Pitt scientist opens window on decades of suppressed or ignored cancer research

This is Devra Davis' moment, so she is doing something she ordinarily wouldn't do -- applying makeup.

The Pittsburgh epidemiologist has reason to be thinking about her appearance. She's getting ready for yet another TV interview to talk about her new book, "The Secret History of the War on Cancer" (Basic Books, $27.95), which has caused a national stir by asserting that industry has hidden or ignored toxic hazards in the workplace, cigarettes and even beauty products.

For the record, the stuff she is dabbing on her angular face, bareMinerals foundation, is safe. "It's not toxic," she says.

And if anyone should know how to scour a makeup label for toxins, it's this woman sometimes likened to Rachel Carson. And she's not thrilled to have to inspect labels, something she does because of the lack of government regulations on chemicals in many household products.

"The truth of the matter is," she says, her voice deepening into indignation, "why should you have to have a Ph.D. in chemistry to decide what is a safe cosmetic? It's ridiculous."

After two minutes of primping, Dr. Davis is off -- talking to a New York documentary crew about air pollution, responding to a query from Parade Magazine, the same day her taped interview with National Public Radio airs.

Dr. Davis, the director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh, is in overdrive. Life has become even crazier than her normal manic pace.

This is the second high-profile book that the Donora native wrote about industrial toxins and carcinogens. Her 2002 book, "When Smoke Ran like Water," a finalist for the National Book Award, weaved anecdotes about her childhood in the then-sooty mill town of Donora with studies on environmental pollutants and cancer.

But in a cruel bit of irony, Dr. Davis couldn't go on the full interview circuit for that first book because she was caring for her mother, who was dying of stomach cancer 20 years after her father died of cancer.

This time around, the cancer orphan is going for it, trumpeting her warnings to anyone who will listen. "I feel like I am in a dream," she says giddily, "and I don't want to wake up."

Dr. Davis says things most people don't want to hear: Kids shouldn't use cell phones. The aspartame sweetening your diet soda is a "ticking time bomb." Some kids' bubble baths may be risky.

The wiry 61-year-old insists she isn't trying to frighten you into hiding in a carcinogen-free cave in Wyoming.

She bristles when people call her book depressing or alarmist for all its talk about millions of preventable cancer deaths in the past 30 years. And she really gets fired up when critics call her anti-industry.

"I am not anti-industry," she said. "I am anti-lying. I am part of UPMC, for goodness sake. That's a corporation. A big one."

After growing up in the acrid shadow of American Steel and Wire in Donora, watching the mills belch smoke into the sky, she is not taking any chances with household chemicals. She exfoliates her skin with oatmeal. She cleans with baking soda she buys by the 10-pound sack. She tells her grandchildren not to splash around in bubble bath with 1,4-dioxane, a substance she says is linked to cancer in laboratory animals and is banned in Europe. "That is terrible. Children's bubble bath. Why does a baby's tush have to be subjected to that stuff?"

Critics call her an alarmist who gets people fired up over the wrong things. "I used to think Dr. Davis was always wrong, but then I decided she wasn't that reliable," said Dr. Bruce Ames, senior scientist at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute and former professor of biochemistry at University of California-Berkeley. "I think she is a fanatic. She is always jumping to conclusions based on wrong assumptions. She is chasing all these minor hypothetical risks instead of major risks" of cancer, mostly diet and smoking.

But her fans think she shows rare courage to speak out and say unpopular truths.

"Devra is willing to take on the world," said Maryann Donovan, scientific director for the Center for Environmental Oncology. "She is fearless."

As Dr. Davis speaks, her intense brown eyes peer out of square tortoiseshell glasses, framed by curls that are tightly wound and only lightly specked with gray.

"I wish I were more gray. People think I dye it. I don't. For now, many hair dyes are bad. I am not going to say they are all bad. I don't know that."

Her eyes dart around a room before zeroing in on her target -- an employee she is nudging to finish a task, or a radiologist she tries to enlist for a breast cancer study on African American women, or a friend whom she found a jacket for at an eco-friendly resale shop. Her razor-focus explains how she was able to spend years tracking down some dusty documents for her book, including a long-buried 1936 scientific report that linked smoking, sunlight, industrial chemicals, hormones, nutrition and alcohol to cancer rates.

"She is persistent and demanding," said her husband, Richard Morgenstern, a noted economist who studies environmental issues for a group called Resources for the Future. "She doesn't take simple answers." That trait extended to the environment and the childrearing of her son and daughter. "If our daughter would have trouble in school with another student, she would be insistent. She wouldn't accept superficial answers, anything less than detailed explanation and completely logical."

She is a tough person to say "no" to. During an interview, when the subject of back pain came up, Dr. Davis ordered a reporter to put down her notebook and do yoga moves along with her. She sat on the edge of her chair, one leg crossed, throwing her arms to the floor like a rag doll. "Now sit at the edge of the chair," she said.

But keeping up with a woman who mountain climbs and skis and skitters between an apartment in Shadyside and houses in Washington, D.C, and in Jackson, Wyoming, can be exhausting and occasionally maddening. She conducts a recent interview by jumping into a cab and reading text messages on her Blackberry between fielding questions. One employee jokes that her staff is an example of Darwinian law.

As the oldest of four children, she was always intense and strong-willed. She was a standout student in Donora and a good cello player. At age 10, she got in a knock-down fight with a little boy who called her little brother "a dirty Jew."

She was as intellectually fierce as her father, Harry B. Davis, a drill sergeant and brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserves who had worked in the mill as a chemist. "Type A personality was invented for my father," said her sister, attorney Sara Davis Buss. "Devra was a lot like my father, really driven and passionate." Her mother, Jean, a homemaker who was active in many Jewish charities, was feisty too. Dinner conversations were lively affairs where debate was encouraged.

Everyone in town knew about the terrible incident on Oct. 26, 1948, when a column of cold air caused an inversion, trapping a blinding fog of coal and coke and metal fumes inside the town. The immediate death toll was 18, but many other Donora residents would die months later.

The mill closed, and her family moved to Squirrel Hill when she was in high school. The Allderdice student became a civil rights activist and anti-war protester who would have debates with her father about the war. Her activism continued at Pitt, where she received a bachelor's of science degree in physiological psychology and a master's in the sociology of science. She received a Ph.D. in science studies at the University of Chicago and a master's of public health from John Hopkins University. She was founding director of the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the National Academy of Sciences and a presidential appointee under President Bill Clinton to the National Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation.

Her father's diagnosis of multiple myeloma at age 55 was the pain that became the impetus for looking at cancer patterns in younger and younger patients. He died when he was 61, her age now.

There have been costs to speaking her mind. She writes in her book how she was derailed from a half-a-billion-a-year breast cancer research project for the Clinton administration because of a "smear campaign" from the chemical industry, which she said derided her "junk science."

Dr. Davis, who is deeply religious, wears her emotions on her lab coat. During a recent reading from her new book, she was moved to tears when described talking to her father while he was in a coma. "I'd tell him of floating on quiet green grass. Slowly, gently, a sweet blue sky opened overhead. Softly, slowly, I would talk about drifting into that sky; bathed by beautiful, light, holy clouds."

"Sometimes I worry that some people might not take her seriously. She takes it so personally. Some people might think, 'Oh that is Devra being overemotional,'" said Ellen Mazo, manager of public and government affairs for Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and someone who has worked on a few green health-related projects with her.

"But you talk to her and you realize she is really a thorough scientist who knows her stuff. Sometimes you think, 'Oh my God, Devra.' She is just so passionate. She doesn't let up. But her passion is contagious."

Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572. First Published October 10, 2007 4:00 AM


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