Devra Davis wants chemical waste to become the new cigarette, an object that generates reflexive loathing from most Americans. And the pieces of the puzzle seem to be there: exposure-related cancers, decades of incriminating research, and cover-ups by the chemical industry. In her new book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer, Davis diligently and persuasively argues that we are ignoring dozens of cancer-causing chemicals. She also sounds a familiar call for toxic-producing industries to clean up their waste and figure out how to get rid of it without creating future hazards.
For almost as long as there has been a “war on cancer,” there has been what might be called a “war on the war on cancer”: a series of efforts to move beyond a sole focus on the detection and treatment of cancer (the standard war on cancer) to actual prevention of the disease. Although Davis promises to share “stories I’d never heard before and documents I could never find in libraries or government documents,” her book by and large tells well-known horror stories about supposedly cancer-inducing products long vilified by environmental activists, such as asbestos, benzene, vinyl chloride, and dioxin.