Lois Swirsky Gold, expert on toxins and carcinogens, dies at 70

By Robert Sanders, UC Media Relations
Thursday June 14, 2012 - 03:58:00 PM
Lois Swirsky Gold, who directed the Carcinogenic Potency Project at UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab, died in May at the age of 70.
Lois Swirsky Gold, who directed the Carcinogenic Potency Project at UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab, died in May at the age of 70.

Lois Swirsky Gold, a political scientist who became a self-taught expert on the toxic and carcinogenic effects of chemicals, died May 16 at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, Calif., after a brief battle with cancer. Gold, a resident of Oakland, was 70. 

Gold teamed up with UC Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames in 1978 to create a publicly accessible database of all the studies conducted around the world on how animals, primarily rats and mice, respond to chemicals. Such animal tests are required before most chemicals can be used in drugs, cosmetics or products to which humans are exposed. 

“It wasn’t long before she was running the project and has until now,” Ames wrote in remarks for Gold’s funeral. “The database is used by every regulatory agency in the world and is consulted by the toxicology community all of the time. Lois became known as the world’s expert on the potency of rodent carcinogens.” 

Gold directed the Carcinogenic Potency Project for more than 30 years from its base at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She published more than 100 papers with Ames and others and two books addressing analyses of animal cancer tests, the methodology of cancer risk assessment and implications for cancer prevention and regulatory policy. Her 2002 book, “Misconceptions About the Causes of Cancer,” written with Ames, provided a broad perspective on possible cancer hazards from human exposures to chemicals that cause cancer in rodent tests. 

Debate over pesticide residues on food

One of her and Ames’ main arguments was that animal cancer tests have been misinterpreted by the public and many scientists, who have vilified manmade chemicals and downplayed the toxicity of many naturally occurring chemicals. Ames often defended the small quantities of pesticide residue allowed on crops, because tests have shown that they are less carcinogenic in small doses than some of the chemicals in the food. 

“By targeting pesticide residues as a major problem, we risk making fruits and vegetables more expensive and indirectly increasing cancer risks, especially among the poor,” Gold said in 1997. 

“In trying to put risk in perspective, we got involved in a large number of controversies with chemical companies, regulators, environmentalists and scientists who draw wrong conclusions by giving huge levels of chemicals daily to rodents,” Ames noted. “I think we won the scientific battles, but judging by the popularity of organic food and fear of trivial amounts of pesticides and synthetic chemicals, we lost the PR wars.” 

“I like to remember Lois as that bundle of energy ready to tackle some new controversy and determined to get the scholarship right,” he added. “Science and the public have lost an extraordinary scientist who instilled sanity in the controversy about trace chemical exposures.” 

Gold was particularly vocal about the dangers of some chemicals found in dietary supplements, and testified on the subject before the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. 

When Ames retired from UC Berkeley and moved to the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Center (CHORI), Gold moved with him, and retired from CHORI in 2008. 

“She really continued to work for free since then,” said her daughter, Jenny Gold. “She believed wholeheartedly in her scientific endeavors, and wanted to continue her database for as long as possible.” 

From political science to toxicology

Lois Swirsky was born on Nov. 21, 1941, in Newark, N.J., and grew up in Maplewood, N.J. She earned her undergraduate degree from Goucher College in Maryland and a Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University, where she met her husband, Dr. Stuart M. Gold, who at the time was a resident in psychiatry. 

She and Stuart married in 1968 and moved to Berkeley, where he worked in UC Berkeley’s Student Health Center. Gold lectured for five years in the Department of Political Science and the Graduate School of Public Policy, then worked as a senior fellow with retired UC President Clark Kerr on the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Higher Education. 

In 1977, sparked by an article she saw in the paper about Ames’s work on the flame retardant TRIS, she walked into Ames’s office to discuss his research. 

“After about an hour of grilling from Lois about every aspect of flame retardants, flammability regulations, mutagenicity, carcinogenicity, skin absorption and dose calculations, I was exhausted,” Ames wrote. “I did have enough energy left, however, to hire her on the spot.” 

For her work on the Carcinogenic Potency Project, Gold received awards from the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and from the Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy. 

Gold also served on numerous national and local toxicology panels and boards. 

She is survived by daughters Alissa Gold of Albuquerque, N.M., and Jenny Gold of Washington, D.C. 

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