The Making (and Unmaking) of Environmental Carcinogens, 1960–2000

  • Project Director

  • Angela N. Creager
  • Project Manager

  • Alison McManus

Professor Creager's current book project examines how environmental carcinogens became a category of science and regulation. By the late 1960s, scientists understood cancer as resulting from genetic damage, mutations, caused by environmental agents. As a result, the US government began regarding cancer from chemicals as a key public health problem. However, efforts to address cancer by regulating industrial chemicals decreased by the 1980s, as both scientific research and public policy shifted towards attributing human cancer to lifestyle (especially diet and smoking). In addition, the Human Genome Project, launched in 1987, drew attention to the hereditary determinants of cancer, i.e., family histories and genetic predisposition. This shift was simultaneously scientific and political, informed by trends in cancer biology on the one hand and deregulation under Ronald Reagan on the other. Preliminary work with Google Ngrams on terms such as “carcinogen,” “mutagen,” “environmental carcinogen,” and “cancer gene” showed a striking increase of the first three terms from the 1960s until usage peaked in the early 1980s, followed by a decline in those terms and a coincident increase in the frequency of “cancer gene.”

The goal of this dataset curation project is to confirm or disaggregate this apparent shift to discern significant differences among academic scientists, industry leaders, politicians, government officials, and journalists in how environmental carcinogens were discussed and to track changes in cancer research, government policy, and public understanding. The project team intends to develop several datasets that are foundational to these historical questions by extracting and structuring information from scientific journals, popular science publications, and government documents.

CDH Grant History

  • 2019–2020 Dataset Curation