On top of being endangered, they don't breed easily, being fussy about choosing a mate. And they are still being killed off, usually accidentally, in ways you might expect—shot during hunting season, tangled in utility lines, or infected by Nile virus.
But I'm bringing up whooping cranes on a webpage devoted to American, Vietnamese & other victims of “Agent Orange” because sometimes whooping cranes get human diseases like cancer. Cancer? In late 1999, in fact, Glen Olsen, a veterinary associate of mine, necropsied a few whoopers that had died at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the east coast of Texas. He was shocked to find that they had died of tumors, and called the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta to report his findings.
In the Fall of 2000, Glen explained this to an audience of undergraduates at the University of Maryland at College Park, in a class on wildlife diseases for which I was the graduate teaching associate. He recalled that he had asked the CDC scientist a pointed question: “What could possibly cause cancer in whooping cranes in the Gulf region?”
The CDC scientist's answer, Glen reported, with a slight smirk was that: “Down there, it's most likely the spicy food.”
One of us asked if he wasn’t just kidding, to which he said, “Yes, he said it was the spicy food they cook down there, leaking into the water supply.”
That remark of the CDC scientist was not only really funny, since he was apparently serious, but poignant in ways I alone could appreciate: In fact, I had just dismantled my small think tank that had been dedicated to educating the public and consumer advocates like Ralph Nader and Michael Jacobsen about the fallacy of dietary and “lifestyle” theories of what causes chronic human disease. (1,2)
Although most people believe that cancer and heart disease are caused by rich tasty foods, lack of exercise, drinking, smoking, and too much fun in the sun, that lifestyle view is not so much well-tested theory as socially acceptable doctrine. Why do we believe it? We didn't always. In the 1970s, most American epidemiologists, biostatisticians, and consumer advocates agreed that most cancers are caused by chemical “carcinogens” in air, water and food. (3)
Even cigarette hazards were seen through a chemical—instead of lifestyle--lens. In fact, cigarette tars by themselves had not caused tumors in most laboratory animal species. (4) This unexpected result led a few biostatisticians to check whether the rise in lung cancer in the early 20th century happened before or after rising air pollution. It turned out that lung cancer skyrocketed as smokers breathed increasingly polluted air; (5) and as the 20th century wore on, more specialized fertilizers were used to grow tobacco and more additives put in the cigarettes themselves. (6) The fact that cigarette smoking seemed to cause both cancer and heart disease was never fully explained; the same chemicals in tars seemed to cause both diseases. (7)
But that didn't matter, because in 1981, “blaming the victim” became enshrined as official U.S. doctrine under the Reagan administration, when Office of Technology Assessment administrator Michael Gough engineered publication of a document written by two leading British scientists, epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll and biostatistician Richard Peto. (8,9) The Doll/Peto report dovetailed with increasingly diet-centered views of heart disease. This simplified physicians' advice, but took national governments off the hook for protecting their citizens.
Instead of a genuine public health strategy aimed at removing gene-damaging, carcinogenic and atherogenic substances from our environment, behavior modification became the central thrust of disease prevention strategies in the U.S.. We have slid into an Orwellian society, where strong causal terms like “carcinogen” have been replaced by weasel words like “risk factor,” and where probability of getting blamed for disease is inverse to money and power. (10)
Although we citizens are most likely to bear the guilt for the diseases we contract, placing us at the bottom of the inverted blame pyramid (see diagram below), agricultural concerns are not far above us. This is why food and tobacco producers are blamed almost as often as we are; and why the petrochemical industry and military-industrial corporations almost never are.
This leads to a central query of this essay: Are whooping cranes or human beings exposed to “Agent Orange” more likely to get enlightened protection from the U.S. Government? Since Glen Olsen found tumors in cranes 16 years ago, he and his fellow wildlife biologists have become acutely aware that petrochemical pollution from barges floating down the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway is among the major threats to survival of whooping cranes over-wintering at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Just why wildlife biologists are so concerned about petrochemical pollution as a threat to whooping cranes is assumed to be due actual leaks and spills, rather than low level exposures causing disease. And judging from the fact that Glen Olsen never published a word about cancer in whooping cranes, and hasn’t answered any of my emails to him, it seems that the issue of what really causes cancer is just as controversial for whooping cranes as it is for human beings.
Nonetheless, will our public health scientists take a cue from endangered species biologists and protect us from toxic chemicals in air, water, food and cigarettes? The politics and science of American public health make this extremely unlikely. Our best hope would seem to be to re-open the debate about what causes miscarriages, birth defects, cancer and other chronic diseases, both here and in Vietnam. I intend to do this in the essays that follow.
As you read on, you may realize that we have a lot more in common with whooping cranes than being fussy about choosing a mate. It may be that pollution endangers our genes and how they are expressed more than our species per se. It is the health of our species that is at stake.
1. Bross, I. D. J. Scientific Strategies to Save Your Life: A Statistical Approach to Primary Prevention. (Marcel Dekker Incorporated, 1981). at <https://books.google.com/books/about/Scientific_Strategies_to_Save_Your_Life.html?id=eekgAQAAIAAJ&pgis=1>
2. Epstein, S. S. & Swartz, J. B. Fallacies of lifestyle cancer theories. Nature289, 127–130 (1981).
3. Schneiderman, M. A. Eighty percent of cancer is related to the environment. Laryngoscope88, 559–74 (1978).
4. Northrup, E. Science looks at smoking: a new inquiry into the effects of smoking on your health. (Coward-McCann, 1957). at <https://books.google.com/books/about/Science_looks_at_smoking.html?id=FT7oAAAAIAAJ&pgis=1>
5. Peller, S. Quantitative Research in Human Biology and Medicine. (Bristol: John Wright and Sons, Ltd., 1967). at <https://books.google.com/books? id=KDngBAAAQBAJ&pgis=1>
6. Stellman, S. D. et al. Smoking and lung cancer risk in American and Japanese men: an international case-control study. Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prev.10, 1193–9 (2001).
7. Murry, C. E., Gipaya, C. T., Bartosek, T., Benditt, E. P. & Schwartz, S. M. Monoclonality of smooth muscle cells in human atherosclerosis. Am. J. Pathol.151, 697–705 (1997).
8. Gough, M. Dioxin, Agent Orange: The Facts. 11, (Springer, 2013).
9. Doll, R. & Peto, R. The causes of cancer: quantitative estimates of avoidable risks of cancer in the United States today. (Oxford University Press, 1981). at <https://books.google.com/books?id=kds2AQAAIAAJ&pgis=1>
10. Bross, I. D. Letter: On ‘controlling one’s environment’. Am. J. Public Health66, 907–8 (1976).