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Garry Wills, Meditating on the Church-State Divide

In a new book about the constitutional separation of church and state, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills insists that that separation was meant as "the great protector of religion, not its enemy." That, as Wills tells guest host Dave Davies, hasn't stopped fervent believers from challenging the concept.

Wills, a translator of St. Augustine and author of What Jesus Meant, is an emeritus professor of history at Northwestern University; the new book is titled Head and Heart: American Christianities.


Other segments from the episode on October 4, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 4, 2007: Interview with Garry Wills; Interview with Devra Davis.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Garry Wills, author of "Head and Heart," on the role of
religion in public life, specifically the influence of evangelical
Christians on the Bush administration

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Our guest, historian Garry Wills, has been thinking about the role of religion
in public life, and he says the influence of evangelical Christians in the
Bush administration is one of several periods in American history when
religion has invaded the sphere of government. Earlier surges of evangelism,
he argues, have always provoked a popular reaction, which reduced their
influence. Wills' new book is "Head and Heart: American Christianities." He
says some modern evangelicals mistakenly believe the founders of the republic
were guided by Biblical teaching and that America has gradually lost its
spiritual moorings. In fact, Wills says, the founders were not deeply
religious and their decision to separate religion from government actually
helped America to become a deeply religious society.

Garry Wills is a professor of history emeritus at Northwestern University. He
won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Among his many other books are
"What Jesus Meant" and "Lincoln at Gettysburg."

Well, Garry Wills, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You had an encounter with the
Dalai Lama in Chicago which you write about early in this book, which yielded
a point relevant to your subject. Would you describe that moment?

Mr. GARRY WILLS: Well, yes. He came to Chicago and was scheduled to appear,
and he said, `I don't like to give formal addresses because they're boring.
People fall asleep. So would you please have someone on the stage with me
asking questions and I will respond.' I was one of those on the stage, and we
talked to him ahead of time, and he said, `Don't ask easy questions. Some
people are too deferential to me and that also is boring and we all go to
sleep, so ask a hard question.' Well, the only question I could think of was,
`If you were restored to your country, what would you do different?' And he
said, `I would dis-establish the religion, because the American separation of
church and state is the proper relationship between politics and religion.'

DAVIES: This from a man of mystical faith. Did this surprise you?

Mr. WILLS: Not surprised, but pleased. But on the way out I said to him,
`For that, don't you have to had an enlightenment, our 18th-century scientific
rational enlightenment?' He said, `Ah, there's the problem.' And his very next
book said that the Buddhists had not faced up to the difficulty of dealing
with modern rationality and science. So he wanted to get to where we started,
where we have the great luck to start in the 18th century with deist
formulators of our government who knew that the best thing for religion is to
separate it from the state. Both Madison and Jefferson said that religion
will flourish if it is separated from the state because in all of the
governments that had established religions, religion became contaminated by
politics, became corrupt, caused a reaction of anti-clericalism and disgust
with the relationship between the two, and that has never happened in America.
And no country, no developed country, has a higher degree of religious
profession and attendance than the United States. And it's really, I think,
due to the fact that we did have a separation of church and state.

DAVIES: Well, you write early in the book that this separation of church and
state, which, you know, we use the shorthand dis-establishment for, you say it
was a stunning innovation and the only original part of the Constitution.
What do you mean?

Mr. WILLS: That's right. No other country before ours had dared to launch
itself without formal protection by God, by some official religion.
Everything else in the Constitution--the tripartite government, the
independent judiciary, federalism, bicameralism in the legislature--all of
those things had been around for a long time, and the only thing that was new
was to say we don't need an official cult. And a lot of people said, `Of
course you do. How can you hope to flourish if God is not blessing you?'
Well, we launched it and it worked.

DAVIES: And you note that this innovation--the separation of church and
state--could have only occurred at this particular moment in our history.
What was unique about that moment?

Mr. WILLS: Well, you know, we have a myth in America that we began as a very
religious country and we've been declining in religiosity ever since, which is
the exact opposite of the truth. We were at our lowest level of religiosity
in the 1770s when 17 percent of the people were churchgoers, and our
profession and practice of religion took off like crazy after the Constitution
was founded. A tremendous explosion in the early 19th century--the Methodist
explosion, especially, when there were more Methodist pastors than post office
officials. And the thing is, that it would have been hard to persuade
religious people that they could get along without an official cult at any
other time but the deist founders--and they were all deists--which doesn't
mean atheists, they were rational believers--were the ones that were able to
pull off this really astonishing new thing.

DAVIES: And since you raise the subject, I mean, people have talked about the
founders of the republic as being deists. What exactly did that mean?

Mr. WILLS: Well, they believed that God did create the world and supervises
it, governs it. They believed in providence, so that Thomas Payne said, for
instance, that he can't believe that God is not on the side of freedom, not so
much as a matter of this government or that government, but just in general.
And they believed in the afterlife. They didn't, most of them, believe in
God's responding to prayer. They said that, you know, `God knows what's best.
He doesn't wait for us to ask him to do something and then does it on our

They didn't believe in the particulars of Christian revelation. They believed
that Jesus--well, Locke believed that Jesus was the messiah who had been
promised in Jewish scripture, but that he was not God incarnate. That he was
an important moral leader singled out by God. Jefferson thought that he was
the most perfect moral teacher, but was simply a perfect man, not God. So
they had various degrees of recognition of God's intervention in human life,
but most of them thought that established churches were corrupt and we
shouldn't believe what they say, that we should believe our reason. We know
that God is around and made the world because the world works so beautifully
and nobody could do that without him.

DAVIES: And so the imperative for those of us here below was to live moral
lives and we'd be rewarded with an afterlife?

Mr. WILLS: That's right. Jefferson said to Adams when Abigail Adams died,
`It's a terrible blow that you've received, but we'll soon be joining her in
the afterlife and enjoy her company forever.' So they did have some very
important and emotional religious beliefs.

DAVIES: You dwell in some length on the separation of state and religion by
the founders of the republic, and it's interesting that you note early on that
the logic of having an established religion is simple and appealing. What is
the logic?

Mr. WILLS: Well, that if you do not pay right deference to God, he will not
bless your endeavors, and therefore you must make sure that the state is
properly deferential to God. The thinking there is that God will only bless a
nation, a polity, if there is formal recognition of him. The trouble with
that, of course, is that there's been formal recognition of him by every state
that preceded ours, and obviously he's not protecting them all, because when
two of them fight with each other, one wins. And therefore the magic didn't

DAVIES: Now, at the time of the founding of the republic, of course, there
were governments already in place up and down the colonies. How much
religious freedom was allowed then in the laws and charters and practice of
the individual colonies?

Mr. WILLS: Well, as I say, the separation of church and state was a brand
new idea. So in the colonies it had not been observed. There were official
religions in many colonies. There were conditions for holding office that
said that you had to believe in the trinity or you had to believe in Jesus
Christ. And the first one that really broke away from that was the state of
Virginia. Jefferson wrote a statute of religious freedom which he tried to
get through, and he didn't had first at first. And he said he was the hardest
fight of his life because it was so resented in Virginia. But when he had
left and gone to France as our legate, Madison finally got it through. And
that was the first one, the first one in history and in the world that had a
real religious freedom statute.

DAVIES: You know, and you focus on a petition drafted by James Madison which
was, you know--not from the Constitutional Convention, but from--that he did
in opposition to a Virginia tax that was to be levied to support ministers,
and you call his arguments the best exposition of the thought that would lie
behind the drafting of the First Amendment and, in fact, the best arguments
for separation of church and state that have ever been written. What did
Madison say in this?

Mr. WILLS: Well, he said what Jefferson said, that no one can take away the
right of the individual to worship God in whatever way he or she wants. But
he spells it out in great detail, and he says, `The state should have no
cognizance of religion. It should not know about it, even. It should just
keep its hands off, so much so that'--later on, he said, `it's better when we
have the census of American citizens, which is mandated in the Constitution,
that religious ministers not give their profession. Because the state has no
business knowing that. It has no business knowing anything about religion.
It should just keep entirely away from it.'

Now, that seems very extreme to most people, and we have not observed it in
our history. He didn't want, for instance, to have chaplains who wore the
uniform of the United States and took salaries from the United States,
although they were religious pastors. He didn't want chaplains in the
Congress. He didn't want tax exemption for churches. We've never gone that
far in following his principles, but, logically, we should have. And it's
always been dangerous not to. More and more, as this new idea came over us,
we began to accept it. Now, when I was a young person in school, I knew many
of my friends who were in public schools and had to say the "Our Father" every
day. They had to do other religious practices. We don't do that anymore, and
that was resisted mightily when the Supreme Court said that we should stop
doing it.

DAVIES: How did people in the colonies react to a Constitution that did not
mention God?

Mr. WILLS: Some were very upset, of course, but all that the Constitutional
Convention could say is that the federal government will make no law about
religion, which left the individual states, of course, to keep established
religions so far as they had them still. And some people have actually
claimed that the constitutional arrangement was to allow the states to keep
their own establishment. Well, we know that was not Madison's view because of
what he had already done in the state of Virginia. And he thought obviously
that other states should do that, too. But it took a while for the states to
dis-establish their own religion practices, and as time went by the federal
government was applied to the state level through the Fourteenth Amendment,
and now we have the disestablishment applying to us all.

DAVIES: You know, there is a notion, I guess, among some historians that the
separation of religion from government was a necessary accommodation to the
proliferation of religions and sects up and down the colonies; that it wasn't
principle, it was pragmatism.

Mr. WILLS: Yes. That's a very common idea, that we did have different
religions. We had Catholics in Maryland. We had Quakers in Pennsylvania. We
had Calvinists all through New England. We had Anglicans in New York and in
the Southern--and therefore there couldn't have been one established religion.
And that's the only reason. But that's not the argument that was made by
Jefferson and Madison or others. And, as a matter of fact, when the
Constitution was ratified, various states sent in objections to things, and
none of them argued that you've got to protect our established church in our
state. That was not what the argument was about. So at the time no one was
really promoting this new idea on the grounds that it was a necessary
compromise. They were promoting it in principle, that freedom of conscience
had to be respected.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Garry Wills. His new book is called "Head and
Heart: American Christianities." We'll talk more after a break. This is


DAVIES: We're speaking with Garry Wills. His new book is called "Head and
Heart: American Christianities."

If the founders believed in this more rational notion of God, that he was
revealed through reason and study, you write that, as the republic progressed,
there have been periods of evangelistic fervor--I mean, the second great
awakening in the 19th century, and then again in the early 20th century when
there was all the revivalism which led to prohibition of alcohol. What was
the reaction of the republic and the population generally to this spirit of
evangelism, and what was the effect of that reaction on the strength of
religion in the republic?

Mr. WILLS: Well, one of the problems with enlightened religion, that it
seems too cool and desiccated and cerebral, and it doesn't have a religion of
the heart, and therefore there's a great appeal in the revivalistic strain
that I choose Jesus and the spirit chooses me. And I don't wait for an
outside intellectual to tell me what God is like. So always that is there, so
I describe kind of two poles of attraction in America between the head and the
heart, and sometimes it becomes really ardent. The second great awakening was
one of those cases. The fundamentalist movement at the beginning of the 20th
century. And recently, the religious right. All of those have gone to
excess, it seems to me, and the reaction to the fundamentalist movement with
prohibition and the Scopes Trial and things like that was, `Wait a minute.
This has gone too far.' And the reaction to the religious right recently has
been--the Terri Schiavo case, for instance. Eighty-one percent of the people
in America said that they disagreed with Congress interfering in the Terri
Schiavo case. And a number of moderate Republican religious people have begun
to say, `We've gone too far in this kind of vendetta against gays, etc.'

DAVIES: So it's not the growth of evangelistic feeling that produces the
reaction, but breaching the wall of separation with the state that

Mr. WILLS: Sure. There's nothing wrong with religious feeling, but when it
starts trying to take over the functions of government, then people begin to
have some misgivings.

DAVIES: What evidence do you see that there is a reaction now against the
Bush administration's embrace of evangelicals?

Mr. WILLS: Well, as I say, the moderate religious people have started
shifting their emphases, if not actually renouncing what had gone on before.
For instance, there's a whole evangelical group that is saying the
environmental measures of the Bush administration have gone way too far, and
that was always something that the religious right had been involved in, in
their view of dominion over nature. That has changed. The saliency of the
gay issue and the abortion issue have diminished in polls. So they're running
out of steam, and they're becoming more uneasy about what they've got
themselves in for. So one of the things that Rove was good at was to rev up
the troops on all kinds of issues without getting too much into the concerns
of the independents so that they would rebel against this. Well, that's not
happening anymore. They are rebelling against it.

DAVIES: Well, and you find very significant the statements of Senator John
Danforth here. Why do you cite those?

Mr. WILLS: Well, he is such a stalwart of the conservatives, you know. He
brought a suit against Roe v. Wade. He supported Clarence Thomas for the
Supreme Court. He's a very long-standing, important member of the religious
right. And for him to say, `We've gone too far, folks. We've got to stop
this' is very significant.

DAVIES: Well, Garry Wills, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WILLS: Thank you.

DAVIES: Historian Garry Wills. His new book is "Head and Heart: American
Christianities." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Devra Davis discusses cancer, cancer-causing agents,
and how to reduce exposure to cancer-causing agents and her book
"The Secret History of the War on Cancer"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

Devra Davis says Americans have spent $40 billion in a war on cancer, fighting
the wrong battles with the wrong weapons against the wrong enemies. Davis
says the effort has focused on detecting, treating and curing the disease
instead of looking at what causes it. Her book, "The Secret History of the
War on Cancer," argues powerful economic interests have steered money towards
research on treatment rather than looking at how their own products may be
causing the disease, and she says we're surrounded by potentially
cancer-causing products we ought to be paying more attention to.

Devra Davis is the director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the
University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. She spoke with Terry Gross.


Devra Davis, welcome to FRESH AIR. Are there specific cancers that have risen
the most in the past few years?

Ms. DEVRA DAVIS: Well, one of them in testicular cancer. I mean, Lance
Armstrong is a hero for many reasons, having survived advanced cancer. But in
every industrial country that we know of, testicular cancer rates have
increased dramatically in the past 20 years.

Another we've seen increases and lower ages for bone cancer. Multimyeloma is
cancer of the bone marrow, one that unfortunately killed my father when he
developed when he was just in his mid-50s, and my colleagues at the University
of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute are seeing younger and younger cases of
multimyeloma. We're seeing more of them, unfortunately, in people who worked
at ground zero, which is really astonishing, given how recently they were
exposed to things there.

GROSS: I'm surprised you haven't mentioned breast cancer.

Ms. DAVIS: Well, whether or not breast cancer is increasing--there's,
believe it or not, a debate, and that has to do with the fact that mammography
allows us to find things earlier and earlier, and we are finding things,
particularly in white women who are getting screened more. So whether there's
an increase in breast cancer recently or not, the issue is very simple. Only
one out of 10 women who get breast cancer today gets it because she was born
with a defect in her genes. That means that nine out of 10 women who end up
with breast cancer were born with healthy genes. And yet cancer is a disease
that only happens when your healthy genes stop doing their job of
extinguishing bad cell growth.

So we have to ask, what's happening for the nine out of 10 women who were born
with healthy genes to give them breast cancer? And we know that some of the
things that are involved can be related to hormones, both natural hormones in
the body and synthetic ones that we may give people in the form of other
drugs, or chemicals that can act like hormones when you're exposed to them.

Now, breast cancer patterns are, frankly, quite puzzling. Because we don't
know why more young black women get breast cancer than more young white women.
For all the risk factors that we know of--for example, having children earlier
in life should protect you against breast cancer--young black women tend to
have fewer of those risk factors, and yet in some areas of the country, like
my state of Pennsylvania, almost twice as many young black women under the age
of 40 get breast cancer when compared with young white women. We don't have
an explanation for that.

In the book, I talk about hormone-containing personal care products as one
thing that we need to understand better. Because it is part of the culture of
African-American young women to go to the beauty parlor, often at a very young
age. And in one small study that a Dr. Chandra Tiwary did--he was a
pediatric endocrinologist in the military--he found four black baby girls
between the ages of one year and three years with breasts. And...

GROSS: What's the connection between this and going to the beauty parlor?

Ms. DAVIS: He learned that their mothers were putting creams on their scalps
designed to make their hair softer and smoother. And the creams said on the
label, `Contain live placenta extract.' So these same creams are some of the
creams that used to be used in African-American hair care salons. Now, I have
to say "used to be used" because we tried and failed to do a study on this
subject. We couldn't get people to tell us what was in the products. They
don't have to tell you. There's no requirement for labeling in the United
States, and there's no monitoring whatsoever for what's in our beauty
products, unlike Europe. And, as a consequence, we don't know whether or not
today residues from hormones found in hair care products could explain some of
the increased risk of breast cancer that we're seeing in young black girls.

GROSS: When you say that there used to be a placenta extract in these hair
products that contains estrogen, the placenta extract?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, the placenta, you know, basically is the furnace that fuels
the growth of the baby, and it's full of blood and hormones of all kinds. So
it's basically full of estrogen--and other hormones, by the way.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DAVIS: And the interesting thing about this small study that I've
written about with Dr. Tiwary is that when the mothers stopped using the
cream, the breasts went away. Now ask yourself, if something can cause
breasts to grow on babies, what could it be doing to the rest of us? And the
fact that the breasts went away when they stopped using the cream makes it
very clear. It's a rather unusual demonstration that that cream was causing
this breast growth in these little girls.

GROSS: One of the points you make in your book is that scientists tend to
look at what this chemical causes cancerwise, or if that chemical causes
cancer. One of your points is that we should also be looking at the
cumulative exposure to smaller amounts of different chemicals, that smaller
amounts of a variety of chemicals, when taken together, can be as harmful as
exposure to a large dose of a single carcinogen. So where does that leave you
in terms of trying to analyze how the cumulative effect of exposure to smaller
doses of a variety of carcinogens?

Ms. DAVIS: It leaves us with the challenges of public health research. We
are now starting a national children's study--unless this administration
doesn't fund it, which is a real threat--to look at people throughout their
lifetimes so that we can chart the combined effects. But, as I say, life is a
mixture, and, as a consequence, when we study one chemical at a time, that
doesn't tell us what life is really going to throw at us. Cigarette smoke is
a consummate example. It's a mixture. Air pollution is another. It's a
mixture. Studying these things in the real world is the only way we're going
to get a handle on their effect. Having said that, though, we also need to
understand that requiring proof of sick or dead people before acting to
prevent future harm is fundamentally wrong approach to public health.

GROSS: You have to have proof before you ban a chemical, right?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, what is proof? Do you have to have proof in the form of
sick or dead people, or is proof, for example, taking a group of cells like my
scientists do at out center, studying them in the laboratory, seeing what
happens to them, and what happens to them when you expose them to a chemical
or expose them to a protective chemical, like the ones we're developing from
broccoli and garlic and fish oil and chocolate--which look, by the way, like
they're protecting against cancer growth. So I think we have to make better
use of experimental research in cell cultures, in whole animals, with
computers. And that way we get away from insisting that the only proof we can
accept is a sick or dead person.

DAVIES: Devra Davis speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with epidemiologist Devra Davis.
Her new book is "The Secret History of the War on Cancer."

GROSS: Let's look at some of the common chemicals that are in things that we
use or eat on a regular basis that we might not be thinking about, but you are
thinking about as possible carcinogens. Let's start with food and with the
artificial sugar substitute, the sweetener aspartame. How concerned are you
about that, and what are some of the things that it's in?

Ms. DAVIS: I'm very concerned about aspartame, and, as I say in the book,
aspartame only got approved by the government when Donald Rumsfeld became the
CEO of the Searle Company in between his service in the government. And it
was never recommended for approval by any scientific group that reviewed the
data on it at the time. Most recently, there's now a new study that's come
out that did something rather unusual, looking at animals that lived through
their natural lifetime, three years, they found a significant number of tumors
in those animals in their third year of life. Now, the typical animal study
stops at two years. You often hear about how there's so many high doses of
these things in these animal studies. Well, that's not the case for the
aspartame studies that have just been completed in Italy. If you had two cans
of diet soda a day, you would get 400 milligrams of aspartame.

And, unfortunately, there are people--and we've seen them all--who go out and
order chocolate cake with Diet Coke. And they think they're doing themselves
a favor. Well, the reality is the Diet Coke doesn't seem to help anybody lose
weight. I don't know of any studies that suggest that using diet soda helps
people lose weight. And the studies that have been done that have been
negative in humans on aspartame--and they are all negative--have been things
like asking people who were volunteers for the AARP, the retired people, a
half a million of them, if they had been drinking aspartame drinks in 1995 and
'96, and then five years later, seeing if they had brain cancer.

GROSS: And that's not a reliable test?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, we know that brain cancer can take 20, 30 or 40 years to
develop. I'm very concerned about the generations of young children and
pregnant women who are using aspartame now starting in childhood, and what
this will mean when they reach their 60s and 70s. Because we are living
longer because we've wiped out infectious diseases. And some cancers are
dropping because we had dropped smoking rates and we have improved the ability
to find and treat colorectal cancer and, I think, breast cancer. But
aspartame is a ticking time bomb, and if we wait till we have proof of human
harm for aspartame, it will be far too late to put that genie back in the

GROSS: What are some of the common household products, cleaning products,
that we typically use that may have carcinogens in them, chemicals that you
are concerned about?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, if something can cut through grease, it's often based on a
chlorinated compound--it can slice through. And if it has a skull and
crossbones on it, if it says, `Don't breathe, use in good ventilation,' then
ask yourself whether you need to use it and whether there's a safer

I buy baking soda by 10 pound quantities, and you can do many things with
baking soda. For example, you can use baking soda the way you could use a lot
of common cleansers and Comet and things of that sort. You can use toothpaste
to clean silver. So there are a lot of less toxic things we can use for
cleaning in our homes. And right now the biggest growth in manufacturing is
in green products. Now, of course, having said that, we want to make sure
they're really green, and that's where I think there's a role for the industry
to do a better job of monitoring itself, and where the government may have a
job to play as well.

GROSS: Do the mold/mildew kind of products that you're supposed to use on
your bathroom tiles--and they warn you to have good ventilation--do they fall
in the same category that you're describing?

Ms. DAVIS: They often do, but I think that's where the market is working, if
I may say, because you'll see a tremendous growth in green products now that
are being formulated to be less damaging to the skin and eyes. And if it can
kill mold, if it can kill pests, then you have to ask what it's doing to us.
At the same token, we have to kill mold. Mold can actually be very dangerous
to your health. So there are trade-offs for all of these things, and I'm not
in the business of formulating products. I am in the business of evaluating
the impact on our lives of the things that we use now. And we know that
moving to less toxic cleaning products generally is a good idea.

GROSS: My guest is Devra Davis. She's the director of the Center For
Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh's Cancer Institute, and
she's the author of the new book, "The Secret History of the War on Cancer."

What's your take on diagnostic radiation like X-rays?

Ms. DAVIS: What we know now--and the American College of Radiology has
issued a warning on this--is that we are using far too much diagnostic
radiation. And they are warning that current patterns of use of CT scans will
increase our cancer burden in the future, and particularly warning about
pediatric CT scans. CT scanning of little babies is obviously necessary when
you've got a newborn, when you've got a preemie and you want to find out if
they've got all their organs intact. That's different from the routine use
that we are seeing of CT scans for things like cranky knees and aching backs.

When my daughter was 11 years old and she had, potentially, a ruptured spleen,
they wanted to do a CT scan, and I wanted to protect her breasts. And the
young woman radiologist said, `Why are you bothering? She doesn't have any.'
And I explained that that's exactly when you have to protect the breast of a
young girl, when the breast is getting ready to grow. Because that's when
it's most vulnerable to the effects of radiation.

Most physicians today do not get trained on the dangers of overuse of
diagnostic radiation. The American College of Radiology is hardly a radical
group, and they are warning now and asking for a summit meeting with emergency
room doctors because they recognize that emergency room doctors who order
these things aren't fully aware of the lifetime risks.

GROSS: What about MRIs, magnetic resonance imaging? Do you think that those
are safer?

Ms. DAVIS: They're certainly safer. There's no question of that. And the
problem is, emergency room doctors have CT scans, radiation scans operating 24
hours a day. MRI machines in many hospitals aren't operating 24 hours a day.
Ultrasound, which sometimes can give you good images, as well, is not
generally operating 24/7. They also don't necessarily give you as much
information, so I'm not obviously--can't be opposed to CT scans. They've
revolutionized medicine. But they are being overused, and that's why there's
two things happening. The American College of Radiology has called for a
summit meeting with emergency room physicians to come up with agreements about
protocols about when and whether and how you should be using CT scans. But
there's also legislation that's locked up in Congress right now because there
are no federal standards for training and certification of CT technicians
right now.

I was involved in developing and trying to implement the national standards
for mammography. There were no national standards for mammography until 1994
in the United States. I visited a clinic in Arkansas where the office
receptionist could give you a mammogram.

GROSS: I'm glad you brought up mammograms. It's very controversial now how
often women should get it, at what age they should get it because of the risks
of exposure to radiation and also because it's unclear how helpful the
mammograms are in actually, you know, avoiding cancer. So what's your take on
who should get mammograms and how often they should get them?

Ms. DAVIS: Mammograms save lives in women after menopause. I don't think
there's any debate about that. And the amount of radiation in modern
equipment today is so much lower than it was in the past. It's phenomenal.
Having said that, though, getting mammograms before age 40 is a bad idea, and
unfortunately we're seeing increasing moves to do that. Particularly,
ironically, in young black women, who tend to have more dense breasts. The
denser the breast, the harder it is for the X-ray to see through it. And
young women should not be getting routine mammograms.

But any woman at any age that has a symptom and a problem may need a mammogram
and should see a health professional. Everybody has different risk factors
that have to be taken into account, but a lot of physicians do not realize
that radiation to the breast of a young woman can be problematic. And
screening mammography, which means taking people without any symptoms and
giving them mammograms, is a very important thing to do for women just prior
to menopause and throughout menopause. And knowing when you should have
regular mammograms or not is a decision women should make in consultation with
their physicians.

But growing numbers of breast cancer organizations, like the National Breast
Cancer Coalition, are warning that mammography has been oversold and
understudied. And that's a classic example of what we've done with CT scans,
as well. We push technologies and it's like we've gone, `Fire,' and then
`ready and aim.' We don't set up the system to study something before we make
it widespread. We did it with hormone replacement therapy, we're doing it
with CT scans now, and we did it with mammograms in young women. And our
ability to study the impact of these technologies on our health is really
limited because of the way we've started with the technology pushing it into
use before studying it.

DAVIES: Devra Davis speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're listening to Terry's interview with
epidemiologist Devra Davis. Her new book is "The Secret History of the War on

GROSS: I'm going to bring up a subject that I think our listeners will be
unhappy to hear your concerns about, and that's cell phones. Why are you
worried about cell phones?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, first of all, cell phones clearly save lives. And, as I
say in the book, those records of those phone calls left by people in 9/11 are
really wrenching and would never have been able to be possible without cell
phone. At this point, I can't tell you that cell phones are harmful, but I
can't tell you that they're safe, either. And we are not studying the problem
in a broad enough way to resolve the question.

GROSS: What's the problem? The microwaves?

Ms. DAVIS: Cell phones basically use the head as an antenna. A number of
countries recommend that children not use cell phones. Right now, Bangalore,
India bans the sale of cell phones to children under the age of 16. The
British government recommends against children using cell phones. And they do
this because the cell signal does penetrate the brain. Any of you who use
cell phones a lot and feel that heat and warmth that comes from particularly
the older generation of cell phones knows that you're warming the brain. And
studying brain cancer in epidemiology is one of the toughest things we do
because brain cancer takes a long time to develop, sometimes perhaps 40 years.
So we're in the...

GROSS: Can I stop you? That doesn't necessarily follow to me that even if a
cell phone's warm, that means your brain is warm.

Ms. DAVIS: It penetrates one inch into the brain.


Ms. DAVIS: The industry acknowledges that.

GROSS: But the microwaves do?

Ms. DAVIS: The industry...

GROSS: The microwaves do?

Ms. DAVIS: That the signal from this phone gets one inch into the brain.
Yes. That's their own data. Now, we have no way to know what this means for
the long term, but I want to tell you that there have been a number of highly
publicized negative studies that I think are very questionable. One, which
was by the Danish cancer society, made headlines just a year ago, cell phones
don't cause brain cancer. But let's look at what they did in that particular
study. They looked at about a half million people who had first signed up to
use cell phones between 1982 and 1995. And a "user" in their study was
defined as someone who didn't use a phone for business. Now, that doesn't
make any sense because, of course, business users would be the biggest users
of phones. And they did not find an increase in brain cancer when they did
this study. But in fact, the study was very biased against finding a problem
because they stopped their analysis in 1995. And look around and you see that
we are completely inundated with cell phones. And many countries, like Israel
and China and India, are using cell phones and not landlines at all. When
you're trying to study a problem, you want to get a group of people with high
exposures to compare with others who have no exposures.

GROSS: What you recommend, I think, is wearing an earpiece so that you're
separated from the radio waves that send the signal to the telephone. So is
that a wire earpiece? Like if you're using one of those wireless earpieces,
are you still being exposed to the problem? Or the potential problem?

Ms. DAVIS: I'm sure your risk is less, and I don't know--and there are
variations on those wired pieces, as well. Right?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DAVIS: And I'm not an electrical engineer. I'm raising a question
because I think, as a democratic society, we ought to be able to answer it.
And I'm very, very concerned about the marketing of cell phones to young
children. And many nations are recommending against cell phone use for
children for a number of reasons, including the potential long term risks to
their brain development, which could include cancer. But not cancer only.

GROSS: I know you're concerned about how much teeth the regulatory agencies
really have, and you're concerned right now about the Consumer Products Safety
Commission. What's your concern there?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, they have to get lead out of children's toys, and they need
the authority to measure and monitor a whole bunch of things that may be
contaminants in children's toys, including some plastics and other things.
But right now, there's new legislation pending to give them that authority,
but at the end there's tacked on a very, very bad idea, which is that we
should mandate national standards to put flame-retardant chemicals into

This is a bad idea because these chemicals have been banned in Sweden and
other places because they are shown to accumulate in breast milk, to damage
the brains of animals and suspected of increasing the risk of cancer and
thyroid diseases in children. The chemicals aren't needed, because you can
engineer fabrics to self extinguish.

And now the cigarette manufacturers are about to announce a national issuance
of cigarettes that are self-extinguishing. That was the major cause of fires
in furniture. People would fall asleep with a lit cigarette. If you have
self-extinguishing cigarettes, you don't need to put millions of pounds of
toxic chemicals into furniture to make them flame retardant. The whole
flame-retardant chemical business can be rethought with green products that
engineer fabric so that it is designed not to burn. Because these flame
retardants work for 12 seconds, and then when they do catch fire--which they
often do--they release dioxin, which I think most people know is not a good

IKEA right now was using flame retardants and is now no longer using them
because they've figured out a way to do it. They've done it in Europe. We in
the United States can have as safe materials as they do in Europe. I don't
think there's any reason we can't. And we should not require that chemicals
be put into our furniture that we know are going to be bad for ourselves, our
children and our grandchildren.

GROSS: I will bet you that a lot of people listening to use now are thinking,
`I give up. You know, if there's problems with all things that she says
there's problems with, then what am I going to eat, what am I going to clean
with, what am I going to call people with?' I mean, there's so many things
that you're saying are potentially carcinogenic that it's just easy to throw
up your hands and say, `Well, there's just, like, too much to cut out. I
can't deal with it, so I'm just going to ignore it all.'

Ms. DAVIS: Well, you know, there's a Chinese proverb that a long journey
begins with the first step. And I think that this is how you deal with breast
cancer, this is how you deal with any disease: one step at a time. People
have to decide what steps they can take. And I think there are practical
solutions that people are going to make a lot of money by implementing these
practical solutions. We still have one of the greatest countries in the
world, one of the strongest economies in the world, and we are coming up with
new solutions and new products and new ways to deal with old problems.
Einstein said, `You can't solve the problems of the present and the future
with the technology that created them.' And I think we are moving in that
direction now, and people have to do what they're comfortable doing.

GROSS: Devra Davis, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. DAVIS: It was a pleasure.

DAVIES: Devra Davis speaking with Terry Gross. Davis' new book is "The
Secret History of the War on Cancer."


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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