James Watson, who won a Nobel Prize for co-discovering the double-helix structure of DNA, is no lightweight in molecular biology circles. Yesterday he criticized our decades-old “war on cancer” as “…not likely to produce the truly breakthrough drugs that we now so desperately need.” You can find a full report at
Watson takes particular aim at antioxidants. Though these are regarded by many as shields against cancer, some researchers feel the opposite may be the case, so don’t fill up on acai berries and dark chocolate just yet. “The time has come,” Watson said, “to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer.”
As interesting and important as that issue is, it distracts us from something at least equally fruitful, identifying and acting on environmental carcinogens. In his book The Emperor of All Maladies, winner of a 2011 Pulitzer Prize, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee emphasizes repeatedly that the most effective and safest treatment for cancer is prevention. We know today that we inhabit a virtual sea of known and possible carcinogens in our food and water, the air we breathe, and pollutants we allow. Powerful business interests, though, try to distract us from doing anything about them.
Energy companies would rather we didn’t know what chemicals are in the high-pressure slurry with which they fracture (“frack”) underground faults to extract natural gas. Plastic companies resist attempts to ban bisphenol A (BPA) from drink containers and food cans. Monsanto, Dow, and their corporate cousins successfully invested millions in California’s recent election to defeat Proposition 37, which would simply have mandated labeling genetically modified foods as such.
Let me suggest again that we consider Canada’s approach to this issue. Under its “precautionary principle,” dubious chemicals are banned, period. By contrast, America affords chemicals the same status as criminal defendants—innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Our trouble is that it’s hard to discern the precise action of a molecule among hundreds of thousands of other possible culprits, and which exerts its toxic effect slowly, over years or decades.
So while we do our best to seek better treatments for existing cancer, we need to demand far more aggressive prevention measures, including our own smarter shopping and continual pressure on legislators.