Over the last decade, cancer rates in western Turkey have been increasing. In 2011, the Turkish Ministry of Health began investigating whether environmental factors can explain the large number of cases. However, after the study’s conclusion in 2015, the government did not release the results. This led Turkish engineer and activist Bülent Şık, who organized part of the study, to publicize the findings in a popular newspaper in 2018. In response, on September 26, 2019, Şık was sentenced to 15 months in jail.
The goal of the study was to determine whether food and water in western Turkey contain any chemicals linked to cancer. Şık and his team found high levels of pesticides and so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the food and water samples they examined. PAHs are chemicals most commonly found in coal and tar deposits, with a long history of association with cancer. Since the 1700s, these chemicals have been linked repeatedly to skin, lung, bladder, stomach, and liver cancers. In addition, Şık’s team found poisonous metals like arsenic and lead in water from residential areas.
These results are highly concerning, made even worse by the fact that the Turkish government has not responded with any environmental action. Even after Şık published his article series, the government convicted him of disclosing confidential information, but strikingly, did not claim that his science was inaccurate — just that it should have been kept secret. Although Şık could have avoided jail time by apologizing for his actions, he refused under principles of scientific transparency and freedom of expression. As he serves his sentence, only time will tell if the government will remain silent, or finally address this emerging public health crisis.
Managing Correspondent: Isabella Grabski