Samuel Epstein — Science Meets the X-Files

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  the National Post  ·  Agent

Herewith, a tale of two scientists. One has a superb track record, while that of the other, well, stinks.

Bruce Ames: Ranked First

The first is Bruce Ames, University of California at Berkeley biologist, who has just received the U.S.’s top scientific honor — the National Medal of Science.

The second is his antithesis, Samuel Epstein, the University of Illinois at Chicago physician who recently won the "Alternative Nobel Prize" from a radical Swedish group, the Right Livelihood Award Foundation. The foundation gives awards to "social justice" advocates, such as the one for "efforts to stop French and U.S. nuclear colonialism in the Pacific."

Sam Epstein: Ranked last

While Mr. Ames believes industry causes little cancer, Dr. Epstein says Mr. Ames talks "just a load of nonsense."

Unlike Mr. Ames, Dr. Epstein is a darling of environmental extremists world-wide, and a well-worn card in reporters’ Rolodexes. A search of the Nexis computer database of media outlets has him showing up more than 500 times, with Canadian outlets seemingly accounting for more than their fair share.

Why? Because he can always be counted on to make horrifying claims, such as that industrial growth has led to "the carnage of chemical cancer," "an epidemic of cancer," and that an amazing "30% to 40% of cancer in the general population" may be due to pollution from large petrochemical plants alone.

When it comes to synthetic chemicals, Dr. Epstein’s motto could be the famous Groucho Marx song: "Whatever it is, I’m against it."

Among his targets: food irradiation, hormones that make cattle grow faster or give more milk, soap and shampoo, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for post-menopausal women, pesticides, dioxin, silicone gel breast implants, the birth control pill, food irradiation, and even mammography.

Let’s consider a few of Dr. Epstein’s assertions individually.

** Claim:** Industrial products are the chief source of cancer.

Fact: The famed British epidemiologists Richard Doll and Richard Peto have estimated that 2% of human cancers are from pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, no friend of industry, put this number at 1% to 3% of cancers in its publication Unfinished Business. John Higginson, former director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, has put the number of pollution-related cancers at less than 1% — though under "occupation," he lists 6% for men and 2% for women, and part of that could be from man-made sources.

"It isn’t that we shouldn’t worry about man-made chemicals," says Mr. Ames. "In certain occupations, people can be exposed to very high levels. But pollution is pretty much irrelevant to cancer — the kind of pollution that we’re getting with water pollution, or with pesticide residue, is in such tiny amounts."

Claim: We are suffering "an epidemic of cancer."

Fact: According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, overall cancer rates, when adjusted for the ageing of the population, are dropping. The decline began in 1990. This includes both the incidence of the disease and death rate for those who contract it. Naturally, if you don’t adjust for age, you find more of us contracting the disease, simply because we’ve made such progress in treating other diseases but still have to die of something.

Claim: "There is overwhelming agreement by most qualified scientists that if a chemical causes cancer in well-diagnosed animal tests, there is a strong likelihood that it will also cause cancer in exposed humans." (Note the fudge word: "qualified.") Further, it’s "nonsense" to say that just because something might cause cancer in a massive dose, there may be a threshold below which it does not.

Fact: A 1993 poll of members of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) found that only about one fourth agreed either that human cancer risks can be based on animal tests, or that there are no thresholds for cancer-causing agents.

Claim: Birth control pills cause cancer.

Fact: Repeated studies have shown that "the Pill" significantly reduces incidence of ovarian and endometrial cancer, while increasing no types of cancer.

Claim: HRT causes cancer.

Fact: HRT, using estrogen without progestogen, is associated with an increased risk of both endometrial and uterine cancer. The evidence is mixed as to the effect of adding progestogen, with some studies showing it virtually eliminates the increased cancer risk from estrogen, some showing no effect, and a few actually showing an enhanced effect. Further, HRT is highly effective in delaying osteoporosis (brittling of the bones) and appears to cut the risk of coronary heart disease by about a third.

Claim: Breast implants cause cancer.

Fact: A study of 3,500 women with silicone gel breast implants published last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found no increased cancer risk, and noted, "the most consistent pattern observed from the investigations conducted to date has been a decreased risk of breast cancer." A survey of numerous studies published the year before also noted, "it appears from the available epidemiologic data that breast implants may lead to substantial reductions in subsequent breast cancer risk," though it’s too early to say why this might be. No other type of cancer has been associated with silicone implants.

Claim: Dioxin is deadly to humans. "The time for debate is over," Dr. Epstein has said. "The independent scientific community accepts the data." He also claims there is a "remarkable consistency in the chronic toxicity effects of dioxin from one species to another, and also a remarkable consistency between these effects in animals and in humans."

Dioxin? For us hamsters, no problemo!

Fact: Few chemicals have such an inconsistent effect on different species. For example, the dose required to kill hamsters is about 500 times higher than that needed to kill guinea pigs. As for human studies, including one that appeared just days ago, dioxin appears at worst mildly carcinogenic at massive levels to which some workers have been exposed for long periods. Yet other occupational studies have found no cancer increases even among workers who are heavily exposed for decades. Cancer aside, no long-term health effects of dioxin have ever been shown in humans.

Claim: "Food irradiation is an extraordinarily dangerous experiment in public health. I would strongly counsel any consumer under no circumstances to eat irradiated food."

Fact: More than 40 countries have approved food irradiation, and it was long ago endorsed by everyone from the U.N. World Health Organization, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Organization, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Other than asserting that scientists who disagree with him simply aren’t "qualified," how does Dr. Epstein justify consistently being on the wrong side of science?

His explanation sounds like something out of an X-Files plot. As he told the audience when I recently debated him on the radio, there’s a massive conspiracy involving the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the pharmaceutical companies, and apparently most cancer doctors, to ignore the real causes of cancer. Reason: Doing otherwise would put them out of business.

But wouldn’t somebody from these groups have blown the whistle by now over a policy designed to allow tens of millions of people to die needlessly? And are we really to believe that doctors who watch patient after patient die nevertheless feel it’s worthwhile if it lines their pockets?

Presumably, Bruce Ames’ National Medal of Science is further proof of this conspiracy. So is the fact that a few years ago, the AACR ranked Mr. Ames first out of 10 scientists in terms of confidence in their level of expertise on environmental cancer. Ranking last? Why, Samuel Epstein, of course.