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Cancer Prevention Coalition Cancer Prevention Coalition  

Losing the Cancer War


Fighting for a safer environment at home, in the community, and at work

Richard Doll, An Epidemiologist Gone Awry

  • Testifies on “safety” of toxins.
  • Admits Errors in his analyses
  • Polluters use his “testimony” to justify emission of toxins

In 1954 Sir Richard Doll warned that, besides smoking, exposure to nickel, asbestos, gas production tars, and radioactivity were major causes of cancer (12). In 1955, Doll published a landmark report warning of high cancer rates in asbestos workers (51). In 1967, in the prestigious Rock Carling Fellowship lecture, Doll further warned that an "immense" number of substances were known to cause cancer, and that prevention of cancer was a better strategy than cure (52). In the late sixties, Doll could have been even considered a radical.

However, over subsequent decades, Doll drastically changed his views and gradually emerged as a major defender of corporate industry interests. This role, still virtually unrecognized, has been reinforced by his key influence in U.S. and other cancer establishments worldwide. In these overlapping roles, Doll has trivialized or dismissed industrial causes of cancer, which he predominantly attributed to faulty lifestyle, particularly smoking. Furthermore, as the leading spokesman for U.K. charities, Doll has insisted that they should focus exclusively on scientific research, and not become involved in prevention research and education (12). Doll’s track record speaks for itself:

  • In 1976, in spite of well-documented concerns on the risks of fluoridation of drinking water with industrial wastes (12), Doll declared that it was "unethical" not to do so (53).

  • In his 1981 report on causes of cancer mortality in the U.S. (13), in the absence of any scientific evidence, Doll trivialized the role of environmental and occupational causes of cancer. He claimed that occupation was responsible for 4% of mortality rather than at least 20%, as previously admitted by consultants to the American Industrial Health Council of the Chemical Manufacturer's Association (14).

  • In 1982, as a longstanding consultant to Turner & Newall (T&N), the leading U.K. asbestos corporation, Doll gave a speech to workers at one of their largest plants (54). This speech was in response to a TV exposé that forced the Government to reduce occupational exposure limits to an allegedly low level (1f/cc). Doll reassured the workers that the new exposure limit would reduce their lifetime risk of dying from cancer to "a pretty outside chance" of 1 in 40 (2.5%). This, however, is an extremely high risk. Doll also declined to testify on behalf of dying plaintiffs or their bereaved families in civil litigation against asbestos industries. Furthermore, Doll filed a sworn statement in U.S. courts in support of T & N (54).

  • In 1983, in support of U.S. and U.K. petrochemical companies, Doll claimed that lead in petroleum vehicle exhaust was not correlated with increased blood lead levels and learning disabilities in children (55). Doll's research had been generously funded by General Motors.

  • In 1985, The U.K. Society for the Prevention of Asbestos and Industrial Disease (SPAID) criticized Doll for manipulating scientific information in order to assure us that only 1/100,000 people working in an office containing undamaged asbestos risked disease and death (56).

  • In 1985, Doll wrote to the judge of an Australian Royal Commission, investigating claims of veterans who had developed cancer following exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam, in strong support of the defense claims of its major manufacturer, Monsanto. He stated that, "TCDD (dioxin), which has been postulated to be a dangerous contaminant of the herbicide, is at the most, only weakly and inconsistently carcinogenic in animal experiments" (57). In fact, dioxin is the most potent known tested carcinogen, apart from confirmatory epidemiological evidence. Doll's defense, resulting in denial of the veterans' claims, was publicized by Monsanto in full-page advertisements in worldwide major newspapers.

  • In 1987, Doll dismissed evidence of childhood leukemia clusters near 15 U.K. nuclear power plants (58). Faced with evidence of a 21% excess of lymphoid leukemia in children and young adults living within ten miles of these plants, Doll advanced the novel hypothesis that "over clean" homes of nuclear workers rendered their children susceptible to unidentified leukemia viruses (59).

  • In 1988, Doll claimed that the excess mortality from leukemia and multiple myeloma among serviceman exposed to radiation from atom bomb tests was a "statistical quirk" (60). Doll revisited this study in 1993 and eliminated the majority of cases which developed within two years of exposure, claiming that such short latency disproved any possible causal relation (61).

  • In a 1988 review, on behalf of the U.S. Chemical Manufacturer's Association, Doll claimed that there was no significant evidence relatingoccupational exposure to vinyl chloride and brain cancer (62). However, thisclaim was based on an aggregation of several studies, in some of which the evidencefor such association was statistically significant.

  • In a 1992 letter to a major U.K. newspaper, Doll pleaded the public to trust industry and scientists and to ignore warnings by the "large and powerful anti-science mafia" of risks from dietary residues of carcinogenic pesticides (63).

  • In a January 2000 deposition, Doll admitted to donations from the chemical industry to Green College, Oxford, where he had been the presidential "Warden" (64). He also admitted that the largest "charitable" donation (£50,000) came from Turner & Newall, U.K.'s leading asbestos multinational corporation, "in recognition of all the work I had done for them."

In spite of this explicit record of pro-industry bias, Doll has recently attempted to challenge charges which have "impugned my scientific independence" (65).

Doll's long-standing domination of U.K. cancer charities (66) and government policy is exemplified by a 1999 letter from the Ministry of Health stating that, based on Doll's 1981 report (11), "relatively little of the cancer burden (5-10%) is attributed to occupational, environmental or consumer exposure to specific chemicals" (67).

Faced with growing evidence of the scientific untenability of his virtual dismissal of causes of cancer other than smoking and lifestyle, coupled with damaging revelations of conflicts of interest, Doll has suddenly retracted his long-standing dismissal of environmental causes of cancer. As a member of a recent IARC scientific working group, convened to review evidence relating tobacco smoking and cancer, Doll finally admitted: "It does look as if it's the cancers that are principally caused by hormones that are not affected by smoking. Most of the other cancers throughout the body are induced by exposure to chemicals, often environmental ones" (68). This retraction, countless cases of avoidable cancers and deaths late, has been ignored by cancer establishments worldwide.

Excerpted fromStop Cancer Before It Starts: How to Win the War On Cancer by Samuel S. Epstein, Ph.D. 2003

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Cancer Prevention Coalition
University of Illinois at Chicago
School of Public Health
2121 W. Taylor St., MC 922

Chicago, IL 60612

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