Activist and author Devra Davis talks cancer, cell phones, plastics, Donora and Kennywood. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Activist and author Devra Davis talks cancer, cell phones, plastics, Donora and Kennywood.

The year following the publication of Secret History on the War on Cancer was an eventful one for warnings like those author Devra Davis sounded about environmental toxins and cancer. New concerns emerged about carcinogenic and other risks from additives to plastics; most prominently, red flags Davis raised about cell phones and brain cancer were echoed, controversially, by the director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

Davis, an epidemiologist and director of the Pitt Cancer Institute's Center for Environmental Oncology, critiques our culture's fixation on finding and treating cancer rather than preventing it. The author of When Smoke Ran Like Water -- about the killer smog of 1948 in Southwestern Pennsylvania mill town Donora -- also runs the Devra Lee Davis Charitable Foundation, for research into environmental causes of cancer.

With Secret History due out in paperback, Davis speaks Jan. 26, at the Drue Heinz Lectures. Grandchildren howling in the background, Davis spoke with City Paper from Washington, D.C., where she lives part-time.


What's going on with cell phones now?
We have been very careful to say that we can't prove that cell phones are dangerous yet. But we have growing reasons for concern, and those reasons for concern are shared not just by scientific experts, but by governments in numbers of countries. The Finnish nuclear-radiation protection agency -- this is the home of cell phones, right? -- [recommends restricting children's cell-phone use], and the French ministry of the environment [has] concluded that children should not be sold cell phones.

And I'm going to show a never-before-seen three-dimensional video of the brain with cell-phone exposure.

What about in the U.S.?
I have been contacted by the Obama administration, because they're formulating their own process to deal with this issue. We must get industry cooperation to do the right studies on cell phones. We can't solve this problem without industry cooperation.

What should cell-users do?
You should do what I'm doing now, which is I'm holding it 20 centimeters from my head, or you text-message. Texting is much safer for you, and that is now widely understood. If all of our cell phones only worked with an ear piece or a speaker phone, that would substantially reduce the problem.

Secret History also addresses asbestos.
[In] February, the Justice Department will begin the first trial to prosecute for environmental crimes in Libby, Mont. And that trial process was begun based on things I reported in my book. It involved the mining and shipping of asbestos around the country without proper labeling, and despite the fact that the company [W.R. Grace] was aware of the dangers. And in particular, Zonolite insulation occurs in 35 million American attics today. Zonolite attic insulation doesn't say "asbestos" on it. I want to be very clear: if you think you have Zonolite in your attic, do nothing. But call for a licensed inspector to tell you. If you need to remove it, it needs to be done by someone who knows what they're doing.

Additives to plastic are getting a closer look, too.
Bisphenol-A has become recognized throughout the world as something that's been shown to have a number of toxic effects. The recognition is that we need to protect our children from Bisphenol-A. Babies are being born with contaminants in their body that didn't even exist 20 years ago.

Now the government is reviewing the evidence because Walmart -- not exactly a radical institution -- is removing Bisphenol-A from their plastic bottles and their baby bottles. And Nalgene is removing it as well.

How can we know that substitutes for such products are safe?
That is why they need to set up a process to look at it. We banned DDT and all the things [that we substituted] turned out to be just as bad, if not worse. So we've got to become smarter about these things.

Why is reforming our approach to cancer important?
We've made tremendous progress in the war on cancer. ... But we are seeing more new cases of cancer in young people -- in children, and in young men with testicular cancer; Lance Armstrong is not the only one. There's been a 50 percent increase in testicular cancer in every industrial country. There has been an increase in brain cancers in young people, and we don't know why. Obviously we want to pay attention to environmental factors that might explain these increases.

What will you talk about Jan. 26?
I'm not just gonna talk about The Secret History of the War on Cancer. I'm gonna talk about the 60th anniversary of Donora's killer smog and the Donora Smog Museum, which has just opened this year, and the tremendous [role] that the Mon Valley has played in stimulating research in the entire field of environment and health.

But it's also in some sense going to be a literary talk, and what it means to be a writer in a place where you've grown up and you've seen such dramatic changes in. And it'll be multimedia, because I'm going to have music and film [about Donora]. I'm going to disclose some more findings about what really happened there.

And I'm gonna talk about Kennywood and what it meant to the immigrants like my grandmother, who married when she was just 15 and how the only time in her life when she could feel much fun in her heart was when she went to Kennywood, which I think is an experience that a lot of immigrants to Pittsburgh had.


Devra Davis at the Drue Heinz Lecture Series. 7:30 p.m. Mon., Jan. 26. Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $25. 412-622-8866

click to enlarge Healthy concerns: Devra Davis in Washington, D.C.
Healthy concerns: Devra Davis in Washington, D.C.

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