A Cancer at the Heart of Government

Britain’s public health policies stop where corporate interests begin.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 8th July 1999.

The defibrillator machines the government will place in railway stations and airports could scarcely be better designed for making heros out of ordinary people. Any of us, with the briefest training, can use them to save the lives of fellow citizens who have heart attacks in public places.

The much-hyped defibrillators will doubtless save a few lives, and please a few picture editors, as the grateful survivors hug their rescuers in front of the cameras, but they will make no significant dent in Britain’s appalling health statistics. The fuss the Department of Health has made about the machines, which doubtless owe their installation to both doctors of medicine and doctors of spin, is just one symptom of the disease at the heart of its white paper on public health. The report is a rousing statement of the Government’s commitment to protect us from injury and serious illness. It is also the most mendacious public document this administration has ever produced.

At first sight, the white paper, published this week, appears to provide a powerful antidote to the institutional corruption which infected Tory public health policies. Individuals will no longer be required to shoulder the entire burden of disease prevention. The Government recognises that better public health means correcting inequality and social exclusion, as well as bad personal habits. It is investing hundreds of millions of pounds in “healthy living centres”, “health action zones” and a programme to help people give up smoking. The result, it hopes, will be a swift reduction in the incidence of heart disease, strokes and mental illness, and a 20% decline in the rate of deaths caused by cancer within ten years.

It’s good to see that the government is taking cancer so seriously, for it is spreading through the industrialised world at horrifying rates. Age-adjusted studies in the United States suggest that breast cancers have increased by 60 per cent and prostate and several rarer cancers by as much as 200 per cent over the last fifty years. In Britain, testicular cancer among young men has doubled in two decades. The increases have coincided with the massive diversification of man-made chemicals in the environment. There is compelling evidence to suggest that these developments might be linked.

American and Danish studies, for example, associate breast cancer with organochloride pesticides in fruit and vegetables. Scientists at Kyoto University in Japan have found that the two most carcinogenic compounds ever tested both come out of the back of a diesel engine: this could help account for the incidence of lung cancer among non-smokers in urban areas. Dioxins in the breast milk of British mothers significantly exceed the World Health Organisation’s recommended “tolerable daily intake”, thanks in part to the widespread incineration of hazardous waste. They have been repeatedly linked to both breast and testicular cancers.

The Government, the white paper maintains, wants to give us “the opportunity to make informed decisions” about our health. To this end, it advises us that “pollutants in the environment may cause cancer if inhaled or swallowed.” The language – almost identical to the health warnings on medicine bottles – is fascinating: it creates the impression that breathing or ingesting pollution is something we can avoid. This is the sum total of the government’s proposed action for tackling what may prove to be Britain’s biggest public health problem.

The white paper warns us to beware of radiation, “whether through exposure to radon gas in certain homes or excessive sunlight.” Nuclear power stations are not mentioned. In fact, radon, which is naturally-occuring, is the only atmospheric pollutant named in the white paper. It is also the only major pollutant in Britain which does not result from the activities of large corporations. The white paper informs us that the Government hosted “the largest ever Ministerial conference on environment and health” in June this year. It fails to tell us that the links between cancer and industrial pollution were dropped from the agenda soon before the meeting began. Last week, just six days before the Government promised to ensure “that cancer is tackled as never before”, it announced its intention to allow up to 130 new incinerators to be built in Britain by 2015.

The government’s report on the nation’s health has fallen victim to New Labour’s malignant appeasement of corporate power. The cancers afflicting the British people will only be prevented when this cancer at the heart of government has been cut out.