Cancer Charge against Milk Udderly Ridiculous

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Cancer

Six years ago there was panic in the streets over a chemical sprayed on apples called Alar. Parents threw out their apple sauce and poured apple juice down the sinks. One poor mother went so far as to call the state police to have them pull over her child’s school bus and remove the apple from his lunch pail.

If Dr. Samuel Epstein had his way, it would be deja vu all over again, but this time with milk.

Dr. Epstein, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health in Chicago has created a stir in the nation’s media, if not yet its grocery stores. He claims, in the January International Journal of Health Services, that much of the milk sold today contains a possible potent cancer-causing agent called recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, or rBGH.

This hormone occurs naturally in cows but scientists can now clone it and give it to the animals in larger doses than they would normally produce, thereby increasing milk production about 10 to 15 percent. Perhaps five percent of all milk sold now is produced this way.

Epstein’s claim — in a journal which is neither peer-reviewed nor widely read (I had never even heard of it before) — is that IGF-1, a hormone responsible for cell growth and division, is more abundant and potent in milk from rBGH-treated cows. The hormone may act "indirectly by sensitizing the breast to subsequent unrelated risk factors" such as radiation.

Yes, and it may give you super powers and allow you to leap tall buildings with a single bound, but there’s precious little evidence for either hypothesis.

Epstein’s allegation uses no new evidence and indeed his charge isn’t new. He’s been on the warpath against rBGH since at least 1989, when it was moving through the approval process. Cancer is just one several nasties he accuses it of causing, including increasing the chance of contaminating milk with pus from an infection of the udders called mastitis. Yuk!

During these six years of attempted sabotage, Epstein’s claims have been repeatedly rebuffed by the best names in the business. The Journal of the National Institutes of Health Research has reported that Epstein’s "scientific evidence is slim" and is based on a single 31-year-old paper by endocrinologist Peter Forsham. Forsham, it said, "called Epstein’s interpretation of his work ’ridiculous.’"

Agencies and respected organizations such as the American Cancer Society (ACS), the American Medical Association (AMA), the FDA, the National Institutes of Health, the American Dietetic Association, and the World Health Organization have all put their stamps of approval on rBGH and strongly repudiated Epstein.

"The bottom line in the scientific community, "An AMA spokesman recently reiterated, "that there is no evidence that there’s any link to anything that could be hazardous to your health."

The ACS points out that, "Extensive testing and research [have] shown that [rBGH] is indistinguishable from natural bovine growth hormone and thus entails no health risks for consumers." Not only that, rBGH actually can’t do what Epstein claims.

His theory assumes that the hormone can enter and remain viable in the digestive tract. But as Dr. Michael J. MacDonald, a University of Wisconsin pediatric endocrinologist who studies the effects of hormones on children has pointed out, IGF-1 is produced not in the stomach but the liver, and if it entered the digestive system, stomach acids and enzymes would destroy it.

"If it got into milk it wouldn’t be absorbed," he told a reporter. "It’s a protein. It would be digested."

"I’m not in the least bit moooooved by Epstein’s hysterical remarks."

"I’d drink it any time," he said of milk from rBGH-treated cows, "and if my children were infants, I’d feed it to them."

It’s not enough here to point out that Epstein is wrong, or even that he is so clearly wrong and in contempt of the facts.

Epstein, you see, is one of the three horsemen of the cancer apocalypse. (The other two are Devra Lee Davis, now with the Public Health Service, and Dr. David Rall, retired director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences). There’s an excellent chance that if you’re hearing that we are suffering an epidemic of cancer from man-made causes, be it from petroleum products, pesticides, or now Bessie the Cow — you’re hearing it from, or at least because of, them.

He has testified before Congress that 70 to 90 percent of cancer cases result from man-made products. In a just-released video critical of his positions, Science Under Siege produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and National Empowerment Television, Epstein tells the audience, "Escalating increasing [sic] cancer rates over recent decades is a result of exposure to avoidable carcinogens in air, water, and food and the workplace."

Epstein regularly makes such preposterous statements, which I know because the media just as regularly repeat them. He is the fair-haired boy of the apocalyptic environmental movement and of the media. A search on the Nexis database of magazines, newspapers, and some TV news broadcasts pulled up 318 references to both Epstein and cancer.

This time, though, from what I could tell, the media weren’t so credulous. Consistently they allowed somebody to refute Epstein’s mooings. Let’s hope next time reporters ignore this quack altogether and devote precious news print to real problems. This fair-haired boy has long since cried "wolf" too often to be taken seriously.