|Introduction (The Politics of Cancer - Revisited )
1970, when the Environmental Protection Agency was first created, I was among a small
group of active members of Congress who understood we were at the precipice of a new era
in public health. The disasters of Love Canal and Times Beach Missouri, in which the
environmental sins of chemical manufacturing plants left entire communities homeless and
stricken with fatal diseases, hit the nation like a tidal wave. For the first time, we
were beginning to comprehend the sheer vastness and complexity of environmental dangers of
the modern industrial era and the perils -- many of them invisible to the naked eye --
that were lurking in our air, waterways, consumer products, and workplaces.
During that pivotal decade in
which the modern environmental movement came to the forefront of the nation's political
agenda, Dr. Epstein wrote the epochal Politics of Cancer. It was a bombshell both inside
and outside of Washington officialdom, and its vast media coverage sent warning bells
throughout the nation.
What made The Politics of
Cancer so unique was its fusion of science with politics. For the first time, the
intimidatingly complex scientific data and facts of asbestos, vinyl chloride, benzene, and
hundreds of other toxic threats were demystified and explained in the context of a
political, social, and cultural evolution. Any layperson who knew nothing about which
chemicals were dangerous and how Washington reacted to the grave dangers could come away
after having read the Politics with an expertise in both. It was an education for the
public and a handbook for decision-makers. The book also carefully documented startling
evidence of corporate decisions to withhold data from Congress and the public about a vast
array of public health dangers, thereby frustrating the institutional wheels of democracy
to protect the public _ evidence which spawned a new wave of legislation to criminalize
the withholding of vital health and safety data.
This milestone work was not just a wake-up call to the nation, it was also a call to arms for those of us both inside and outside the beltway, Republican and Democrat, young and old, to reclaim our fundamental rights to a safe environment for ourselves and our families. The work served as a treatise for us in the Congress as we fought in the 1980s for the enactment of a half dozen landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and much else.
During the intervening two
decades since Dr. Epstein first wrote the book, there has been a major shift in the
political and cultural landscape. As we enter the year 2000, cancer is well on its way to
becoming the nation's number one killer, taking 500,000 lives and bilking our purses of
well over $110 billion every year. A sense of crisis _ sometimes even panic _ grips the
public when the word "cancer" is spoken, but a sense of paralysis seems to
characterize our institutional ability to confront this aggressor.
Inevitably, any public crisis
will spawn institutions. During the past two decades, we have seen the birth and
maturation of what Dr. Epstein calls the "Cancer Establishment" _ the National
Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the myriad of research centers _ all of
whom have been trusted explicitly by the government and implicitly by the American people
as the high generals in the war against cancer. What Dr. Epstein charges is that these
generals are losing the war, and losing it badly. As we did in 1978 when The Politics of
Cancer was first published, we should today hear this clarion call.
Most disturbingly, Dr.
Epstein chronicles how the Cancer Establishment has nearly totally ignored cancer
prevention, ignored the most common sense proposition that we should simply keep poison
out of our communities and immediate surroundings. Every parent tells their child the
common-lore adage that a "stitch in time saves nine," but this simple truth
seems to have eluded those entrusted with waging one of the most important public policy
objectives of the latter part of the century, according to this book.
Simply put, the evidence
seems to adduce that our ability to cure and treat cancer has not materially changed in
recent decades while the incidence of fatal cancers spins out of control as our
communities become increasingly drenched with carcinogens. Given this evidence which
fundamentally questions our ability to "cure" our way out of the cancer problem
it appears clear that no solution will work without a comprehensive national program to
prevent our people from being exposed to poisons in the first place.
With all the data available
clearly demonstrating environmental causes of cancer, one might reasonably ask why there
has been less focus on cancer prevention both in and out of the Cancer Establishment. THE
POLITICS OF CANCER Revisited attempts to answer that question, and in so doing, attempts
to show us the way out of our current fix.
In short, this new book
argues that the Cancer Establishment has become beset with a range of myopic institutional
pressures which prevent it from devoting more research and capital to prevention: the
common quest to amass more resources and build bigger empires by the research institutions
which promise what may be a mythical pot of gold at the end of the research rainbow; the
apparently growing and somewhat disturbing interlocking corporate interests of
pharmaceutical industries who benefit from public optimism that an elixir is near, and
chemical industries that want as little prevention through environmental regulation as
possible. While political scientists commonly theorize that all institutions may be
subject to these pressures, no one has attempted to systematically document these problems
in the context of the war against cancer until now.
None of this is to say that research into the mechanisms, treatment and potential cures of cancer is not critical or that it should not continue. It should. None of this is to say that there are not noble people struggling to find cures. There are. But, THE POLITICS OF CANCER Revisited argues that as important as the research is, it cannot eclipse prevention. We should not in our emotionally understandable hope for a cure become transfixed with a Nero-like neglect for the simple truth that preventing cancer appears to be well within our grasp. This is the thesis of THE POLITICS OF CANCER Revisited, and Americans in all quarters would be well advised to heed it very carefully.
Congressman John Conyers, Jr.