Are toxins at least partly to blame for the ever escalating cancer rates? The American Cancer Society (ACS) made news waves recently when it disputed the findings of the President’s Cancer Panel on the role of toxins in causing cancer. Though their new report echoes what other experts have maintained for years, the ACS went out of its way to attack the report and downplay the role of toxins. Many critics have questioned the ACS’s motives and apparent conflicts of interest due to numerous ACS ties to the influence and donations of the chemical industries.
Critics note that the ACS condemnation of the toxins report is far from the first time the Society has taken a stance that benefits those it has ties to while disputing expert reports and studies. Indeed, the ACS dispute of the report is merely the latest in a long line of controversial stances that appear to be self-serving and against the public interest.
Another example is the ACS’s continued support of mammograms. Concerns over the safety and efficacy of mammograms have been widely reported dating all the way back to 1977, along with several notable studies supporting such concerns. In spite of those studies and concerns, the ACS has remained a staunch supporter of mammograms. Notably, the ACS has strong ties to the mammography industry.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently reported that mammograms increased “the burden of low-risk cancers without significantly reducing the burden of more aggressively growing cancers and therefore not resulting in the anticipated reduction in cancer mortality”. After the JAMA paper, it was initially reported that the ACS would finally change its stance on mammograms – as it once did with tobacco after years of stonewalling. However, the pro-mammogram interests in the ACS apparently won out and such reports were later denied.
As Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society stated: “We are not redoing or rethinking our guidelines at this time, nor are we going to restate our guidelines to emphasize the inadequacies of screening.”
Although the ACS annually pleads poverty, it actually takes in more money than any other US charity and has huge cash reserves, property and other assets. Yet it pays out a relative pittance for actual research, prevention or patient services. Further, despite public promises to do everything to “wipe out cancer in your lifetime,” the ACS has failed to make its voice heard in Congress and regulatory agencies. Instead, the ACS has repeatedly rejected or ignored opportunities and requests from Congressional committees and other agencies and groups to provide scientific testimony critical to legislating and regulating a wide range of occupational and environmental carcinogens.
The scope of the ACS’s failure to act against environmental toxins is illustrated by increases in a wide range of cancers, including:
* Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has increased 76 percent mostly due to phenoxy herbicides and phenylenediamine hair dyes.
* Testicular cancer has increased by 49 percent due to pesticides, harmful ingredients in personal care products and estrogen residues in meat.
* Malignant melanoma has increased by 168 percent due to the use of toxic sunscreen products that fail to block long wave ultraviolet light.
* Thyroid cancer has increased by 124 percent due in large part to ionizing radiation.
* Childhood leukemia has increased by 55 percent due to ionizing radiation; domestic pesticides, nitrite preservatives in meats and parental exposures to occupational carcinogens.
* Ovarian cancer mortality for women over the age of 65 has increased by 47 percent in African American women and 13 percent in Caucasian women due largely to genital use of talc powder.
* Breast cancer has increased 17 percent due to a wide range of factors including birth control pills, synthetic estrogen and progestin drug therapy, ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products, and mammograms and other diagnostic radiation.
The American Cancer Society has been called the world’s wealthiest non-profit due to the tremendous amount of money it raises every year, its huge cash reserves, land holdings and other assets and salaries. These salaries and their accompanying perks range to over a million dollars for top executives along with company automobiles and generous benefits packages.
Almost two decades ago, the nation’s leading charity watch dog, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, warned against giving money to the American Cancer Society. The Chronicle stated that, “The ACS is more interested in accumulating wealth than saving lives.”
Others have openly questioned whether the ACS serves those it has ties to more than it does the public it has pledged to serve. Due to its vast wealth as well as questionable actions such as donating to political campaigns, some have even called for the elimination of the ACS’s non-profit status.
Although the history of the ACS’s unresponsiveness and questionable actions has become a long and damning one, such was not always the case. The ACS was not always the 800 pound gorilla of charities with questionable ties to industries who caused and profited from cancer. Instead, the ACS traces its roots to humble beginnings when a group of gynecologists formed the American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC) in 1913. The ASCC began with a simple goal: persuade physicians to learn how to look at the cervix and persuade women to allow regular exams.
Also unlike today’s ACS, the earlier ASCC recognized the impact of environmental causes of cancer. In a report in Time magazine in 1937, ASCC head Clarence Cook Little stated:
“Investigators have at last got a glimmering of what causes cancer. Some people inherit a susceptibility to the disease. But they do not develop cancer unless some susceptible part of the body is unduly irritated by 1) carcinogenic chemicals, 2) physical agents (X-rays, strong sun light, repeated abrasions as from a jagged tooth), 3) possibly, biological products produced by parasites.”
During the years of World War II, the ASCC became rebranded as the American Cancer Society and its board became increasingly infiltrated by people who were from American industry instead of doctors or scientists. By 1946, half their board members were non-scientists.
In the 1950s the leaders of the ACS included W. B. Lewis, vice president of the tobacco giant Liggett and Myers. The ACS showed little support or enthusiasm for British and American studies connecting smoking and cancer, including studies from researchers within the ACS. Even after massive studies provided compelling evidence, the ACS still dragged their feet. In 1954 they reluctantly adopted a resolution stating “present evidence indicates an association between smoking, particularly cigarette smoking, and lung cancers”, but allowed their own researcher to publish his findings only so long as he listed numerous reservations about how the association might be tempered by air pollution, workspace dust and other things. For years afterward, the ACS stance was that more data was required before any firm conclusion could be reached.
Thus began a long history of the ACS stonewalling and taking positions counter to scientific evidence and in ways that benefited board members, donors and cancer causing industries.
Following is a list of some of the more dubious actions and inactions by the ACS which indicate a clear pattern of obstruction and indifference when it comes to the causes of cancer, and unresponsiveness in taking positive actions to serve the public in preventing and curing cancer. The following list is by no means inclusive:
1971 – When studies unequivocally proved that diethylstilbestrol (DES) caused vaginal cancers in teenaged daughters of women administered the drug during pregnancy, the ACS refused an invitation to testify at Congressional hearings to require the FDA to ban its use as an animal feed additive.
1977 – The ACS called for a Congressional moratorium on the FDA’s proposed ban on saccharin and even advocated its use by nursing mothers and babies in “moderation” despite clear-cut evidence of its carcinogenicity in rodents. Such a proposal reflects the consistent rejection by the ACS of the value of animal evidence in predicting human cancer risk.
1977-78 – The ACS opposed regulation for hair coloring products that contained dyes suspected of causing breast cancer, despite clear evidence those chemicals were carcinogenic to breast and liver tissue.
1978 – Tony Mazzocchi, then senior representative of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union, stated at a Washington, D.C. roundtable between public interest groups and high-ranking ACS officials: “Occupational safety standards have received no support from the ACS.”
1978 – Congressman Paul Rogers censured the ACS for doing “too little, too late” in failing to support the Clean Air Act.
1982 – The ACS adopted a highly restrictive cancer policy that insisted on unequivocal human evidence of carcinogenicity before taking any position on public health hazards.
1983 – The ACS refused to join a coalition of the March of Dimes, American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association to support the Clean Air Act.
1992 – The ACS issued a joint statement with the Chlorine Institute supporting the continued global use of organochlorine pesticides despite clear evidence they caused breast cancer. VP Clark Heath dismissed evidence of risk as “preliminary and mostly based on weak and indirect association.”
1992 – The ACS aggressively launched a “chemoprevention” program along with the NCI to recruit 16,000 healthy women supposedly at “high risk” of breast cancer into a 5-year clinical trial with the highly profitable drug tamoxifen. The women were told tamoxifen was essentially harmless and could reduce their risk of breast cancer. They were not told that tamoxifen was a highly potent liver carcinogen in rodent tests or that it was a well-known aggressive human uterine cancer agent
1993 – Anticipating the PBS Frontline special “In Our Children’s Food,” the ACS trivialized pesticides as a cause of childhood cancer and charged PBS with “junk science.” The ACS asked, “Can we afford the PBS?” When media and concerned citizens contacted local ACS chapters, they received reassurances from a memorandum by ACS Public Relations Vice President stating only that potentially high doses of direct contact were dangerous. Examples cited included farm workers who apply chemicals and work in the fields after the pesticides have been applied, and people living near aerially sprayed fields.
1994 – The ACS published a highly flawed study designed to trivialize cancer risks from the use of dark hair dyes.
1996 – The ACS together with a diverse group of patient and physician organizations, filed a “citizen’s petition” to pressure FDA to ease restrictions on access to silicone gel breast implants. What the ACS did not disclose was that the gel in these implants had clearly been shown to induce cancer in several industry rodent studies, and that these implants were also contaminated with other potent carcinogens such as ethylene oxide and crystalline silica.
1998 – The annual ACS “Cancer Facts & Figures report made this statement regarding breast cancer: “Since women may not be able to alter their personal risk factors, the best opportunity for reducing mortality is through early detection.” The publication made little or no mention of prevention. Likewise, no mention was made of contamination of animals, dairy fats and produce with carcinogenic pesticide residues or the need to switch to safer organic foods.
1998 – The ACS allocated $330,000, less than 1 percent of its then $680 million budget, to research on environmental cancer.
1999 – The ACS trivialized risks of breast, colon and prostate cancers from consumption of rBGH genetically modified milk – which is outlawed by most nations worldwide.
2002 – The ACS announced its active participation in the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association’s “Look Good…Feel Better Program,” to “help women cancer patients restore their appearance and self-image following chemotherapy and radiation treatment.” This program was partnered by a wide range of leading cosmetics industries, which failed to disclose information on the carcinogenic, and other toxic ingredients in their products donated to unsuspecting women.
2002 – The ACS reassured the nation that carcinogenicity exposures from dietary pesticides, toxic waste in dump sites, ionizing radiation from “closely controlled” nuclear power plants, and non-ionizing radiation, are all “at such low levels that cancer risks are negligible.”
2010 – The ACS’s indifference to cancer prevention other than smoking remains unchanged, despite the escalating incidence of cancer, and its billion dollar plus budget.
In the past most ACS funds have come from public donations, and high-profile fund raising campaigns. However, over the last few decades, an increasing proportion of the ACS budget comes from large corporations, including the pharmaceutical, cancer treatment, chemical and fast food industries. In 1992, the American Cancer Society Foundation was created to allow the ACS to solicit contributions of more than $100,000.
A close look at the heavy-hitters on the Foundation’s board and the big donors gives an idea of which interests are at play at the ACS. The first members of the board of trustees included the president of drug giant Lederle Laboratories/American Cyanmid and the CEO of biotech giant Amgen. Amgen’s success has rested largely on the product Neupogen, which is administered to chemotherapy patients to stimulate their white blood cell production. As the cancer epidemic grows, so does sales for Neupogen.
Many of the ACS $100,000 plus Excalibur Donors manufacture carcinogenic products. These include:
- Petrochemical companies (DuPont, BP and Pennzoil)
- Industrial waste companies (BFI Waste Systems)
- Junk food companies (Wendy’s International, McDonalds’s, Unilever/Best Foods and Coca-Cola)
- Big Pharma (AstraZenceca; Bristol Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Company and Novartis)
- Biotech companies (Amgen and Genentech)
- Cosmetic companies (Christian Dior, Avon, Revlon, Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder)
- Auto companies (Nissan and General Motors)
In future installments of this series, we will examine the close relationships the American Cancer Society has with the pesticide, chemical, mammogram and cancer industries, the wealth and uncharitable performance of the ACS, how the ACS has wielded influence to suppress alternative treatments and more.
“The Secret History of the War on Cancer”, Devra Davis, Basic Books/Perseus Books Group, 2007