As Americans die younger, corporations to reap billions in pension costs

By Kate Randall
11 August 2017

Life expectancy for Americans has stalled and reversed in recent years, ending decades of improvement. According to a new Bloomberg study, this grim reality has an upside for US corporations, saving them billions in pension and other retirement obligations owed to workers who are dying at younger ages.

In 2015, the American death rate rose slightly for the first time since 1999, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over the last two years, at least 12 large companies have reported that negative trends in mortality have led them to reduce their estimates for how much they could owe to retirees by a combined $9.7 billion, according to Bloomberg’s analysis of company filings.

It is highly unusual in modern times, except under epidemic or war conditions, for life expectancy in an industrial country to stop improving, let alone decline. Laudan Aron, a demographer at the Urban Institute, told Bloomberg that falling US life expectancy, especially when compared to other high-income countries, should be “as urgent a national issue as any other that’s on our national agenda.”

But this has not sounded alarm bells in Washington. In fact, shortened life expectancy in the 21st century is the result of deliberate government policy of both big business parties: to restrict access to affordable health care, resulting in increased disease, suffering and early death.

Those who stand to cash in on the shortened lifespans of workers include General Motors, Verizon and other giant corporations. Lockheed Martin, for instance, has reduced its estimated retirement obligations for 2015 and 2016 by a total of about $1.6 billion, according to a recent annual report.

Companies have reduced estimates of what they will owe future retirees. According to a Society of Actuaries (SOA) report, companies can expect to lower their pension obligations by about 1.5 to 2 percent, based on a 2016 update of mortality data.

Life expectancy for the US population was 78.8 in 2015, a decrease of 0.1 year from 2014, according to the CDC, with the age-adjusted death rate increasing 1.2 percent over the year. Since the introduction in 1965 of Medicare and Medicaid—the government insurance programs for the elderly, poor and disabled—US life expectancy has steadily increased.

Death rates for Americans over age 50 have improved by 1 percent on average each year since 1950, according the SOA. In 1970, a 65-year-old American could expect to live another 15.2 years, on average, until just past 80 years.

From 2000 to 2009, the death rates for Americans over age 50 decreased, with annual improvements of 1.5 to 2 percent. By 2010, a 65-year-old could expect to live to 84. But these increases have slowed in recent years, with life expectancy at 65 rising only about four months between 2010 and 2015.

The slowing in death rate improvements since 2010, and the actual lowering of life expectancy in 2015, have followed the global financial crash of 2007-2008. Despite the Obama administration’s declaration that the Great Recession ended mid-2009, millions of US workers and their families continue to suffer under the weight of unemployment, underemployment, and stagnant or falling wages.

Seven years after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, a staggering 28 million Americans remain uninsured. Those who are insured have seen their premiums, deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs skyrocket. Families are saddled with billions of dollars in medical debt.

The lack of access to affordable health care is resulting in an unprecedented health crisis in the US. A 2015 study showed that mortality was rising for middle-aged white Americans, with deaths from suicides, drug overdoses and alcohol, collectively referred to as “ deaths of despair.” Both women and men have been affected by this phenomenon.

CDC data shows that more than 500,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses in the period between 2000 and 2015, now approaching an average of 60,000 a year.

The 10 leading causes of death in 2015 were heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, unintentional injuries, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide, according the CDC. Despite scientific advances in medical treatment and the development of new drugs to treat these diseases and conditions, they still accounted for 74.3 of all US deaths in 2015.

Moreover, from 2014 to 2015, age-adjusted death rates increased 0.9 percent for heart disease, 2.7 percent for chronic lower respiratory diseases, 6.7 percent for unintentional injuries, 3 percent for stroke, 15.7 percent for Alzheimer’s disease, 1.9 percent for diabetes, 1.5 percent for kidney disease, and 2.3 percent for suicide. Only cancer saw a reduction, of 1.7 percent.

It is on the backs of workers dying earlier from these diseases, alongside “deaths of despair,” that US corporations now stand to save billions, increasing their bottom lines by not paying out pensions and retirement benefits.

This is by design. Obamacare was the first significant effort to reduce the trend of increasing life expectancy by shifting the costs of medical care from the corporations and government to the working class. The ACA was drafted in close consultation with the insurance industry, requiring those without insurance to purchase coverage from private insurers under the threat of tax penalty.

The ACA set into motion the rationing of health care for ordinary Americans, making vitally needed treatments and medicines increasingly inaccessible for millions. This has now borne fruit in the first reduction in US life expectancy in more than half a century.

Following the Republicans’ failure to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, the Democrats have responded by offering to work with the Republicans to “repair” the ACA. But they do not mean reducing the number of uninsured or further expanding Medicaid.

Instead they have offered a five-point plan to shore up the insurance companies by setting up a “stability fund” for companies to insure high-risk enrollees, and guaranteeing they receive $8 billion in government cost-sharing payments to the insurance firms that the Trump administration has threatened to cut off.

Such measures, along with savings from unpaid retirement benefits, will further bloat corporate profits along with those of the private insurance companies and health care industry as a whole.


6 Diseases That Could Skyrocket or Become Far More Deadly If the Affordable Care Act Is Repealed

Bernie Sanders may have been underestimating when he said 36,000 per year will die if the health care law is dashed.

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When senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz debated the merits of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, aka Obamacare, on February 7, Sanders had a dire prediction: “We are moving into an era where millions of people who develop terrible illnesses will not be able to get insurance, and God only knows how many of them will die.” The Vermont senator, who favors a single payer or “Medicare for all” system, was right to be concerned. It remains to be seen when or how Republicans in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives will repeal the ACA; Sen. Rand Paul has been complaining that repeal is taking much too long and that fellow Republicans don’t appear to be in a hurry to repeal it. But the Urban Institute estimates that if and when Republicans do repeal the ACA, “The number of uninsured people would rise from 28.9 million to 58.7 million in 2019, an increase of 29.8 million people”—and Sanders has predicted that “36,000 people will die yearly as a result.”

Sanders is not exaggerating about the potential death toll; if anything, he is being optimistic. In 2009, a pre-ACA Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance study found that almost 45,000 Americans were dying annually due to lack of health insurance. Shortcomings and all, the ACA—according to Gallup—has reduced the number of uninsured Americans aged 18-64 from 18% in 2013 to 11.9% in late 2015. And that includes millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma. The ACA has not only made it illegal for insurance companies to exclude people due to pre-existing conditions, but it has also emphasized preventive care and screenings, which can prevent chronic conditions from developing or at least treat them after a diagnosis. Without those protections, it stands to reason that diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other potentially life-threatening illnesses will be on the rise.

Here are several diseases that are likely to increase or have much worse outcomes if Republicans succeed in abolishing Obamacare and render millions of Americans uninsured.

1. Diabetes

According to the American Diabetes Association, 30 million Americans suffer from diabetes, while another 86 million have prediabetes. For those 116 million Americans, access to health care is crucial; diabetes, if not managed and controlled, can lead to everything from amputations to heart disease, stroke and blindness. And when prediabetes is managed, patients have a much better chance of avoiding full-blown diabetes. Bearing those things in mind, the American Diabetes Association sent members of Congress a letter in December warning them how dire the consequences could be for Americans with diabetes or prediabetes if the ACA is repealed without a suitable replacement.

“The ACA,” the American Diabetes Association told Congress in the letter, “ended fundamental inequities in access to adequate and affordable health insurance that separated Americans with diabetes from the tools they needed in the fight against the horrific and costly complications of diabetes, including blindness, amputation, kidney failure, heart disease, stroke and death. Repealing the ACA will create huge access barriers for millions of Americans, especially if no fully defined replacement is put in place immediately to meet the health care needs of individuals with chronic health conditions like diabetes.”

In 2016, medical researchers Rebecca Myerson and Neda Laiteerapong examined the ACA’s possible effects on diagnosis and treatment of Type 2 diabetes. The physicians found that 23% of American adults, aged 18-64, with diabetes lacked health insurance in 2009/2010, but said it was “likely that a significant fraction became insured in the subsequent years due to ACA provisions.”


Jennifer Kates, director of HIV policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, has described the ACA as a “watershed moment” for Americans living with HIV, and the Centers for Disease Control called it “one of the most important pieces of legislation in the fight against HIV/AIDS in our history.” Kaiser research has indicated that 200,000 HIV-positive Americans may have gained coverage through the ACA, and according to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the ACA brought insurance to 12,000 HIV-positive Illinois residents.

With HIV treatment, one of the goals is avoiding full-blown AIDS. In a recent article for The Advocate, Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, warned that ACA repeal could be devastating for Americans living with HIV and that access to treatment can be a matter of survival.

“If Congress repeals the ACA without simultaneously replacing it with programs that ensure comprehensive health coverage for the same, if not more, individuals, the private insurance market will become unstable—and people with HIV and others would lose access to the care and treatment that they rely on to remain healthy,” Schmid said. “People with HIV, who depend on a daily drug regimen, cannot risk losing access to their health coverage—not even for a single day… We cannot afford to go backwards by eliminating or destabilizing the health care that the ACA provides.”

3. Cancer

In January, Gregory Cooper and his colleagues at University Hospitals’ Cleveland Medical Center in Ohio released a study that compared access to cancer screenings before and after the ACA, which they found was making it easier to obtain mammograms but needed to do more to encourage colonoscopies. Cooper, reflecting on GOP plans to repeal the ACA, stressed that the U.S. needs more cancer screening, not less, saying, “If you take away people’s health insurance and they’re going to pay out of pocket for health care, are they going to get a mammogram, or are they going to buy food? People are going to do what gives them the best benefit in the short term, which is food and shelter.”

Amino, Inc., researching 129 insurance companies, has offered some estimates on possible out-of-pocket costs for cancer screening in a post-ACA environment; in Alaska, for example, the costs could be almost $500 for a routine mammogram or $2,565 for a colonoscopy. And as Cooper pointed out, Americans will put off or avoid potentially life-saving tests when they become cost-prohibitive.

4.  Blood Pressure and Hypertension

In 2015, researchers at George Washington University School of Public Health released a study on the effect the ACA was having on hypertension, a major factor in heart disease and stroke. The researchers reported that 78 million Americans suffer from hypertension and that “lack of insurance coverage is a critical barrier to better treatment of hypertension,” and they predicted that if ACA expansion continued, it “would lead to a 5.1% increase in the treatment rate among hypertensive patients.”

5. High Cholesterol

In 2015, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published a study that linked the ACA with better outcomes for three conditions: diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The study found that uninsured people suffering from any of those conditions were much less likely to find out they had a problem, whereas insured people had a 14% greater chance of finding out if they had diabetes or high cholesterol and a 9% greater chance of finding out they had high blood pressure. And for those who those who were diagnosed, the Chan School found, being insured greatly improved one’s chances of controlling blood sugar, total cholesterol or systolic blood pressure.

Joshua Saloman, a senior author of the study, said, “These effects constitute a major positive outcome from the ACA. Our study suggests that insurance expansion is likely to have a large and meaningful effect on diagnosis and management of some of the most chronic illnesses affecting the U.S. population.”

But instead of insurance expansion, Republicans could significantly reduce coverage. Even John Kasich, right-wing governor of Ohio and one of the many Republicans who lost to Donald Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, sounded a lot like a Democrat when he said that while there is “room for improvement” with the ACA, he was worried about what would happen to “these people who have very high cholesterol” if it is repealed without a solid replacement.

6. Asthma

Before the ACA, the term “pre-existing condition” as defined by health insurance companies was far-reaching; anything from multiple scleroses to kidney disease to anemia was grounds for rejecting an application for coverage. For people with asthma, obtaining health insurance was difficult or impossible. 17.7 million adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control, suffer from asthma in the U.S., and when asthma is not treated or controlled, it can become life-threatening (in 2014, CDC attributed more than 3600 deaths annually in the U.S. to asthma).

In 2013, a Harvard Medical School study cited lack of health insurance as the main reason asthma care for young adults deteriorated when they turned 18; emergency room visits became more frequent, and medications often became cost-prohibitive. But with the ACA’s implementation, young asthmatics could stay on their parents’ health plans until 26—and asthmatics, regardless of age, could not legally be refused coverage because of their condition. With full ACA repeal, however, it could once again become legal for insurance companies to deny coverage to asthmatics. And even partial ACA repeal could make asthma care cost-prohibitive.

While ACA repeal is likely, it remains to be seen what, if anything, Republicans would replace it with. Rep. Steve King has made it clear he couldn’t care less if the ACA is repealed without a replacement. However, Rep. Tom Price, President Trump’s nominee for secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, has proposed replacing it with a plan that would eliminate Medicaid expansion, thus making coverage more expensive for Americans with preexisting conditions. And President Trump has promised that after the ACA, Americans can look forward to more comprehensive coverage at much lower prices. But it’s an empty promise because he has yet to offer any specifics.

In other words, Republican plans for an ACA alternative range from terrible to woefully inadequate to nonexistent. To make matters worse, Rep. Paul Ryan is still pushing for Medicare privatization, meaning that Americans who suffer from ACA repeal could be facing additional hardships if they live to see 65. With Republicans going out of their way to make access to health care difficult or impossible for millions of Americans, the future looks grim for anyone suffering from cancer, HIV, hypertension or other potentially deadly illness.

Alex Henderson’s work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.

Force of Destiny—a thoughtful film about surviving cancer

By Richard Phillips
16 November 2015

Written and directed by Paul Cox

Force of Destiny, veteran filmmaker Paul Cox’s latest feature, is an intimate work about what happens when an individual is diagnosed with terminal cancer and how the ensuing struggle impacts on the victim and his or her immediate friends and relatives.

Cox, who has made over 40 documentaries and features during his four-decade, career is one of Australia’s few independent directors. His most enduring works—Lonely Hearts (1982), Man of Flowers (1983), My First Wife(1984), Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh (1987), A Woman’s Tale (1991), Innocence (2000), Nijinsky: The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky (2001)—are emotionally authentic and leisurely paced, low budget films. These stories are mainly drawn from Cox’s own personal experiences (with the obvious exception of the Van Gogh and Nijinsky films) and focus on the life and times of close friends—actors, artists and working-class people—individuals looking for solace in a harsh world. And so it is with his latest film.

Force of Destiny

The central figure in Force of Destiny is Robert (David Wenham), a middle-aged sculptor living a comfortable but modest semi-rural existence somewhere outside Melbourne. A relatively successful artist, he is pre-occupied with his work until he is given the shattering news that he has terminal cancer and will die if he does not receive a liver transplant within six months.

Robert’s former wife Hannah (Jacqueline McKenzie), his daughter Poppy (Hannah Fredericksen) and various friends do everything they can to assist. Hannah proposes to move back into the sculptor’s house to care for him, an offer he appreciates but rejects.

Still in denial, he is irritated by the fuss being made about him and stubbornly insists that he is capable of dealing with whatever lies ahead. Poppy, his daughter, is one of the few people he feels comfortable with. While not every patient is suitable to receive a liver transplant, Robert is put on the waiting list. Unfortunately there are no appropriate livers available for the sculptor—the organ must be taken from someone recently deceased—and in the months that follow his health rapidly deteriorates.

Force of Destiny

During these dark and difficult times, Robert meets and falls in love with Maya (Shahana Goswami), a marine biologist from India whose uncle is also dying from cancer. The sculptor’s new-found love and several visits to India give Robert an inner strength despite his failing physical condition. Just when it appears that he will die, a liver becomes available and the transplant is successful.

While Force of Destiny is not entirely autobiographical, the story’s general framework and dramatic underpinnings are drawn from Cox’s personal situation. The 75-year-old filmmaker was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2009 and given six months to live. He was at death’s door when he eventually received a transplant. During post-operative care he met and fell in love with Rosie Raka, another liver transplant recipient and now his partner.

To decide to make Force of Destiny and commence the arduous process of raising the funds for it, followed by the physical demands of the shooting and editing schedules, involved a good deal of courage on Cox’s part. Effectively dramatising the complex emotional issues facing those living on the edge of a life-and-death abyss is a major artistic challenge. Such an endeavour could easily produce an introverted and mawkish work.

Cox has avoided such pitfalls. He has produced an honest, hopeful work and one with strong and committed performances from his cast, several of whom regularly work with the filmmaker. David Wenham, a fine actor, who appears in virtually every scene, is understated and thoroughly convincing. There is real chemistry between him and the three key women in the sculptor’s life.

The filmmaker’s sensitivity to the plight of ordinary people and their inner emotions is a characteristic feature of all Cox’s work. Some of the movie’s most powerful moments are several short scenes in the public hospital cancer ward where working-class patients are stoically, and with real heroism, battling the disease. One of these deeply-effecting vignettes involves an old man visiting his wife. He brings her flowers and gently sings to her. Another scene involves a mother on her death bed. She prepares to see her daughter for the last time, applying lipstick and makeup in an attempt to give some colour to her thin and pallid face.

Force of Destiny is not without its weaknesses, however, and lacks the emotional complexity of Cox’s Lonely Hearts and A Woman’s Tale, which were made in the early 1980s and 1990s, respectively.

Robert’s trips to India are somewhat confused—it is not clear when and how he travelled there—and the scenes with Maya’s dying uncle give the movie a mystical edge. These sit uncomfortably with Cox’s naturalistic style. Visual sequences accompanying Robert’s unconscious thoughts and dreams—surreal images of medical procedures and internal organs and old photographs and film clips—are also problematic. While some of this material is striking, Cox overuses the technique and it loses its dramatic impact.

Notwithstanding these drawbacks, Force of Destiny is an optimistic work and one that brings real humanity to its subject matter.

Force of Destiny premiered at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival but has not yet been given an extended local release in Australian cinemas. Cox continues to fight his own difficult battle with liver cancer and recently learned that the disease had returned and infected the transplanted liver. Despite this, the veteran filmmaker has been energetically promoting the film, appearing at single “special event” screenings in selected cities across Australia over the past three months. Cox’s film deserves wider distribution.

The author also recommends:

Veteran filmmaker Paul Cox discusses his latest feature
[16 Nov 2015]

Cancer, Politics and Capitalism


After working for a series of unsavory financial institutions for 15 years, I accepted a position as a database administrator at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in 1983 with an eager sense of anticipation. Finally I would be doing something professionally that was more in sync with my political values. Instead of using my skills to keep track of pension trust portfolios, I would be creating a data infrastructure for patient care.

For more than a year I worked on developing a data model based on “normalized” relationships that sought to eliminate redundancies and provide a reliable foundation for applications development. A few months after I presented the model to management, I learned that all my work was in vain. The hospital had decided to buy a package from SMS, inc. that was considered nonpareil when it came to debt collection. As happened too often, a loved one would check into the hospital for a couple of months of very expensive and painful treatments that came to an end with the patient’s death. Since the survivors often had a tendency to ignore the astronomical bills that went along with such an exercise in futility, the hospital decided to purchase a system that was very good at dunning if nothing else. That decision left me feeling deflated. Once again money ruled.

When I received an invitation to review “Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering”, a documentary described as “the remarkable true story of a young science-writer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who risked everything by blowing the whistle on a massive cover-up involving a promising cancer therapy”, I knew that this was one I could not miss. (The film opens at Cinema Village in NYC on August 29, and at Laemmle Music Hall in LA on September 5. A national release will follow.)

Directed by Eric Merola, the film is made up primarily of Ralph W. Moss, the aforementioned young science-writer now 71, describing the events that took place when he was working at MSKCC in the mid-70s filled with the same sense of idealism I brought with me 8 years later. Like me, Moss was soon disillusioned but for another set of reasons.

Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my first encounter with Moss was when I worked at MSKCC, through the intermediary of a book he wrote titled “The Cancer Industry”. As I noted in a May 2012 article about MSKCC’s purchase of the SMS software, Moss’s book was a good introduction to the slimy realities of cancer care under capitalism:

When I was working at Sloan-Kettering, I read a terrific book titled “The Cancer Industry” that along with “The Cancer Wars” is essential reading for those with a class analysis. To this day, I remember what the book said about Hubert Humphrey’s stay at Sloan-Kettering. I don’t have the book handy but these paragraphs from a 1990 review should suffice:

Among the horrors stories in The Cancer Industry is the case history of Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was operated on by a team of surgeons at Memorial Sloan-Kettering on October 6, 1976. His surgeon appeared before the press and television cameras to announce that the senator was cured by the operation, but as a preventive measure, to “wipe out any microscopic colonies of cancer cells that may be hidden in the body, treatment would begin with experimental drugs.” Moss describes the aftermath:

“Within about a year, Senator Humphrey was dead. In that short time he had withered from a vigorous middle-aged man to an old, balding and feeble cancer victim. Humphrey himself blamed chemotherapy … calling it `bottled death’ and refusing in the end to return to Memorial Hospital for drug treatment.”

Hired to work in the PR department for his writing ability and enthusiasm, Moss had an unsettling introduction. On the very week he started, he was shocked to discover that one of the hospital’s top researchers had been caught perpetrating a major fraud. After announcing to the world that he had completed an experiment that successfully transplanted skin from a black mouse to a white mouse, William Summerlin became an MSKCC super-star. Since the mice were of different species and the transplant had not been rejected, this could lead to major breakthroughs in human organ transplants. When a lab assistant discovered quite by accident that Summerlin had simply used a black magic marker to draw a patch on a white mouse’s back, the hospital looked incompetent. Lewis Thomas, the hospital’s director, explained the incident as one caused by Summerlin’s “severe emotional disturbance”. I would have called it greed.

(I should add that Lewis Thomas is not one of my favorite people. He is the author of an essay titled “The Iks” that makes the case that this hunting and gathering society living in the Ugandan wilderness were “an irreversibly disagreeable collection of unattached, brutish creatures, totally selfish and loveless.” Remembering Thomas’s essay from high school, filmmaker Cevin Soling traveled to Ikland to find out for himself whether this was true. Suffice it to say that Thomas’s essay was a bogus as Summerlin’s painted mouse.)

Around the same time, a more serious experiment was taking place at MSKCC. An octogenarian Japanese scientist named Kanematsu Sugiura, who had published 250 papers in a distinguished career, had begun treating mice with laetrile. The substance, also called amygdalin, was extracted from apricot pits. His findings: the mice that received laetrile benefited from injections. They were not cured of cancer but were able to live longer than non-treated animals. Most importantly, the tumors did not metastasize in the treated mice. Trained to be cautious, Sugiura thought the drug had palliative value. The implication, needless to say, was that further research was needed.

As word of Sugiura’s experiments filtered up to the MSKCC brass, they assigned Moss to cover them from a PR angle but just as much to snoop on the senior researcher. Not only did Moss fail to detect any irregularities, he became upset when he learned that the hospital had become convinced that Sugiura’s experiments were flawed and that research should be abandoned.

Convinced that he needed outside help to make the case for Sugiura’s experiments, Moss hooked up with Science for the People, a radical group that came out of the 1960s student movement. Working with a physician-activist named Alec Pruchnicki and without the knowledge of his superiors, Moss began publishing a newsletter called Second Opinion that was distributed outside of MSKCC just like most agitprop was in pre-Internet days. The newsletter soon became a sounding board for every kind of grievance at the hospital, including working conditions and patient treatment.

When the hospital called a press conference to disassociate itself from laetrile, Sugiura said that he stood by the hospital’s decision as well as his own findings. When asked by reporters how he could hold mutually opposed positions, he handled himself gracefully while standing his ground.

In a fascinating Science magazine article from December 23, 1977, Nicholas Wade—the NY Times reporter whose recent book on genetic inheritance most critics regard as a painted mouse—was loath to get on the anti-laetrile bandwagon despite the newspaper’s strong agreement with the top brass’s dismissal of Sugiura’s findings. Wade quotes Robert Good, the top immunologist at MSKCC: “If we had published those early positive data, it would have caused all kinds of havoc. The natural processes of science are just not possible in this kind of pressure cooker.”

In a phone conversation with Ralph Moss shortly after I viewed the film, I was struck by his unwillingness to assume the stance of a pro-laetrile activist even though he was obviously convinced that Sugiura’s experiments were valid. The film is making the case for considering alternatives to costly and often toxic medications that are making big pharma rich. He mentioned Avastin, a drug that generated $2.11 billion in sales in 2011. That, he added, was more than the GDP of many third world countries. The spirit of Science for the People continues in the work of Ralph W. Moss. See this film for a riveting account of the conflicts between corporate power and the public good.

Several weeks before I watched “Second Opinion”, I made a point of reading George Johnson’s recently published The Cancer Chronicles in order to get up to speed on current thinking about the disease. As I mentioned above, when I worked at MSKCC, I read Samuel Epstein’s “The Politics of Cancer”, a book that ties what was perceived at the time as a cancer epidemic to environmental toxins, especially pesticides. It was very much in the spirit of Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle” and amenable to my Marxist opposition to corporate indifference to our health and safety.

About ten years after reading “The Politics of Cancer”, I read Robert Proctor’s “The Cancer Wars” that backtracked from Epstein’s findings. Although very much a man of the left, Proctor warned his readers that finding a direct correlation between pollutants and cancer is very difficult.

With Proctor’s warnings in the back of my mind, I was not completely surprised by Johnson’s treatment of the environmental question. In chapter seven, titled “Where Cancer Really Comes From”, Johnson amasses some statistics of the sort that pro-industry hacks might repeat. For example, epidemiology studies conclude that cancer cases in the immediate vicinity of Love Canal were no greater than that in the rest of New York State even though there was a spike in birth defects.

In referring to cancer clusters, such as the supposed breast cancer epidemic in Long Island, Johnson concludes that they are “statistical illusions”. It is not so much that Johnson denies that there is a connection between cancer and the environment; it is that they are exceedingly difficult to prove.

Since I have like most people on the left become convinced that there is a connection between carcinogens in the water, soil and air and the incidence of cancer, I emailed Johnson with my concerns and referred him to a study of cancer clusters near heavily polluted rivers in China. Showing a grace uncommon to most well-established journalists, Johnson took the trouble to write back:

Thanks very much for your email. I appreciate the kind words about my book. I hadn’t seen that particular study and will make a point of reading it. Of course many industrial chemicals are carcinogenic, and it seems very possible that concentrations have been high and chronic enough in China’s water to expose the general population to levels known to cause cancer in the workplace. Nailing that down is very tricky though, especially in developing countries where epidemiological studies are just getting underway. Most of the research in China seems to concentrate on air pollution and lung cancer. Since the focus of my book was on cancer in the developed world, I may write a column in the future comparing the situation with China, India, etc.

Making the case about pollution—a negative indicator—is difficult but just as much so with positive indicators. Nutritionists are always urging us to eat fruits and vegetables, especially those with anti-oxidant properties such as blueberries and cabbage but there has never been a rigorous study of diet and cancer. This has a lot to do with the near impossibility of conducting a demographically representative study of the effects of eating “good” food and bad. Since cancer can take many decades to show up, tracking its roots and development is a near impossible task.

“The Cancer Chronicles” was motivated in part by his wife’s illness. Showing the difficulty of establishing a unilinear connection between diet and the disease, Nancy Johnson was something of a health nut given to daily exercise and a large intake of the very anti-oxidant fruits and vegetables nutritionists advise. Chapter four begins:

She always ate her vegetables. Obsessively, it sometimes seemed. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, throughout the day she would keep mental count. Never mind if it was 10:30 p.m., halfway through a Simpsons episode or a DVD. If she hadn’t consumed two or three servings of vegetables (some green, some yellow) and three or four servings of fruits, nuts, grains—whatever the food pyramidologists were recommending—she would slice up an apple or open a bag of carrots.

Confronted by the sheer anomaly of a person with such a lifestyle being susceptible to cancer, Johnson sets out on a trek that takes him to conferences and labs all around the USA when he is not accompanying his wife on her frequent chemotherapy sessions. His goal was to understand the basic biology of humanity’s oldest disease.

Indeed, it is not just ours. The dinosaurs suffered from cancer as well. In a trip to western Colorado, Johnson visits the site where six tons of Brontosaurus bones were discovered in 1901, including one that was the oldest one known to have contained a tumor. Using prose that has been polished over a long and distinguished career in science journalism, he reports on what he saw:

Viewed head-on, the fossil measured 6.5 by 9.5 inches. Lodged inside its core was an intrusion, now crystallized, that had grown so large it had encroached into the outer bone. Bunge [a museum curator] suspected osteosarcoma—he had seen the damage the cancer can do to human skeletons, particularly those of children. Oval in shape and the size of a slightly squashed softball, the tumor had been converted over the millennia into agate.

Johnson’s book is one of the finest on science that I have read in a very long time, perhaps in my life. As I told Marxmail subscribers, if I had run into such a book when I was in high school, I probably would have majored in biology at Bard College rather than religion (don’t try to get me to explain that choice.)

Johnson’s book ranges from medicine to physics, and from physics to philosophy without missing a beat. At the risk of sounding like one of those people who write the blurbs on book jackets, I would describe “The Cancer Chronicles” as a powerful examination of the biology of the human cell, including those that mutate into the most dreaded disease we face.

Between 2008 and 2012, three men died of cancer all within just about two years of each other. The first to go was Peter Camejo, who was responsible for helping me to understand what went wrong with the Socialist Workers Party. Peter, who succumbed to lymphoma, attributed his illness to pollutants he had been exposed to over a lifetime.

Next to go was Harvey Pekar, the comic book author who persuaded me to work on a memoir with him. Peter Camejo was a character in the memoir, as well as number of other colorful characters I got to know over a lifetime in politics and the bohemian underground. Like Peter, Harvey died from lymphoma or at least a system weakened by the disease.

Finally, two years later, I learned of Alexander Cockburn’s death. Alexander was a kind of bookend to Peter. When I quit the Trotskyist movement in 1979, I intended to put politics behind me and return to the bohemia of my youth. In an attempt to keep up with the NYC underground, I began reading the Village Voice. But the only writing that made any kind of impression on me was Alexander Cockburn’s weekly columns that lacerated the high and mighty. It was his writing that moved me to return to politics, the only damned thing I am good at.

The more our lives become entwined with the Internet, and social media in particular, the closer we become to people even if we never meet in person. Over the past few years, I have been at the virtual bedside of two people who I have enormous respect for. Using Facebook for both support and ventilation, Ed Douglas and Kristin Kolb have kept their friends abreast on their encounters with life-threatening illnesses. Additionally both were able to raise funds through the Internet, a necessity given the lack of adequate health care in the USA. Ed, a founding member of New York Film Critics Online—the group I have been part of for 15 years, developed an acute case of leukemia some years ago that ultimately required a bone marrow transplant. Fortunately he is in remission now and doing well. Kristin, a CounterPunch contributor of great distinction, is going through the final stages of chemotherapy for breast cancer. We who contribute to and read CounterPunch offer our support for her getting past this ordeal.

If the origins of cancer and its ultimate cure are shrouded in mystery, the same cannot be said about the need for adequate and affordable care. If it were not for the generosity of Ed and Kristin’s friends and admirers, their road would have been a lot more difficult.

Mike Marqusee, another long-time CounterPunch contributor, made the wise choice to relocate to Britain in 1971 where health care is free.

Around the time I started reading Johnson’s “The Cancer Chronicles”, I learned that Marqusee has been dealing with multiple myeloma for a number of years. He wrote a book recently that touches on his illness as well as Britain’s socialized medicine. Available from OR Books, “The Price of Experience: Writings on Living with Cancer” is both a personal history as well as a sharp-eyed analysis of the benefits of socialized medicine—as one would expect from a long-time Marxist.

You will notice that just above I refer to Marqusee “dealing” with cancer rather than the hackneyed term “battling”. As might be expected from an antiwar activist (Marqusee was on the steering committee of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain), Marqusee has little use for military metaphors. He writes:

Obituaries routinely inform us that so-and-so has died “after a brave battle against cancer.” Of course, we will never read that so-and-so has died “after a pathetically feeble battle against cancer.” But one thing that I have come to appreciate since being diagnosed with multiple myeloma (a cancer of the blood) two years ago is how unreal both notions are. It’s just not like that.

The emphasis on cancer patients’ “bravery” and “courage” implies that if you can’t “conquer” your cancer, there’s something wrong with you, some weakness or flaw. If your cancer progresses rapidly, is it your fault? Does it reflect some failure of will-power?

Like one of the characters in Michael Moore’s “Sicko” who lives a country not befouled by big pharma and the insurance industry, Marqusee describes a system that is geared to human need rather than private profit. For all the years he has been receiving treatment at Barts, the nickname for St. Bartholomew’s, a London hospital founded in 1123 (!), he has never had to pay a penny. Despite the fact that it is free, the treatment has been equal to some of the premiere hospitals in the USA.

But the same forces that have imposed Obamacare on us are conspiring to privatize and/or reduce the level of treatment in Britain. Showing the same sense of worker and patient solidarity that Ralph Moss’s newsletter sought to imbue at MSKCC nearly 40 years ago, Marqusee writes and we conclude:

I hope staff at Barts resist this attack on their jobs, and on the essential, life-sustaining services they provide. It’s often seemed to me that Barts survives on their good will alone. They’ve already been hammered by a steady fall in real wages, and there is a sad fatalism among most, not helped by the patchiness of the union presence across the Trust. What’s vital is that they understand that what’s happening now is not about failings at Barts; it’s a manifestation of the general crisis in the NHS, a crisis brought about by cuts, fragmentation, and privatisation, and one that can only be addressed through a mass movement that forces a radical redirection in government policy.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

Your Cellphone Could Be a Major Health Risk

…and the Industry Could Be a Lot More Upfront About It

The science is becoming clearer: Sustained EMF exposure is dangerous.

Photo Credit: Jason Stitt/

The following is an excerpt from “Overpowered: What Science Tells Us About the Dangers of Cell Phones and Other Wifi-age Devices” by Martin Blank, PhD. Published by Seven Stories Press, March 2014. ISBN 978-1-60980-509-8. All rights reserved.

This excerpt was originally published by

You may not realize it, but you are participating in an unauthorized experiment—“the largest biological experiment ever,” in the words of Swedish neuro-oncologist Leif Salford. For the first time, many of us are holding high-powered microwave transmitters—in the form of cell phones—directly against our heads on a daily basis.

Cell phones generate electromagnetic fields (EMF), and emit electromagnetic radiation (EMR). They share this feature with all modern electronics that run on alternating current (AC) power (from the power grid and the outlets in your walls) or that utilize wireless communication. Different devices radiate different levels of EMF, with different characteristics.

What health effects do these exposures have?

Therein lies the experiment.

The many potential negative health effects from EMF exposure (including many cancers and Alzheimer’s disease) can take decades to develop. So we won’t know the results of this experiment for many years—possibly decades. But by then, it may be too late for billions of people.

Today, while we wait for the results, a debate rages about the potential dangers of EMF. The science of EMF is not easily taught, and as a result, the debate over the health effects of EMF exposure can get quite complicated. To put it simply, the debate has two sides. On the one hand, there are those who urge the adoption of a precautionary approach to the public risk as we continue to investigate the health effects of EMF exposure. This group includes many scientists, myself included, who see many danger signs that call out strongly for precaution. On the other side are those who feel that we should wait for definitive proof of harm before taking any action. The most vocal of this group include representatives of industries who undoubtedly perceive threats to their profits and would prefer that we continue buying and using more and more connected electronic devices.

This industry effort has been phenomenally successful, with widespread adoption of many EMF-generating technologies throughout the world. But EMF has many other sources as well. Most notably, the entire power grid is an EMF-generation network that reaches almost every individual in America and 75% of the global population. Today, early in the 21st century, we find ourselves fully immersed in a soup of electromagnetic radiation on a nearly continuous basis.

What we know

The science to date about the bioeffects (biological and health outcomes) resulting from exposure to EM radiation is still in its early stages. We cannot yet predict that a specific type of EMF exposure (such as 20 minutes of cell phone use each day for 10 years) will lead to a specific health outcome (such as cancer). Nor are scientists able to define what constitutes a “safe” level of EMF exposure.

However, while science has not yet answered all of our questions, it has determined one fact very clearly—all electromagnetic radiation impacts living beings. As I will discuss, science demonstrates a wide range of bioeffects linked to EMF exposure. For instance, numerous studies have found that EMF damages and causes mutations in DNA—the genetic material that defines us as individuals and collectively as a species. Mutations in DNA are believed to be the initiating steps in the development of cancers, and it is the association of cancers with exposure to EMF that has led to calls for revising safety standards. This type of DNA damage is seen at levels of EMF exposure equivalent to those resulting from typical cell phone use.

The damage to DNA caused by EMF exposure is believed to be one of the mechanisms by which EMF exposure leads to negative health effects. Multiple separate studies indicate significantly increased risk (up to two and three times normal risk) of developing certain types of brain tumors following EMF exposure from cell phones over a period of many years. One review that averaged the data across 16 studies found that the risk of developing a tumor on the same side of the head as the cell phone is used is elevated 240% for those who regularly use cell phones for 10 years or more. An Israeli study found that people who use cell phones at least 22 hours a month are 50% more likely to develop cancers of the salivary gland (and there has been a four-fold increase in the incidence of these types of tumors in Israel between 1970 and 2006). And individuals who lived within 400 meters of a cell phone transmission tower for 10 years or more were found to have a rate of cancer three times higher than those living at a greater distance. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated EMF—including power frequencies and radio frequencies—as a possible cause of cancer.

While cancer is one of the primary classes of negative health effects studied by researchers, EMF exposure has been shown to increase risk for many other types of negative health outcomes. In fact, levels of EMF thousands of times lower than current safety standards have been shown to significantly increase risk for neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease) and male infertility associated with damaged sperm cells. In one study, those who lived within 50 meters of a high voltage power line were significantly more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease when compared to those living 600 meters or more away. The increased risk was 24% after one year, 50% after 5 years, and 100% after 10 years. Other research demonstrates that using a cell phone between two and four hours a day leads to 40% lower sperm counts than found in men who do not use cell phones, and the surviving sperm cells demonstrate lower levels of motility and viability.

EMF exposure (as with many environmental pollutants) not only affects people, but all of nature. In fact, negative effects have been demonstrated across a wide variety of plant and animal life. EMF, even at very low levels, can interrupt the ability of birds and bees to navigate. Numerous studies link this effect with the phenomena of avian tower fatalities (in which birds die from collisions with power line and communications towers). These same navigational effects have been linked to colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is devastating the global population of honey bees (in one study, placement of a single active cell phone in front of a hive led to the rapid and complete demise of the entire colony). And a mystery illness affecting trees around Europe has been linked to WiFi radiation in the environment.

There is a lot of science—highquality, peer-reviewed science—demonstrating these and other very troubling outcomes from exposure to electromagnetic radiation. These effects are seen at levels of EMF that, according to regulatory agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates cell phone EMF emissions in the United States, are completely safe.

An unlikely activist

I have worked at Columbia University since the 1960s, but I was not always focused on electromagnetic fields. My PhDs in physical chemistry from Columbia University and colloid science from the University of Cambridge provided me with a strong, interdisciplinary academic background in biology, chemistry, and physics. Much of my early career was spent investigating the properties of surfaces and very thin films, such as those found in a soap bubble, which then led me to explore the biological membranes that encase living cells.

I studied the biochemistry of infant respiratory distress syndrome (IRDS), which causes the lungs of newborns to collapse (also called hyaline membrane disease). Through this research, I found that the substance on the surface of healthy lungs could form a network that prevented collapse in healthy babies (the absence of which causes the problem for IRDS sufferers).

A food company subsequently hired me to study how the same surface support mechanism could be used to prevent the collapse of the air bubbles added to their ice cream. As ice cream is sold by volume and not by weight, this enabled the company to reduce the actual amount of ice cream sold in each package. (My children gave me a lot of grief about that job, but they enjoyed the ice cream samples I brought home.)

I also performed research exploring how electrical forces interact with the proteins and other components found in nerve and muscle membranes. In 1987, I was studying the effects of electric fields on membranes when I read a paper by Dr. Reba Goodman demonstrating some unusual effects of EMF on living cells. She had found that even relatively weak power fields from common sources (such as those found near power lines and electrical appliances) could alter the ability of living cells to make proteins. I had long understood the importance of electrical forces on the function of cells, but this paper indicated that magnetic forces (which are a key aspect of electromagnetic fields) also had significant impact on living cells.

Like most of my colleagues, I did not think this was possible. By way of background, there are some types of EMF that everyone had long acknowledged are harmful to humans. For example, X-rays and ultraviolet radiation are both recognized carcinogens. But these are ionizing forms of radiation. Dr. Goodman, however, had shown that even non-ionizingradiation, which has much less energy than X-rays, was affecting a very basic property of cells—the ability to stimulate protein synthesis.

Because non-ionizing forms of EMF have so much less energy than ionizing radiation, it had long been believed that non-ionizing electromagnetic fields were harmless to humans and other biological systems. And while it was acknowledged that a high enough exposure to non-ionizing EMF could cause a rise in body temperature—and that this temperature increase could cause cell damage and lead to health problems—it was thought that low levels of non-ionizing EMF that did not cause this rise in temperature were benign.

In over 20 years of experience at some of the world’s top academic institutions, this is what I’d been taught and this is what I’d been teaching. In fact, my department at Columbia University (like every other comparable department at other universities around the world) taught an entire course in human physiology without even mentioning magnetic fields, except when they were used diagnostically to detect the effects of the electric currents in the heart or brain. Sure magnets and magnetic fields can affect pieces of metal and other magnets, but magnetic fields were assumed to be inert, or essentially powerless, when it came to human physiology.

As you can imagine, I found the research in Dr. Goodman’s paper intriguing. When it turned out that she was a colleague of mine at Columbia, with an office just around the block, I decided to follow up with her, face-to-face. It didn’t take me long to realize that her data and arguments were very convincing. So convincing, in fact, that I not only changed my opinion on the potential health effects of magnetism, but I also began a long collaboration with her that has been highly productive and personally rewarding.

During our years of research collaboration, Dr. Goodman and I published many of our results in respected scientific journals. Our research was focused on the cellular level—how EMF permeate the surfaces of cells and affect cells and DNA—and we demonstrated several observable, repeatable health effects from EMF on living cells. As with all findings published in such journals, our data and conclusions were peer reviewed. In other words, our findings were reviewed prior to publication to ensure that our techniques and conclusions, which were based on our measurements, were appropriate. Our results were subsequently confirmed by other scientists, working in other laboratories around the world, independent from our own.

A change in tone

Over the roughly 25 years Dr. Goodman and I have been studying the EMF issue, our work has been referenced by numerous scientists, activists, and experts in support of public health initiatives including the BioInitiative Report, which was cited by the European Parliament when it called for stronger EMF regulations. Of course, our work was criticized in some circles, as well. This was to be expected, and we welcomed it—discussion and criticism is how science advances. But in the late 1990s, the criticism assumed a different character, both angrier and more derisive than past critiques.

On one occasion, I presented our findings at a US Department of Energy annual review of research on EMF. As soon as I finished my talk, a well-known Ivy League professor said (without any substantiation) that the data I presented were “impossible.” He was followed by another respected academic, who stated (again without any substantiation) that I had most likely made some “dreadful error.” Not only were these men wrong, but they delivered their comments with an intense and obvious hostility.

I later discovered that both men were paid consultants of the power industry—one of the largest generators of EMF. To me, this explained the source of their strong and unsubstantiated assertions about our research. I was witnessing firsthand the impact of private, profit-driven industrial efforts to confuse and obfuscate the science of EMF bioeffects.

Not the first time

I knew that this was not the first time industry opposed scientific research that threatened their business models. I’d seen it before many times with tobacco, asbestos, pesticides, hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), and other industries that paid scientists to generate “science” that would support their claims of product safety.

That, of course, is not the course of sound science. Science involves generating and testing hypotheses. One draws conclusions from the available, observable evidence that results from rigorous and reproducible experimentation. Science is not sculpting evidence to support your existing beliefs. That’s propaganda. As Dr. Henry Lai (who, along with Dr. Narendra Singh, performed the groundbreaking research demonstrating DNA damage from EMF exposure) explains, “a lot of the studies that are done right now are done purely as PR tools for the industry.”

An irreversible trend

Of course EMF exposure—including radiation from smart phones, the power lines that you use to recharge them, and the other wide variety of EMF-generating technologies—is not equivalent to cigarette smoking. Exposure to carcinogens and other harmful forces from tobacco results from the purely voluntary, recreational activity of smoking. If tobacco disappeared from the world tomorrow, a lot of people would be very annoyed, tobacco farmers would have to plant other crops, and a few firms might go out of business, but there would be no additional impact.

In stark contrast, modern technology (the source of the humanmade electromagnetic fields discussed here) has fueled a remarkable degree of innovation, productivity, and improvement in the quality of life. If tomorrow the power grid went down, all cell phone networks would cease operation, millions of computers around the world wouldn’t turn on, and the night would be illuminated only by candlelight and the moon—we’d have a lot less EMF exposure, but at the cost of the complete collapse of modern society.

EMF isn’t just a by-product of modern society. EMF, and our ability to harness it for technological purposes, is the cornerstone of modern society. Sanitation, food production and storage, health care—these are just some of the essential social systems that rely on power and wireless communication. We have evolved a society that is fundamentally reliant upon a set of technologies that generate forms and levels of electromagnetic radiation not seen on this planet prior to the 19th century.

As a result of the central role these devices play in modern life, individuals are understandably predisposed to resist information that may challenge the safety of activities that result in EMF exposures. People simply cannot bear the thought of restricting their time with— much less giving up—these beloved gadgets. This gives industry a huge advantage because there is a large segment of the public that would rather not know.


My message is not to abandon gadgets—like most people, I too love and utilize EMF-generating gadgets. Instead, I want you to realize that EMF poses a real risk to living creatures and that industrial and product safety standards must and can be reconsidered. The solutions I suggest are not prohibitive. I recommend that as individuals we adopt the notion of “prudent avoidance,” minimizing our personal EMF exposure and maximizing the distance between us and EMF sources when those devices are in use. Just as you use a car with seat belts and air bags to increase the safety of the inherently dangerous activity of driving your car at a relatively high speed, you should consider similar risk-mitigating techniques for your personal EMF exposure.

On a broader social level, adoption of the Precautionary Principle in establishing new, biologically based safety standards for EMF exposure for the general public would be, I believe, the best approach. Just as the United States became the first nation in the world to regulate the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) when science indicated the threat to earth’s ozone layer—long before there was definitive proof of such a link—our governments should respond to the significant public health threat of EMF exposure. If EMF levels were regulated just as automobile carbon emissions are regulated, this would force manufacturers to design, create, and sell devices that generate much lower levels of EMF.

No one wants to return to the dark ages, but there are smarter and safer ways to approach our relationship—as individuals and across society—with the technology that exposes us to electromagnetic radiation.

Dr. Martin Blank is an expert on the health-related effects of electromagnetic fields and has been studying the subject for more than thirty years. He earned his first PhD from Columbia University in physical chemistry and his second from the University of Cambridge in colloid science. From 1968 to 2011, he taught as an associate professor at Columbia University, where he now acts as a special lecturer. Dr. Blank has served as an invited expert regarding EMF safety for Canadian Parliament, for the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy (HNRE) in Vermont, and for Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court.