November 2005: Cancer—The Price of Progress

Industrial pollution cancer just another cost of doing business
November 1, 2005

My concern about the rising incidence of cancer prompted me to start writing a book in the 1950s that I titled Cancer: The Price of Progress. Even then, half a century ago, it was clear to me that most cancers were not genetic in origin, as was the prevailing medical belief, but had environmental causes. They could be traced to exposure to carcinogens in the workplace and to the industrial pollutants that increasingly were contaminating the air, water, and soil.

It has taken 50 years for the environmental causes of cancer to be recognized. Today, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), some 80% of all cancers are environmentally-induced--and are therefore preventable. They are indeed the price of progress as that term is narrowly defined in our market-driven society. True progress would be assessed in terms of social and personal well-being, but the word has been perverted to refer to economic growth alone. We are supposed to be “progressing” even when the toxic effluents from our industries are poisoning and killing millions of us. The medical-pharmaceutical-chemical establishment subordinates all the human, environmental and social dimensions to the imperative of the bottom line.

One of the consequences is to ignore the industrial causes of cancer, neglect any serious preventive measures, and focus solely on treating the victims after they fall ill with cancer. Cancer, after all, is itself a growth industry that the manufacturers of drugs, MRIs, and other illness-related products find extremely profitable. Profits fuel economic growth, which in a corporate-dominated society is the sole indicator of progress.

During the second half of the 20th century, some 75,000 new chemical compounds were loosed into the environment, many containing deadly carcinogens. Governments and even regulatory agencies have colluded with the corporations in equating progress with economic growth, no matter how that growth is achieved and at what human and environmental cost. This sick worship of the GDP as the sole measure of progress is fuelled mainly by the economy’s dependence on oil. The automotive, chemical, pharmaceutical, agricultural, and plastics industries are all oil-dependent. So are all forms of commercial transportation. Oil has become the feed-stock of “progress.” And, of all the countries in the world, the United States is the most dependent on oil. It was this dependence that drove its invasion and occupation of oil-rich Iraq, the accommodation of Saudi Arabia, and the political and military moves aimed at gaining control of the oil-and-gas-rich Caspian Sea region and the former Eastern Republics of the Soviet Union.

The U.S. empire’s relations with Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela are also shaped to a large degree by its need to access these countries’ oil reserves. Alberta is the focus point of interest in Canada, particularly its huge potential tar-sands deposits. So the U.S. is wooing Alberta, and Albertans are highly responsive. Hardly surprising, since that province’s business and political leaders share the American neo-cons’ economic and political agenda. The U.S. fixation on Alberta’s remaining oil can be expected to intensify if Venezuela continues to resist U.S. pressure, and if the war in Iraq bogs down and its oil supply system is disrupted by pipeline attacks.

The terrible cost of this dependence on oil is nowhere more evident than in the huge chemical and pharmaceutical industries, hundreds of whose products are highly carcinogenic. Petrochemicals are needed for the manufacture of drugs, fertilizers, fuels, automobiles, plastics, pesticides, and a wide range of synthetics. People who ingest or come in contact with these products can--and many do--develop some form of cancer. But such cancers are considered by our corporate and political leaders--and their apologists in the media and academe--to be an acceptable cost of doing business and maintaining economic growth. So is the degradation of the environment. So is global warming and drastic climate change.

Fortunately, some reputable scientists and writers have taken on the task of informing the public about the causative role of industrial pollutants in the deadly spread of all kinds of cancer. In terms of cost and value, I recommend The Cancer Conspiracy by John Moelaert, a superior booklet on the subject. It can be ordered directly by email at: conspiracy, for $20, including postage and handling in Canada.

(Fred [email protected]--is a long-time peace activist and the author of many books and articles on economic, social and environmental issues.)