November 25, 2017

Cancer isn’t natural

Letter in the Sunday Telegraph, 31st August, 1997.

Professor Sir Richard Doll, Britain’s leading expert on the epidemiology of cancer, whose letter you published last week, insists that the incidence of the disease is falling. But he also insists (in each case against all the evidence) that asbestos does not cause lung cancer and that Agent Orange—the chemical defoliant to which thousands of US veterans were exposed in Vietnam—was not responsible for the terrible suffering they have been subjected to.

The other learned experts who have criticised my August 3 article in The Sunday Telegraph insist that “natural carcinogens” in such things as mushrooms and blue cheese are a far greater cancer hazard than synthetic chemicals.

Of course, for this thesis to be at all credible, the well-established increase in the cancer rate cannot be admitted; for while the production of synthetic organic chemicals has risen by more than 500 times since 1950, I doubt if the same can be said of our consumption of mushrooms and blue cheese.

In any case, the experts fail to consider the obvious reasons why their thesis is so preposterous. One is that only a minute fraction of all possible organic compounds occur in life processes.

To Professor Barry Commoner, the famous American ecologist, this provides “prima facie evidence” that the multitude of chemical compounds thereby excluded “may be incompatible with the successful operation of the exceedingly complex network of reactions” involved in life processes.

Thus, though the chlorine ion is common in living things, and organic compounds can easily be chlorinated artificially, chlorinated derivatives are exceedingly rare in the natural world.

As Prof Commoner notes, the reason for this is that synthetic organochlorine compounds such as Poly-chlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and DDT “produce long-term damage such as cancer”.

Unfortunately, very much the same can be said for many “xenobiotic” (foreign to life) chemical compounds still shamefully in general use today.

Edward Goldsmith
Editor, The Ecologist

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