What You Can't See Can Kill You

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 09 Nov 2002
Time: 07:54:27
Remote Name:


TORONTO STAR Nov. 1, 10:51 EDT

What you can't see can kill you.

Many fail to notice how environment pollution harms health, says author "It is possible to look without seeing." So writes toxicologist/epidemiologist Devra Davis in her compelling new book, When Smoke Ran Like Water, the basis of her keynote address yesterday at Breast Cancer Awareness Day in Toronto. Looking without seeing it happened to Davis on safari in Africa, when she was told by the guide that a lion was lurking in the bushes. She couldn't see it and didn't believe it until the lion charged. It is similarly possible, she notes, to look and not see the evidence of environmental degradation and its impact on human beings.

Pollution arises "from the daily activities of people doing productive work," she writes. "Companies do not set out to pollute. They do not intend to cause harm. But we do not have to accept the consequences of pollution as necessary, we do not have to deny the harm it is causing, and we should not excuse those who allow the harm to occur." Davis leads with data: Fewer males are being born, while the quality and quantity of sperm is dropping worldwide, with increasing numbers of birth defects of the penis and testicles, and increasing incidence of testicular cancer. Indeed, as Davis states, the number of new cases of testicular cancer has almost doubled since 1970 in virtually every industrialized country.

In Spain, a study showed that boys born missing a testicle had parents who were exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals at work. Can we connect the dots to "starving hermaphroditic polar bears and whales in the Canadian Arctic with high levels of PCBs in their fat" Hermaphroditism a condition in which male and female sexual characteristics are present in the same creature used to be thought extremely rare. "Now they've found some whales with intact ovaries and testes," Davis says. In Costa Rica, "20,000 men were rendered sterile after exposure to a pesticide banned in the U.S.," she says. "You know, we have only one planet. You can't protect your own little garden." Making sense of what's happening around us, incrementally, every day, is the challenge of her profession.

"Epidemiologists look for common connections of patterns of illness among groups of people," she writes. To the environmental epidemiologist, the truth emerges through numbers, through "learning to count the patterns of life and death created by powerful forces in our environment." Thus her position on hormone replacement therapy is clear: "HRT is a tragic illustration of how we shoot first and ask questions later when it comes to women's health," she says. "Hormones are growth factors and cause serious problems. There's another ticking time bomb in the use of testosterone by men on HIV cocktails." It is well established that estrogen can fuel breast cancer growth, says Sharon Wood, executive director of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (Ontario chapter), which brought Davis to Toronto. "The incidence of breast cancer continues to go up over a 25-year period, we're looking at a 28 per cent increase," Wood says. "We're not going to find one cure. We've decided to move upstream and look at stopping breast cancer before it starts. The connection is environmental." Hence the choice of Davis, an internationally known scientist whose work "focuses on the kind of research we're engaged in."

The foundation has raised $28 million for breast cancer research since 1986. Its current goal is to raise $10 million over the next five years to target "primary prevention, looking at environmental risk factors, occupational and chemical exposures," Wood says. Which is Davis' field of expertise. With a Ph. D in science, a sterling reputation as an adviser to the World Health Organization, and a long list of scientific articles published in Lancet, Journal Of The American Medical Association and Science, Davis is a super-sleuth. As a scientist, she looks at the apparently random data that engulfs us, in an effort to see meaningful patterns. Her professional passion was born in the most polluted of places: the coal-fired steel town of Donora, Pennsylvania, where she played as a child in "black ditches with iridescent pools of oily water at the bottom." But she had no awareness of pollution until, as a student at the University of Pittsburgh, she read about the town's infamous history.

In October, 1948, Donora had been enveloped in a blanket of cold air that trapped "all the gases from Donora's mills, furnaces and stoves," filling streets and homes "with a blinding fog of coal, coke and metal fumes." By midday, visibility was virtually zero. For days, the pollution fog thickened. Twenty people died in the first week, 50 more in the next month, as well as many more animals, cows and chickens. It was written off as "an atmospheric freak." `We do not wait for boats to sink before requiring that they carry life jackets.'

Devra Davis Toxicologist/ epidemiologist

`Most of the world's children are growing up in Third World cities where unrelenting pollution is just a way of life.'

Last changed: March 14, 2006