chemical brought no reassurance, since the lack of evidence could only mean that science had failed to discover the hidden danger. Nor did it ease fears that scientists discovered carcinogenic properties in industrial substances before finding the same in nature; the lag gave credence to the idyllic picture of a pure and balanced nature disrupted by industrial civilization. In this view, cancer is the price man must pay for the repressive disharmonies of a bourgeois order.

All this might by now have evaporated, like other recent manifestations of fashionable guilt, had not such panic achieved legal power in the scientific (NIH) and regulatory (OSHA, FDA, EPA) agencies charged with carrying out a program of cancer prevention. A scare engendered by ideologues hardened into “prudent” regulatory decisions which carry judicial authority and shape public opinion. In her heavily documented work, Efron probes beneath the public image of regulatory knowledge to find the reality of scientific ignorance, confusion, and disagreement. She reveals how bureaucrats turn the most fragile “findings” into fiats.

The ominous regulatory warnings about potential carcinogens rest on two related assumptions) The first is that animal tests preditt cancer in humans. The second is that there exists no threshold, or safe dose, of any substance if that substance has been found to induce cancer in any animal at a higher dosage. Both assumptions are controversial: What causes cancer in one animal does not necessarily have the same effect on another species. What is more, the no-threshold theory defies the basic axiom of toxicology, that the dose determines the poison. Our injunctions to smokers to quit are based on studies showing that the dangers from cigarettes are cumulative and reversible.

As if to insure a paranoia, regulatory agencies decree that even experiments of very questionable reliability are to be given weight if they suggest healtl1 hazards, whereas any question of an experiment’s reliability will discount reassuring results. Small wonder, then, that cancer-causing substances seem everywhere. Given such a com­ bination of criteria and the lack of clearer knowledge about the actual nature of the disease, the ordinary person is not far from wrong in thinking fatalistically that sooner or later scientists will find just about everything on earth causes cancer.

By questioning the standards used to label substances as carcinogenic, The Apocalyptics diffuses the fear that we are all living in Love Canal. The book clearly establishes that the list of suspected carcinogens has grown so long because of the decision by the cancer­ prevention establishment to adopt controversial “worst case” approaches in the name of being “prudent,” “cautious,” even “conservative.” Crucial decisions, in short, have been dictated not by scientific proof but by moral, political, or public policy considerations. Such judgments may at bottom depend upon whether scientists view industrial civilization as a benefit at­ tended by specific problems or whether they see it as a vast threat to humanity, a Faustian pact with destiny.

But the public has no hint that such nonscientific judgments may lie behind the pronouncements of the experts. Hidden are the disputes within the scientific community over the value of animal testing or the validity of the no-threshold theory. In the prolonged public ignorance of the scientific quarrels, Edith Efron sees evidence that there exist two cultures, a scientific and a literary or humanist, the second unable to interpret accurately the first. As a result, we are left only with the interpretations of science provided by ideologues or regulatory officials.

Understandably, the regulators are less than eager to publicize the shaky scientific foundations upon which their efforts are built. Cancer prevention, Efron concludes, is at best an immature science. Steadily finding more complexities than answers, the science offers no firm basis for regulation. Its promise of being able to prevent cancer is as much of an illusion as the supposed epidemic which helped engender its mandate. Unwilling to modify their extreme hypotheses, the agencies can only issue endless warnings which ultimately are belied by the very existence of the audience, still somehow alive in this alleged carcinogenic hell.

Efron, it should be said, in no way dismisses the idea that environmental agents can cause cancer.  But what has established the dangers of asbestos and dozen or so other known (as opposed to suspected) carcinogens are epidemiological studies, not extrapolations from animal tests. Nor does an antiscientific bias taint her study; indeed, her anger falls on what she sees as abuses of science for political, social, or ideological ends. Efron charges that research conclusions are distorted by policy concerns. The result, Efron fears, could be that the public, having beard too often the cries of “wolf,” may one day dismiss science and ignore real, if specific and limited, hazards.

It may indeed be from the author’s devotion to science that the problems of the book stem. Efron describes The Apocalyptics as the “intellectual detective story” of her discovery of a “cultural crime which should not be possible in a free society.” Her work, accordingly, has the tone of an indictment. And while grateful that this book has been written, the reader is equally happy to finish its 400 pages of detail, drawn from thousands of articles and books. The tone of relentless criticism, moreover, i1l suits Efron’s urging that cancer research cease to be conducted in the spirit of a morality play. Most troublesome per­ haps is that, after her incessant castigation of regulatory agencies for awarding a preferred   status   to    certain theories and methods, she offers epidemiological inquiry as her only alternative.

Regulatory agencies have justified their departures from orthodox methods precisely by saying that the traditional approach of investigating the histories of victims hardly suits itself to preventing people from falling prey to answer these justifications. The reader expects that somewhere in this long work the author will posit an investigative procedure that will offer a middle ground between a process which finds no substance “safe” and one which protects no one until a data base of victims has accumulated.

This impasse may result from the limits Edith Efron imposes upon herself: writing as a nonscientist to laymen, she refuses to make any scientific judgments. Her purpose is not to decide scientific controversies, but to inform us of the intense disputes hid­den by regulatory officials. The ways whereby fierce debates, contradictory investigations, and conflicting theories-the normal activity of science exploring a new field-have become invisible form the real subject of this valuable, if difficult, book. Whether the work will lead to a public debate and, in time, a less hysterical approach to regulation, one cannot say. Those responsible for the “processed science” Efron lacerates enjoy entrenched power. To attack them is to invite scorn as a minion of corporate greed, an enemy of public well-being, and a despoiler of the environment. But The Apocalyptics lays out the facts behind the   scare   headlines.   It    deserves to cause a stir and to overturn a regulatory paradigm which enshrines paranoia and invites endless, blind interference.cc