Edith Efron

Cancer and the Environment

VTR Date: September 29, 1984

Edith Efron discusses the twisting of what people could and should know about cancer.


GUEST: Edith Efron
VTR: 9/29/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. One of the comforting things about doing this program is that it so often puts me back in touch with intellectual companions I haven’t seen in years. Indeed, about a dozen years ago – she may not remember it – I invited today’s guest, writer/researcher Edith Efron who then regularly wrote in TV Guide and many other publications, to discuss “The News Twisters”, her highly controversial book about liberal political bias in the media. And today I’ve invited Edith Efron to discuss what she claims is the twisting by scientists of what it is we could and should know about cancer. How the apocalyptics, cancer and the “big why”, how environmental factors, politics I should say, control what we know about cancer. It’s a new Simon and Schuster book, and in it she writes in its preface: “I discovered a cultural crime which should not be possible in a free society, a complex corruption of science and a prolonged deception of the public”. So I’d like to ask Ms. Efron if it’s all more of the same. Is it “The News Twisters” revisited?


HEFFNER: Tell me why not. How not?

EFRON: In terms of what I have to say about the press specifically, in “The News Twisters” I said that the press itself was taking sides in the controversies, and that is not an issue I care to debate on this particular program. In this book, I am saying that the press was literally like a baby from whom candy was taken. That it probably liked what it was being told. But that would just be a guess. It did not understand the scientific issues and, as far as I’m concerned, was not responsible for what happened.

HEFFNER: Tell me, what was it being told?

EFRON: The first thing I would like to say is that the scientists themselves have completely reversed their positions in the last couple of years, so that from the position that ws essentially what we were taught for 20 years, which is that cancer almost, most of it, 90 percent of it, came from industry. The leading scientists in the field now are saying that 90 percent of it does not come from industry. And what my book does is tell you what happened to, to explain such an incredible reversal. Because we have been taught since Rachael Carson in 1962 that cancer essentially came out of smokestacks and assembly lines. And all of a sudden now in the last three years – and this story was in The Times in March, I think – all the scientists in the field are going around saying, “Whoops, sorry. We changed our minds. Most cancer is not coming from the industrial world”. Well, I discovered that in 1978 when I started really getting into this. I started fiddling around with it in 1975. And by 1978 I knew that what we were being taught wasn’t so. Well, now the scientists are all saying it isn’t so, and I knew it because I was reading them.

HEFFNER: Would you say that this was a matter as simple as any other scientific orientation which has changed when it’s reexamined years later?

EFRON: If you want to imagine that it’s evolutionary, that sort of somehow they blunderingly changed and it’s a normal chaotic creative process. It was not that. It was an assumption with which they started that was baseless. And that assumption held on tight, and data kept on being produced to apparently confirm it, until there was an international scandal and the leading epidemiologists at Oxford at the World Health Organization in Denmark and Japan said, “Enough”. That our government was putting out phony data. And the information is given in my book. It is widely known in the cancer world. Everybody in the world knows it. I don’t know whether our press understood it, or whether having understood it they didn’t know how to deal with it, but there were people within our agencies who were sitting there making up fairy stories. That’s all there is to it.


EFRON: In the book, I…You can’t have a mistake of that magnitude go on for 20 years, 25 years, for a simple reason. So, it was actually a very complicated set of reasons. The very first reason, I quote a basic scientist named Isaac Berenbloom who, you know, deplores the fact of the order of the discoveries. For example, the things that people discovered or were most aware of immediately were occupational causes of cancer. So that became sort of like the model of the explanation. But that was not alone. Then they, from there they rushed into studying synthetic chemicals, which is a reasonable thing to study. But they, they did not pay attention to nature. So that…And I’m not telling this well because it’s too complicated. All I’m trying to say is first there was a sort of limited kind of model of the problem based on very little information. Then they ran hog, they rushed hog wild on the basis of the premise of the synthetic. They didn’t read all the literature.

The other major factor in this is the horrifying ignorance of the specialist in science. He has all he can do to keep up with his own very narrow little specialization and does not read in other sciences, so that they generalize based on limited data. Then they started passing laws and building institutions based on this erroneous premise. And at the very end, in the mid and late 70s, that’s when these mysterious reports started coming out where you cannot trace the authors. You…Their studies, they come out of the National Cancer Institute, they come out of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, NIOSH. So you see the names around the studies. You know that they’re coming out of the government, but total mystery. Every really major misrepresentation that I found in this book you can’t find the authors. And the studies went right into the press.

HEFFNER: Well, what they were doing was doing something about it. What they were doing was leading, as you suggest, to legislation. Is that correct?

EFRON: I believe…I can’t produce causal relationships because I don’t know what was in the minds of the people who did it. I can say that there were clusters of misrepresentations at the time of the campaign to pass TOSCA and at the time of the OSHA hearings.

HEFFNER: Do you think that if there is a reversal, as you suggest…

EFRON: Oh, definitely.

HEFFNER: …based upon fact now, do you think there will be, that there can be, that there should be…

EFRON: Uh hum.

HEFFNER: …a reversal of our thrust toward legislation relating to environmental, supposed environmental causes of cancer?

EFRON: I don’t discuss regulation in that book. In the preface I explain why I don’t. There’s been very little regulation because of the chaos of the science. So I wrote about the chaos of the science. Certainly, I, at the end of the book, as you notice, I give the list of the proved human carcinogens. There’s no question but that they should be regulated. The real catastrophe obviously is that 30 percent of the cancers are caused by tobacco and, and we’re subsidizing that particular portion of our cancers. And that’s the biggest discovery that’s ever been made. Wherever it is known, you surely want to regulate. Where it’s animal data, it’s tricky because there are carcinogens, but the problem is they don’t know how to quantify risk so that you put stuff in a mouse, and if you get a good strong carcinogen, the mouse literally explodes with cancer. So, it’s not equivocal at all. But then, at that point, from the leap to predict what dose of the stuff to use that would be safe, they don’t know how to do that. They’re not even sure in any given case that it does predict for men, but it might.

HEFFNER: Well, I know that in these years that you have been studying this subject, you’ve focused on the scientific data.

EFRON: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But an observer such as yourself certainly has an opinion.



EFRON: Didn’t have to. If I had had to I wouldn’t have written the book. What I discovered when I went into the science was that just virtually everything is an unresolved controversy. So the book is laid out systematically, controversy by controversy by controversy. And I don’t take sides in the controversies. When you see, for example, that after 40 years of studying mice, scientists are still fighting about whether the mouse is a suitable animal for such extrapolation, I don’t have to take sides; “the mouse is good; the mouse isn’t good”. After 40 years it tells me there’s a lot they don’t know.

HEFFNER: You’re…

EFRON: Mostly I’m saying, “They don’t know, they don’t know, they don’t know”. And what I think is so staggering is how much they don’t know. That’s the major point of the book. The misrepresentation is an aspect of it.

HEFFNER: Okay. What does Edith Efron believe about the desirability of legislative action?

EFRON: I believe in not discussing it. That’s not what I wrote my book about. If things cause cancer, they should be regulated. I mean, I am moral. Having established my morality, I didn’t write about that. I am really interested in what went wrong with the science, because that is something that happened in no other country. There is no other country, no other industrialized democracy where people are hysterical about carcinogens. There is no other industrialized democracy where people have blamed their own economic systems for murder in a, in a hysterical manner for a quarter of a century. In England and France they’re sitting around frightened to death that our lunacy will invade them. Something very bad happened here. So that’s why I don’t want to talk about how do you regulate EDB. I don’t know how. Every time we change Congress they change their minds about how to regulate it, precisely because the science is so soft.

HEFFNER: All right. Now you’ve used several words here. You talk about “lunacy”.

EFRON: Yeah.

HEFFNER: You talk about “hysteria”

EFRON: It is. Yes.

HEFFNER: You’re passing judgment, right?

EFRON: Yes, I certain…

HEFFNER: No reason why you shouldn’t.

EFRON: On hysteria, yes, absolutely. There is nothing comparable to this in any other country in the world, for one thing, nobody except Sweden. And Sweden’s just beginning to investigate the suspected, the anticipated disease. In Britain, no, there is no such thing. Nobody’s running around charging the British industrial system with potentially murdering people or being suspected of murder. In Britain, the science is, they think the science is too soft to do that. They just don’t do it. You don’t have the press pouring out floods of warnings about, “Your life is in peril by one part per billion of something”. This simply isn’t happening anywhere except in this country.

HEFFNER: You think then we’re just given to hysteria.

EFRON: No. I think that something happened in the history of medicine and science which people are now beginning to study because it’s so extremely peculiar and because it never happened before. When I started, looked at the pattern, what I saw was simply, I went to the early environmentalist scientists and there they were using science policy for the purposes of redistributing the wealth and so on. So I figured that it was new left in counterculture agitation that had leaped into the science. That’s not wrong. That is what it was. But people are…a medical historian for example at the University of Rochester, Dr. Stephen Cunetz, is now writing about movements within medicine itself which would start accounting for this. Aaron Vildowski and Mary Douglas, do you know them?

HEFFNER: No, I don’t.

EFRON: Mary Douglas is a cultural anthropologist. Aaron Vildowski is a political scientist. She’s at – forgot. Northwestern maybe. He’s at Berkeley. They wrote a book called “Risk and Culture”. They’re beginning to examine what they consider to be quite irrational developments in the science also. Something very strange happened in our science.

HEFFNER: You think then that it was not a, it’s possible that it’s not a political orientation but just something strange?

EFRON: Everyone who’s writing about it says it is ideological. That the combination and, it depends on…You see, whether you like the ideological orientation or you don’t, the people writing about it, who, from within the movement and outside, those who are sympathetic and those who are critical all give you the same information about the movement. Now I don’t like it, but my information is perfectly objective. You’ll find the same information in other works by people who have different politics.

HEFFNER: How would you, how would you state what that ideological orientation is and what its impact has been?

EFRON: The idea to quote…I brought something with me and I can’t remember it to quote it exactly. I started apparently in medicine itself. This is going to take us very afar. Do you want to?

HEFFNER: Go ahead. I’m following, I hope.

EFRON: I’ll try it. All disease was realized to be societal at some point, relatively recently. This is a recent development we’re talking about. Until fairly recently, it was vaguely assumed that differences in different countries, disease patterns in different countries were caused by maybe less access or more access to medical care. They were assumed to be medical differences. But within the last 10 or 15, 20 years they started calculating the exact dates of the therapies that save lives, the ones that were supposed to have saved the most lives. And they discovered that the great increase in lifespan, the great decrease in mortality rates, the vanishing of epidemics all happened in the western, in the industrialized world long before the major medical therapies ever occurred. So the medical world – I’m not practically paraphrasing Dr. Cunetz, who has done terrific reviews of the literature on this – the medical world split. The diseases in the modern or in the industrialized world are no longer germ diseases. We die of chronic degenerative diseases and our lifespan is very long. What happened was that, he says, there was a conservative left split in the medical world. That the conservatives in effect said that basic research and therapy were all developed for the new diseases the way they developed for the germ diseases, and that we will find solutions in the laboratory for the big killers, the big killer diseases of man, which includes cancer. The left said “Nonsense. Society is obviously implicit, I mean, implicated in disease patterns up to its neck and what are we going to do? Stand there and let society just murder people? No. We must prevent the disease before societal forces start acting to kill people”. So the left – I am quoting Dr. Cunetz again, who is within the field of prevention himself – the left said prevention was the answer, and proceeded to declare that if you change society you could prevent disease.

HEFFNER: That is indeed why I…

EFRON: Now, that opened the door for socioeconomic interpretations and political interpretations, and by God, they emerged.

HEFFNER: And political action.

EFRON: And polit…Political action there could be and there is all over the world. But it’s the interpretation that our economic system is causing the most cancer which came right out of this movement which is now being written about by lots and lots of people.

HEFFNER: You know, I came across, the other day, a little note in, story in The New York Times, “Poor hurt most by foul air. Members of minority groups and poor people suffer disproportionately from environmental pollution according to a report issued today by the Urban Environment Conference”. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was some bit of what you were talking about.

EFRON: Yeah, because I don’t know what they’re suffering about. They sneezing? ‘Cause they sure aren’t getting cancer, now, unless the poor get more lung disease generally. The poor generally get more diseases than, of certain kinds than other people. But this link to pollution is, is absolute nonsense. Maybe their streets are more polluted because they live in dirty parts of town. So the facts may be true; but that they suffer, that they are actually getting diseases? That’s implied; it’s not so. Love Canal is worse than anything in any middle city of New York, you know, of the big cities, the inner core cities where the poor live. No one has ever gotten anything from Love Canal.

HEFFNER: Of course, the points that you are making – and I’m not knowledgeable or sophisticated enough to challenge them if I would (and I wouldn’t) — the points you are making though, I keep coming back to the larger question of whether this doesn’t put a stop…


HEFFNER: …tend to put a stop upon actions that relate to this lunacy, this hysteria?

EFRON: Doesn’t what tend, the analysis?

HEFFNER: The analysis.

EFRON: Well, that’s sort of like saying, “Wouldn’t exposing Nixon’s lies in Watergate tend to damage the presidency?” Would you have said that? Surely not.

HEFFNER: Bo, but it’s interesting that you parallel…

EFRON: All right. The question is…

HEFFNER: …you make those parallels.

EFRON: Yes, I do. Yes, I do. When you have, when you have an expose, it’s odd for a journalist to question whether the expose should be made. I don’t believe cancer is going to vanish. Occupational cancer won’t vanish. It must be regulated. I mean, there’s a very strange impulse, “Oh God, if you tell the truth about these wonderful people, all progress will cease”.

HEFFNER: Oh, no. Now, come on. No. I’m raising questions just as you have raised questions.

EFRON: No. I guess I’m being ironic because I hear the question all the time. I don’t understand it. It’s perfectly apparent…

HEFFNER: You don’t understand what?

EFRON: I don’t understand the question. I don’t understand the fear of telling the truth.

HEFFNER: Oh, I don’t think there’s a question of the fear. I’m asking you…

EFRON: So the question is “Is it true?”

HEFFNER: …I’m asking you whether you think that this approach, legitimate approach, researched approach, one that is agreed to by so many scientists, as you suggest…

EFRON: When it’s scientific.

HEFFNER: …will it, in your estimation, have the effect…

EFRON: Of reducing…

HEFFNER: …of putting, of reducing to a considerable extent the environmental legislation?

EFRON: I think it will change it. And I’ll give you an example of what would be changed. Right now the whole concept of risk assessment has fallen through the bottom. It’s just vanished. Why? Because if I take you into a laboratory and I extract certain components of your saliva, and I inject them into a rat, that rat is going to blow up with cancers. Now, that’s a carcinogen. That’s how you define a carcinogen. You have carcinogens in your saliva, in your intestinal tract, in your stomach. You have then in your blood. And you sex hormones are carcinogenetic, and your kisses are radioactive.

HEFFNER: My God, my God.

EFRON: Now, now, most of us don’t get cancer. Most of us die of heart disease and vascular, cardiovascular diseases. At the…I have 40 pages of natural carcinogens…

HEFFNER: Uh hum.

EFRON: …in my book. Every single aspect of the planet has been studied, put through mouse tests, the same mouse tests. It’s teeming with carcinogens. The natural food supply is teeming with carcinogens. That simply means not, “Pay no attention to environmental cancer”. What that does mean – and scientists who are using their brains know it – it simply means that we are being bombarded ceaselessly by it as a species, and that we do not have to go around getting hysterical about one part per billion.

HEFFNER: You see…

EFRON: That’s all that it means. It means that risk assessment will have to be rethought.

HEFFNER: You think that’s what…

EFRON: That’s the major thing that would have to be done. There are other things, but I can’t sit and sort of recapitulate the whole book. Certainly the focus should be on the known, not on the hypothetical. And if you’re using animals, you should go for the more potent, not for the ones that are so vague that men sit around holding majority votes on whether the thing is or isn’t a carcinogen.

HEFFNER: You see, you jumped at me. And I understand. You jumped at me and put me in a category with…

EFRON: Sorry. Sorry, I apologize.

HEFFNER: …a lot of other people. No! Listen, join the crowd. But I was so interested that you had used the word “lunacy”. You had used the word “hysteria”. You had also…

EFRON: You don’t fault the kind of thing that’s going on in the papers which is not initiated by the reporters. Take the recent…

HEFFNER: By whom?

EFRON: …binder about EDB.

HEFFNER: By whom then?

EFRON: It comes from this risk assessment. One part per billion is found in the grain, and all hell breaks loose in the country. That’s what I mean by “hysteria”. That is absolutely scientifically nutty.

HEFFNER: Ms. Efron, you want to put me in the camp of those who would…

EFRON: I’m not doing anything to you.

HEFFNER: Gosh, I don’t know why I felt that way.

EFRON: I apologize. If it was, it was ten minutes ago; I’m over it.

HEFFNER: Okay. But you, you, I think, put me in the camp of those who would quote disparagingly Ronald Reagan and, talked about the role that trees play and…

EFRON: Oh, that was interesting. They laughed at him. It was illiterate, but they laughed for the wrong reason.

HEFFNER: What would have been the right reason?

EFRON: The illiterate thing about it was that poison and toxic substances and carcinogens are dose-related, meaning the higher the dose the greater the danger. The, the earth, for example, makes loads of carbon monoxide. Monumental amounts just emerge from natural processes. And nothing happens to us at all. But is we lock ourselves in a car and pump in carbon monoxide, we die. It’s a common way of committing suicide. What, what made Reagan’s statement scientifically illiterate was not that he said that trees were emitting pollution, meaning hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. They are, and turbines are one of the things that come out of trees enormously, and the EPA considers turbines a high-priority pollutant. So, in terms of bulk, sure, he was perfectly right, and the National Academy of Science has done studies which I report in my book of massive amounts of carcinogens by the ton are coming out of nature. But what was silly and what people didn’t laugh at was that that’s not where the problem is. The problem comes from concentrated doses. Thus, a worker sitting in a factory which is a box, exposed for 20 years to tremendous doses of something, is in danger. We being pounded by huge amounts, but very diffuse, of carcinogens, are not.

HEFFNER: I hope you won’t hesitate to develop this, but you did talk before along with the lunacy and the hysteria about murdering for economic system. What do you feel?

EFRON: Viewing that our economic system is murderous, there is a scientist at the NCI named Umberto Safiati who refers to what the toxicologists do in the laboratory when they study carcinogens is that they are bearing witnesses to “suspected mass murder”.

HEFFNER: Do you think that…

EFRON: Now that means that our industrial system is like a Bugenwald with invisible corpses. You know, come off it. That isn’t happening to anybody else in the world.

HEFFNER: Your wonderful use of words. Do you think that our economic system has been, to any extent, considerable extent, disadvantaged recently because of the environmental concerns?

EFRON: People constantly say it does. I have not gone into the economics of it. Obviously the costs are considerable. And if you find out what is happening in the courtrooms, I mean, the toxic tort situation is quite bad, and the recent, even The New York Times finally got around to being horrified by the blackmail that the chemical companies are playing for dioxin. Since there is absolutely not a jot of evidence that it’s hurt anybody.

HEFFNER: What do you think is going to happen along those lines?

EFRON: I think that scientists are beginning to clean house.

HEFFNER: And as they do clean house?

EFRON: I, then I think that (laughter) you’re getting different kinds of information which is already, you know, seeping into the most sophisticated press.

HEFFNER: Do you…

EFRON: The real problem today is no longer the problem of the history of the 20 years that I write about in my book. It’s rather that there is no institution to correct the errors that have been dumped into the culture already. I mean, there isn’t any institution to say, “Whoops, you‘ve been misinformed. Don’t believe this anymore, people”. Just, the public is like sort of a, I compare it to dumping toxic wastes.

HEFFNER: Misinformation is a problem of ours, isn’t it, in many areas?

EFRON: Well, they’re scientists are not fond, particularly in the government, of standing up and saying, “We published a study that is nonsense”. The press is not fond of correcting itself. So you have 25 years of absolute silliness which has been incorporated into the culture. You have to give, I don’t know, you have to give people shots or something to get rid of it.

HEFFNER: You know, making the scientific community sound like a bunch of ninnies…

EFRON: They can be ninnies; they’re people.

HEFFNER: But you think it was being ninnies, not being politically oriented?

EFRON: I think the ones who knew enough to hide and to keep their names from the studies that were released knew what they were doing. I think most of this came from ninnidom.

HEFFNER: That’s a very generous interpretation.

EFRON: That is as generous as one can be. But science is an on-the-record activity. When you see a really catastrophically fallacious study or mysterious rumors that are baseless, and the scientists hide, then you may as well assume that they know that they were, wheat they were doing.

HEFFNER: And you think that we are on the march now in the other direction?

EFRON: I know it. I, I, there are cancer people who have been humiliated to the teeth by, by the criticism they’ve gotten from scientists overseas. The thing that I don’t understand – and I don’t think you’re in a position to tell me – is why our science press did not report on those, those, those international scandals, which were quite considerable.

HEFFNER: Well, that is what interests me. With all due respect for your prowess as a researcher…

EFRON: Uh hum.

HEFFNER: …why…

EFRON: It didn’t take any prowess.

HEFFNER: It took a lot of years. It took a lot of digging.

EFRON: No, not…


EFRON: No. Those things, once you were in it, I mean, presumably science reporters are covering the beat. Everybody was talking about it. You couldn’t help but fall over it.

HEFFNER: Just lousy science reporting?

EFRON: Um…I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the answer. I think it might be for the same reason that scientists are not going to get on the air and tell you either. At some point you have to write it in such a way that you’re doing an expose without incriminating anybody. Nobody wants to incriminate anybody.

HEFFNER: Well, maybe now they know better. And I do know that I want to thank you for joining me today, Ms. Efron.

EFRON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you too will join us again there on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.