Fact Checked: The Industrial Revolution Isn’t The Problem (We’re actually living longer)

The Claim by Chris Wark:

Even though cancer is not a singular disease, there is a singular point in history where the incidence of cancer began to snowball: the Industrial Revolution.   Factories were built to mass-produce everything: fossil fuels, building materials, textiles, furniture, food,chemicals, and all sorts of exciting innovations.  The Industrial Revolution paves the way for all the modern conveniences we enjoy today, including electricity, cars, planes, computers, and smart phones, but it also produced an unfortunate by-product: industrial pollution. [1]

Chris then spends the rest of the chapter detailing cancers he alleges are caused by industrial pollution in order to validate his claim.


The Industrial Revolution also paved the way for an incredible boom in medical advances unlike anything we have seen before.  New antibiotics Penicillin in 1939 , chloramphenicol in 1947, tetracycline in 1948, streptomycin.

“New drugs appeared at an astonishing rate: by 1950, more than half the medicines in common medical use had been unknown merely a decade earlier.

Perhaps even more significant than these miracle drugs, shifts in public health and hygiene also drastically altered the national physiognomy of illness. Typhoid fever, a contagion whose deadly swirl could decimate entire districts in weeks, melted away as the putrid water supplies of several cities were cleansed by massive municipal efforts.  Even tuberculosis, the infamous “white plague” of the nineteenth century, was vanishing, its incidence plummeting by more than half between 1910 and 1940, largely due to better sanitation and public hygiene efforts. The life expectancy of Americans rose from forty-seven to sixty-eight in half a century, a greater leap in longevity than had been achieved over several previous centuries.” [2]

“Cancer had certainly been present and noticeable in nineteenth-century America, but it had largely lurked in the shadow of vastly more common illnesses.  In 1899, when Roswell Park, a well-known Buffalo surgeon, had argued that cancer would someday overtake smallpox, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis to become the leading cause of death in the nation, his remarks had been perceived as a rather “startling prophecy”, the hyperbolic speculations of a man who, after all, spent his days and nights operating on cancer.  But by the end of the decade, Park’s remarks were becoming less and less startling, and more and more prophetic day by day. Typhoid, aside from a few scattered outbreaks, was becoming increasingly rare.  Smallpox was on the decline; by 1949, it would disappear from America altogether.  Meanwhile cancer was already outgrowing other diseases, ratcheting its way up the ladder of killers.  Between 1900 and 1916, cancer-related mortality grew by 29.8 percent, edging out tuberculosis as a cause of death. By 1926, cancer had become the nation’s second most common killer, just behind heart disease. [3]

“Civilization did not cause cancer,” writes oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee in his book, The Emperor of All Maladies, “but by extending human life spans, civilization unveiled it.”

It was not the Industrial Revolution’s “pollution” that increased the incidences of cancer, it was because we are living longer.  Cancer is the disease of the elderly.

A good supplemental blog post to this is the post “Even Dinosaurs Got Cancer”.

[1] Chris Wark, “Chris Beat Cancer” book, page 24
[2] Siddhartha Mukherjee, “The Emperor of All Maladies”, page 22
[3]Siddhartha Mukherjee, “The Emperor of All Maladies”, page 24

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