Commentary Magazine

Environmental Cancer by S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman

Environmental Cancer: A Political Disease
by S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman
Yak. 235 pp. $35.00

With every passing decade, medical research makes it clearer that the incidence of cancer, the most dreaded of all diseases, can be influenced by substances in our surroundings. S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman—the former is president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., the latter a political scientist at Smith College—do not take issue with this well-established finding. But they are concerned that the public has gotten a bum steer about the actual sources of such “environmental cancer.”

Correctly understood, this term refers to cases of the disease that are clearly caused by things to which you might expose yourself or be exposed, from the butter you eat to the air you breathe. Yet, on this issue as on so many others, the modern environmentalist movement and its allies have seldom been interested in promoting a correct understanding. What they are much more interested in promoting, Lichter and Rothman show, is a particular view of the world; the actual findings of medical research on the dangers of environmental cancer are incidental to that view at best.



It is no mystery why the public is now so confused and fearful. Bombarded over the past three decades by media reports of upwardly spiraling cancer rates associated with this or that pollutant, food additive, pesticide, or industrial chemical—what Lichter and Rothman call “the cancer scare of the week”—Americans have every reason to believe that there is an “epidemic” out there of awful proportions. Lichter and Rothman have something to say about the relative truth of this idea, but to them the more interesting question is: why the blitz of bad news? To answer that question requires them to take a brief dip into the history of environmentalism.

As the authors see it, the traditional “conservationist” movement, long identified with Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, suddenly weakened in the early 1970’s. This movement, which had largely created the country’s national park system, took it for granted that the point of conservation was “anthropocentric”—i.e., to benefit human beings. But, propelled by late-1960’s radicalism, and powerfully symbolized by Earth Day 1970, another ancient theme in environmental thinking suddenly gained momentum. This was the “ecocentric” perspective, derived from a romantic tradition in which nature itself has rights over and above those of humanity. For most “ecocentrists,” the core problem of our times is modern, industrial, nature-destroying society, and the solution to the problem lies in activist politics and heavy regulation of the economy.

The radical views of this new breed of environmentalist are not confined to environmental questions. Lichter and Rothman have conducted a careful survey of senior staff members at the most prominent environmentalist organizations—including the Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Sierra Club. On issues ranging from patriotism (only 9 percent in the authors’ survey endorsed the proposition “I would fight for my country, right or wrong,” as opposed to 57 percent of the general public) to support of “preferential treatment” for minorities (70 percent of the environmentalists versus 34 percent of the public), environmental activists consistently come down on the adversarial side in the culture wars.

Their consistency, indeed, is something they share with the country’s media elite—a subject that Lichter and Rothman have ably explored in the past. This heavy overlap of values helps to explain the powerful symbiosis that has developed between the two groups, and so does the obvious fact of their mutual self-interest. As the authors note, “Environmental organizations serve as enthusiastic sources of background information, provide colorful quotes or sound bites, and create breaking news that promotes social controversy, political conflict, and journalistic careers.”

The real-world effect of these ties becomes clear in Lichter and Roth-man’s analysis of over 1,200 items on environmental subjects that appeared from 1972 to 1992 in the country’s most influential news generators, from the New York Times and the Washington Post to news-weeklies and the major television networks. In news and feature stories about the environment, the authors demonstrate, it is ceaselessly assumed that the activists are the good guys and that anyone standing in their way represents a selfish vested interest. At an environmentalist conference a decade ago, one senior editor at Time magazine, fresh from a special issue dopily declaring the earth to be “planet of the year,” stated with evident pride: “We have crossed the boundary from news reporting into advocacy.”

Lichter and Rothman usefully dissect one of the more spectacular examples of the harm done by this alliance—the nationwide panic about Alar, a pesticide used by apple growers, that was set off by a February 1989 broadcast of 60 Minutes. Reporter Ed Bradley informed his 40 million viewers that Alar was “the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply,” a claim based on the findings of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In the wake of the show, Alar was withdrawn from the American market, and apple sales collapsed. The fact that they have since recovered may be due in part to a California Department of Food and Agriculture study indicating that the probable risk from Alar was 3.5 cases of cancer per trillion persons in the population.



If all of this is somewhat familiar ground, the book’s big news is the extraordinary gap between the views of the activists surveyed by Lichter and Rothman and the views of a random sample of scientists working in the field of environmental cancer, all of them members of the highly esteemed American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). The two groups are amazingly at odds on every major point.

For openers, consider the notion—first introduced in a 1978 speech by Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano—that modern industrial development means more and more carcinogens in the workplace, leading more or less inescapably to a cancer “epidemic.” Less than a quarter of Lichter and Rothman’s activists decline to endorse this proposition; it is rejected by over two-thirds of the AACR scientists.

As for the principal sources of cancer risk, the activists name tobacco, dioxin, asbestos, the pesticide ethyline dibromide, DDT, and assorted industrial pollutants. The AACR scientists agree only on tobacco and asbestos, and rate a high-fat diet as a more serious problem than the pesticides and industrial chemicals that so upset the activists. Indeed, Bruce Ames, a researcher cited often by Lichter and Rothman, points out that you can end up increasing cancer rates by barring the pesticides that make low-fiber, cancer-fighting foods available at lower prices. Likewise, the experts tend to see the long-run increase in cancer rates as influenced far less by man-made chemicals than by the aging of the population, older people being far more susceptible to the disease.

Finally, when it comes to reducing cancer rates, most of the AACR scientists believe that some level of carcinogens in the environment is inevitable, or at least not worth the effort of eliminating when cost is weighed against risk. By contrast, the activists incline to a rigid and absolutist position, holding that no level of carcinogens is acceptable. Close to 40 percent of them would reimpose the “Delaney clause,” a federal regulation that banned substances causing any amount of animal cancer at any dosage level and that had been massively repudiated by the time it was repealed in 1996.

When Lichter and Rothman asked the activists in their survey to identify their religious affiliation, 47 percent of the group (versus 6 percent of the general public) said “none.” But they were too quick to reply. Quite a few, it seems, might have answered “environmentalism.”


About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.

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