Anna Campbells father: I dont think I had any right to stop her fighting in Syria

Dirk Campbell was shocked when his 26-year-old daughter said she was going to join Kurdish forces in Syria. Following her death in action, he talks about her journey from idealist to freedom fighter

When Anna Campbell told her father of herplan to join Kurdish forces fighting Isis, hemade a joke that he will forever regret. It was May last year, and the 26-year-old had travelled from her home in Bristol to his, in Lewes, East Sussex, to break the news.

By then, I knew enough to know that it would imperil her life, says Dirk Campbell, 67, but all I could think of to say was: Well, Anna, its been nice knowing you. I think I was trying to be funny, but she just looked miffed. I think she wanted me to engage with it and either go, Oh, how wonderful, or to try to argue her out of it. But I sort of just accepted it. Tenmonths later, she is dead.

Anna Campbell died on 15 March when her position was struck by a Turkish missile as she and five other female soldiers helped to evacuate civilians from the besieged city of Afrin in northern Syria. She was one of eight British nationals killed fighting alongside the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) since the first foreign volunteers arrived in the autumn of 2014.

People have called Anna a hero and a martyr, her sister Sara says. But whats really difficult for the public to fathom is that she was also this big walking bundle of love: idealist, activist, dedicated bookworm, lover of insects, storyteller, creator of everlasting childhoods

Dirk Campbell: I was really proud of her. She was a 26-year-old woman. I had to trust her. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

Yet it was as a soldier that Anna died, a beaten-up AK-47 in her hand and a pair of old trainers on her feet. Having smuggled herself into Syria, after being recruited by Kurdish activists online, she had signed up with the Kurdish Womens Protection Units (YPJ) all-female affiliates of the YPG, a guerrilla group in which officers are elected by their troops.

She gave her life defending Kurdish-held territory from a Turkish invasion. Some might call it someone elses war. To Anna, her family says, it was personal.

It was almost as if she was searching for the perfect way of expressing all the values she held closest humanitarian, ecological, feminist and equal political representation, says Dirk. Those were the issues she came to dedicate her life to, and she came to the conclusion that Rojava was where she had to go.

This Kurdish stronghold in northern Syria is in the throes of revolution. Inspired by the ideology of Abdullah calan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, and triggered by 2011s Arab spring, people have organised themselves into grassroots assemblies and co-operatives, declaring their autonomy from the state and their wish for real democracy. Anti-capitalist, Marxist and feminist ideas are flourishing, including a system of co-presidentship whereby a man and a woman share power at every level.

We were shocked when she told us she was going there, says Dirk, a silver-haired man with a warm smile. But we werent surprised.

Anna was 11 when Dirk realised there was something different about her. It seems a small thing, but Iremember when she was at school she protected a bumblebee from being tormented by other kids, he says. She did it with such strength of will that they ridiculed her. But she didnt care. She was absolutely single-minded when it came to whatshe believed in.

We are sitting in the living room ofDirks flat, where three of Annas five sisters and her brother have gathered to support their dad. Sophia, at 28 the eldest sister, brings tea. A gallery of obscure musical instruments hang along the wall, all of which Dirk, a folk musician and composer who was a member of the seminal prog band Egg, can play. Books on ecology, veganism, philosophy and politics some Kurdish line the bookshelf.

The Campbell household was one where politics was always discussed. Her mother Adrienne and I were once arrested for staging a sit-in in Boots after they moved the HQ to a Swiss tax haven, Dirk chuckles.

Most of her early interest in activism came from Adrienne, he says. I remember in 2011, they went to a demonstration at the Houses of Parliament to commemorate the first Suffragette protest. They stormed the Houses of Parliament in Edwardian clothes.

But really, friends say, it was when Anna went to university in Sheffield to study English and French that those seeds of political activism began to sprout. The coalition had just started and the government began introducing cuts and increasing fees, recalls one friend, who prefers not to be named. It was a big thing and there were student occupations all over the country.

She was soon reading less of her beloved English classics in favour of books about anarchism, feminism and ecology. She became vegan and dropped out of university after her first year because, as Dirk puts it, she was much more interested in doing what she was passionate about.

Anna with her mother Adrienne, who died from cancer in 2012. Photograph: Family handout

That same year, 2012, Adrienne died of breast cancer four years after being diagnosed. Anna, then 21, threw herself deeper into the life she had chosen. She had started training as a plumber, but was increasingly drawn to anti-fascist, animal and human rights protests across Europe. She became an anarchist, too, and had the letters ACAB (standing for the punk-era slogan All coppers are bastards) tattooed on her ribcage. She was one of the first people to go into the Jungle in Calais to protect refugees from the gendarmes, says Dirk. She wrote letters to prisoners. She gave blood, was a hunt saboteur, protested the Dale Farm eviction and would always rope me into playing the Highland bagpipes at prison demos.

In 2015, she was beaten unconscious at an anti-fascist march. She told me a woman had been dragged into the crowd by some fascists and no one was helping her, recalls sister Rose, 24. So Anna covered her face so they wouldnt know she was female and ran in head first after this woman. The fascists beat her to the ground with sticks until a policeman dragged her off.

By the summer of 2017, her attentions had turned towards the Middle East, where the war in Syria was entering a bloody new phase. The YPG/J, backed by US airstrikes, had all but flushed Isis from large swaths of Syrias north. But, with the jihadi group now on the run, Turkey saw an opportunity to finally cleanse its borderlands of the Kurdish forces and their revolution. Ankara has long-argued that the YPG/J is linked to its own insurgent group, the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK). The US and EU, however, do not consider the YPG terrorists, and have supported them since 2014.

With the Kurds fight for existence now on two fronts, Annas mind was made up. She didnt tell her friends of her plans, just her family. She made them promise not to tell a soul. Of course, I was seriously worried, says Dirk. Then, the day that she flew out, the Turks bombed a YPJ position and killed 12 women. Ipanicked.

Over the months, Anna stayed inregular touch, sending texts, WhatsApp voice messages and the odd call when she could. The thing is, whenever Anna called, she gave us a false sense of security, says Dirk. Every time she would say: Hiya, everythings fine. Im just growing vegetables, sitting at a lookout post. Im not in any fighting. Its all a bit boring, really. We thought she wasnt actually in any danger, and that she was coming back in a few months.

What he didnt know was that she had, in fact, been deployed to Dier ez-Zor, the stage for Isiss bitter last stand. I think if I had known that she was facing lethal fire I would not have been able to sleep, says Dirk. I would have tried to get there, to be with her. After all, whos going to fire on an unarmed white-haired old man?

Then, on 20 January, Turkish-backed rebels attacked the Kurdish city of Afrin. It was like nothing Id ever seen, another British YPJ fighter, who asked to be known only by her nom de guerre, Ruken Renas, told me from her frontline position last week. The bombing was really heavy, especially just before the city fell. They hit the hospital; people were fleeing. It was chaos. Hundreds died.

Anna (on right) with a fellow YPJ fighter in northern Syria. Photograph: YPJ/PA

Nevertheless, Anna was determined to help defend the revolution she had joined. She dyed her blond hair black, and begged her commanders to let her go to Afrin. Finally, they gave in. Two weeks later, she was killed.

When Dirk thinks about the afternoon when Anna told him she was going to war, emotions conflict. I should have taken her far more seriously, he says. I should have got on the internet and looked up everything that was going on. I just didnt know enough about it. All I knew was that it was a war zone. Perhaps I could have stopped her.

He pauses for a moment. But, at the same time, I was really proud of her. I dont think I had any right to stop her. She was a 26-year-old woman. I had to trust her.

Of course, there is still the issue ofAnnas body. The Campbells want it back, but with Afrin now under Turkish control, they arent sure where to begin. Theyre not going to be putting bodies in a morgue waiting for someone to identify them, says Dirk. Theyve probably collected them all up, dumped them in a truck and buried them in a mass grave, which means that if shes going to be repatriated, itll depend on DNA evidence. That will take a very long time. There will be a lot of bodies to examine.

In the meantime, he will commemorate his daughter by continuing her fight. I would be betraying Annas memory if I didnt do everything in my power to bring the Kurds plight to the attention of the world. Something must be done. And it needs to be done now, before anyone elses children are killed.

Read more:

Yes, bacon really is killing us

The long read: Decades of research proves that chemicals used to make bacon do cause cancer. So how did the meat industry convince us it was safe?

There was a little cafe I used to go to that did the best bacon sandwiches. They came in a soft and pillowy white bap. The bacon, thick-cut from a local butcher, was midway between crispy and chewy. Ketchup and HP sauce were served in miniature jars with the sandwich, so you could dab on the exact amount you liked. That was all there was to it: just bread and bacon and sauce. Eating one of these sandwiches, as I did every few weeks, with a cup of strong coffee, felt like an uncomplicated pleasure.

And then, all of a sudden, the bacon sandwich stopped being quite so comforting. For a few weeks in October 2015, half the people I knew were talking about the news that eating bacon was now a proven cause of cancer. You couldnt miss the story: it was splashed large in every newspaper and all over the web. As one journalist wrote in Wired, Perhaps no two words together are more likely to set the internet aflame than BACON and CANCER. The BBC website announced, matter-of-factly, that Processed meats do cause cancer, while the Sun went with Banger out of Order and Killer in the Kitchen.

The source of the story was an announcement from the World Health Organization that processed meats were now classified as a group 1 carcinogen, meaning scientists were certain that there was sufficient evidence that they caused cancer, particularly colon cancer. The warning applied not just to British bacon but to Italian salami, Spanish chorizo, German bratwurst and myriad other foods.

Health scares are ten-a-penny, but this one was very hard to ignore. The WHO announcement came on advice from 22 cancer experts from 10 countries, who reviewed more than 400 studies on processed meat covering epidemiological data from hundreds of thousands of people. It was now possible to say that eat less processed meat, much like eat more vegetables, had become one of the very few absolutely incontrovertible pieces of evidence-based diet advice not simply another high-profile nutrition fad. As every news report highlighted, processed meat was now in a group of 120 proven carcinogens, alongside alcohol, asbestos and tobacco leading to a great many headlines blaring that bacon was as deadly as smoking.

The WHO advised that consuming 50g of processed meat a day equivalent to just a couple of rashers of bacon or one hotdog would raise the risk of getting bowel cancer by 18% over a lifetime. (Eating larger amounts raises your risk more.) Learning that your own risk of cancer has increased from something like 5% to something like 6% may not be frightening enough to put you off bacon sandwiches for ever. But learning that consumption of processed meat causes an additional 34,000 worldwide cancer deaths a year is much more chilling. According to Cancer Research UK, if no one ate processed or red meat in Britain, there would be 8,800 fewer cases of cancer. (That is four times the number of people killed annually on Britains roads.)

The news felt especially shocking because both ham and bacon are quintessentially British foods. Nearly a quarter of the adult population in Britain eats a ham sandwich for lunch on any given day, according to data from 2012 gathered by researchers Luke Yates and Alan Warde. To many consumers, bacon is not just a food; it is a repository of childhood memories, a totem of home. Surveys indicate that the smell of frying bacon is one of our favourite scents in the UK, along with cut grass and fresh bread. To be told that bacon had given millions of people cancer was a bit like finding out your granny had been secretly sprinkling arsenic on your morning toast.

Vegetarians might point out that the bacon sandwich should never have been seen as comforting. It is certainly no comfort for the pigs, most of whom are kept in squalid, cramped conditions. But for the rest of us, it was alarming to be told that these beloved foods might be contributing to thousands of needless human deaths. In the weeks following news of the WHO report, sales of bacon and sausages fell dramatically. British supermarkets reported a 3m drop in sales in just a fortnight. (It was very detrimental, said Kirsty Adams, the product developer for meat at Marks and Spencer.)

But just when it looked as if this may be #Bacongeddon (one of many agonised bacon-related hashtags trending in October 2015), a second wave of stories flooded in. Their message was: panic over. For one thing, the analogy between bacon and smoking was misleading. Smoking tobacco and eating processed meat are both dangerous, but not on the same scale. To put it in context, around 86% of lung cancers are linked to smoking, whereas it seems that just 21% of bowel cancers can be attributed to eating processed or red meat. A few weeks after publishing the report, the WHO issued a clarification insisting it was not telling consumers to stop eating processed meat.

Meanwhile, the meat industry was busily insisting that there was nothing to see here. The North American Meat Institute, an industry lobby group, called the report dramatic and alarmist overreach. A whole tranche of articles insisted in a commonsense tone that it would be premature and foolish to ditch our meaty fry-ups just because of a little cancer scare.

Nearly three years on, it feels like business as usual for processed meats. Many of us seem to have got over our initial sense of alarm. Sales of bacon in the UK are buoyant, having risen 5% in the two years up to mid-2016. When I interviewed a product developer for Sainsburys supermarket last year, she said that one of the quickest ways to get British consumers to try a new product now was to add chorizo to it.

And yet the evidence linking bacon to cancer is stronger than ever. In January, a new large-scale study using data from 262,195 British women suggested that consuming just 9g of bacon a day less than a rasher could significantly raise the risk of developing breast cancer later in life. The studys lead author, Jill Pell from the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at Glasgow University, told me that while it can be counterproductive to push for total abstinence, the scientific evidence suggests it would be misleading for health authorities to set any safe dose for processed meat other than zero.

The real scandal of bacon, however, is that it didnt have to be anything like so damaging to our health. The part of the story we havent been told including by the WHO is that there were always other ways to manufacture these products that would make them significantly less carcinogenic. The fact that this is so little known is tribute to the power of the meat industry, which has for the past 40 years been engaged in a campaign of cover-ups and misdirection to rival the dirty tricks of Big Tobacco.

How do you choose a pack of bacon in a shop, assuming you are a meat eater? First, you opt for either the crispy fat of streaky or the leanness of back. Then you decide between smoked or unsmoked each version has its passionate defenders (I am of the unsmoked persuasion). Maybe you seek out a packet made from free-range or organic meat, or maybe your budget is squeezed and you search for any bacon on special offer. Either way, before you put the pack in your basket, you have one last look, to check if the meat is pink enough.

Since we eat with our eyes, the main way we judge the quality of cured meats is pinkness. Yet it is this very colour that we should be suspicious of, as the French journalist Guillaume Coudray explains in a book published in France last year called Cochonneries, a word that means both piggeries and rubbish or junk food. The subtitle is How Charcuterie Became a Poison. Cochonneries reads like a crime novel, in which the processed meat industry is the perpetrator and ordinary consumers are the victims.

The pinkness of bacon or cooked ham, or salami is a sign that it has been treated with chemicals, more specifically with nitrates and nitrites. It is the use of these chemicals that is widely believed to be the reason why processed meat is much more carcinogenic than unprocessed meat. Coudray argues that we should speak not of processed meat but nitro-meat.

Prosciutto di Parma has been produced without nitrates since 1993. Photograph: Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

Pure insane crazy madness is how Coudray described the continuing use of nitrates and nitrites in processed meats, in an email to me. The madness, in his view, is that it is possible to make bacon and ham in ways that would be less carcinogenic. The most basic way to cure any meat is to salt it either with a dry salt rub or a wet brine and to wait for time to do the rest. Coudray notes that ham and bacon manufacturers claim this old-fashioned way of curing isnt safe. But the real reason they reject it is cost: it takes much longer for processed meats to develop their flavour this way, which cuts into profits.

There is much confusion about what processed meat actually means, a confusion encouraged by the bacon industry, which benefits from us thinking there is no difference between a freshly minced lamb kofta and a pizza smothered in nitrate-cured pepperoni. Technically, processed meat means pork or beef that has been salted and cured, with or without smoking. A fresh pound of beef mince isnt processed. A hard stick of cured salami is.

The health risk of bacon is largely to do with two food additives: potassium nitrate (also known as saltpetre) and sodium nitrite. It is these that give salamis, bacons and cooked hams their alluring pink colour. Saltpetre sometimes called sal prunella has been used in some recipes for salted meats since ancient times. As Jane Grigson explains in Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, saltpetre was traditionally used when brining hams to give them an attractive rosy appearance when otherwise it would be a murky greyish brown.

In earlier centuries, bacon-makers who used saltpetre did not understand that it converts to nitrite as the meat cures. It is this nitrite that allows the bacteria responsible for cured flavour to emerge quicker, by inhibiting the growth of other bacteria. But in the early 20th century, the meat industry found that the production of cured meats could be streamlined by adding sodium nitrite to the pork in pure form. In trade journals of the 1960s, the firms who sold nitrite powders to ham-makers spoke quite openly about how the main advantage was to increase profit margins by speeding up production. One French brand of sodium nitrite from the 60s was called Vitorose or quick-pink.

Nitro-chemicals have been less of a boon to consumers. In and of themselves, these chemicals are not carcinogenic. After all, nitrate is naturally present in many green vegetables, including celery and spinach, something that bacon manufacturers often jubilantly point out. As one British bacon-maker told me, Theres nitrate in lettuce and no one is telling us not to eat that!

But something different happens when nitrates are used in meat processing. When nitrates interact with certain components in red meat (haem iron, amines and amides), they form N-nitroso compounds, which cause cancer. The best known of these compounds is nitrosamine. This, as Guillaume Coudray explained to me in an email, is known to be carcinogenic even at a very low dose. Any time someone eats bacon, ham or other processed meat, their gut receives a dose of nitrosamines, which damage the cells in the lining of the bowel, and can lead to cancer.

You would not know it from the way bacon is sold, but scientists have known nitrosamines are carcinogenic for a very long time. More than 60 years ago, in 1956, two British researchers called Peter Magee and John Barnes found that when rats were fed dimethyl nitrosamine, they developed malignant liver tumours. By the 1970s, animal studies showed that small, repeated doses of nitrosamines and nitrosamides exactly the kind of regular dose a person might have when eating a daily breakfast of bacon were found to cause tumours in many organs including the liver, stomach, oesophagus, intestines, bladder, brain, lungs and kidneys.

Just because something is a carcinogen in rats and other mammals does not mean it will cause cancer in humans, but as far back as 1976, cancer scientist William Lijinsky argued that we must assume that these N-nitroso compounds found in meats such as bacon were also carcinogens for man. In the years since, researchers have gathered a massive body of evidence to lend weight to that assumption. In 1994, to take just one paper among hundreds on nitrosamines and cancer, two American epidemiologists found that eating hotdogs one or more times a week was associated with higher rates of childhood brain cancer, particularly for children who also had few vitamins in their diets.

In 1993, Parma ham producers in Italy made a collective decision to remove nitrates from their products and revert to using only salt, as in the old days. For the past 25 years, no nitrates or nitrites have been used in any Prosciutto di Parma. Even without nitrate or nitrite, the Parma ham stays a deep rosy-pink colour. We now know that the colour in Parma ham is totally harmless, a result of the enzyme reactions during the hams 18-month ageing process.

Slow-cured, nitrate-free, artisan hams are one thing, but what about mass-market meats? Eighteen months would be a long time to wait on hotdogs, as the food science expert Harold McGee comments. But there have always been recipes for nitrate-free bacon using nothing but salt and herbs. John Gower of Quiet Waters Farm, a pork producer who advises many British manufacturers of cured meats, confirms that nitrate is not a necessary ingredient in bacon: Its generally accepted that solid muscle products, as opposed to chopped meat products like salami, dont require the addition of nitrate for safety reasons.

Bacon is proof, if it were needed, that we cling to old comforts long after they have been proven harmful. The attachment of producers to nitrates in bacon is mostly cultural, says Gower. Bacon cured by traditional methods without nitrates and nitrites will lack what Gower calls that hard-to-define tang, that delicious almost metallic taste that makes bacon taste of bacon to British consumers. Bacon without nitrates, says Gower, is nothing but salt pork.

Given the harm of nitro-meat has been known for so long, the obvious question is why more has not been done to protect us from it. Corinna Hawkes, a professor of Food Policy at City University in London, has been predicting for years that processed meats will be the next sugar a food so harmful that there will be demands for government agencies to step in and protect us. Some day soon, Hawkes believes, consumers will finally wake up to the clear links between cancer and processed meat and say Why didnt someone tell me about this?

The most amazing thing about the bacon panic of 2015 was that it took so long for official public health advice to turn against processed meat. It could have happened 40 years earlier. The only time that the processed meat industry has looked seriously vulnerable was during the 1970s, a decade that saw the so-called war on nitrates in the US. In an era of Ralph Nader-style consumer activism, there was a gathering mood in favour of protecting shoppers against bacon which one prominent public health scientist called the most dangerous food in the supermarket. In 1973, Leo Freedman, the chief toxicologist of the US Food and Drug Administration, confirmed to the New York Times that nitrosamines are a carcinogen for humans although he also mentioned that he liked bacon as well as anybody.

The US meat industry realised it had to act fast to protect bacon against the cancer charge. The first attempts to fight back were simply to ridicule the scientists for over-reacting. In a 1975 article titled Factual look at bacon scare, Farmers Weekly insisted that a medium-weight man would have to consume more than 11 tonnes of bacon every single day to run the faintest risk of cancer. This was an outrageous fabrication.

But soon the meat lobby came up with a cleverer form of diversion. The AMI the American Meat Institute started to make the argument that the nitrate was only there for the consumers own safety, to ward off botulism a potentially fatal toxin sometimes produced by poorly preserved foods. The scientific director of the AMI argued that a single cup of botulism would be enough to wipe out every human on the planet. So, far from harming lives, bacon was actually saving them.

In 1977, the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture gave the meat industry three months to prove that nitrate and nitrite in bacon caused no harm. Without a satisfactory response, Coudray writes, these additives would have to be replaced 36 months later with non-carcinogenic methods. The meat industry could not prove that nitrosamines were not carcinogenic because it was already known that they were. Instead, the argument was made that nitrates and nitrites were utterly essential for the making of bacon, because without them bacon would cause thousands of deaths from botulism. In 1978, in response to the FDAs challenge, Richard Lyng, director of the AMI, argued that nitrites are to processed meat as yeast is to bread.

The meat industrys tactics in defending bacon have been right out of the tobacco industrys playbook, according to Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University. The first move is: attack the science. By the 1980s, the AMI was financing a group of scientists based at the University of Wisconsin. These meat researchers published a stream of articles casting doubt on the harmfulness of nitrates and exaggerating the risk from botulism of non-nitrated hams.

Does making ham without nitrite lead to botulism? If so, it is a little strange that in the 25 years that Parma ham has been made without nitrites, there has not been a single case of botulism associated with it. Almost all the cases of botulism from preserved food which are extremely rare have been the result of imperfectly preserved vegetables, such as bottled green beans, peas and mushrooms. The botulism argument was a smokescreen. The more that consumers could be made to feel that the harmfulness of nitrate and nitrite in bacon and ham was still a matter of debate, the more they could be encouraged to calm down and keep buying bacon.

A bacon sandwich at a diner in Michigan. Photograph: Molly Riley/Reuters

The botulism pretext was very effective. The AMI managed to get the FDA to keep delaying its three-month ultimatum on nitrites until a new FDA commissioner was appointed in 1980 one more sympathetic to hotdogs. The nitrite ban was shelved. The only concession the industry had made was to limit the percentage of nitrites added to processed meat and to agree to add vitamin C, which would supposedly mitigate the formation of nitrosamines, although it does nothing to prevent the formation of another known carcinogen, nitrosyl-haem.

Over the years, the messages challenging the dangers of bacon have become ever more outlandish. An explainer article by the Meat Science and Muscle Biology lab at the University of Wisconsin argues that sodium nitrite is in fact critical for maintaining human health by controlling blood pressure, preventing memory loss, and accelerating wound healing. A French meat industry website,, argues that the use of the right dose of nitrites in ham guarantees healthy and safe products, and insists that ham is an excellent food for children.

The bacon lobby has also found surprising allies among the natural foods brigade. Type nitrate cancer bacon into Google, and you will find a number of healthy eating articles, some of them written by advocates of the Paleo diet, arguing that bacon is actually a much-maligned health food. The writers often mention that vegetables are the primary source of nitrates, and that human saliva is high in nitrite. One widely shared article claims that giving up bacon would be as absurd as attempting to stop swallowing. Out of the mass of stuff on the internet defending the healthiness of bacon, it can be hard to tell which writers have fallen under the sway of the meat lobby, and which are simply clueless nutrition experts who dont know any better.

Either way, this misinformation has the potential to make thousands of people unwell. The mystifying part is why the rest of us have been so willing to accept the cover-up.

Our deepening knowledge of its harm has done very little to damage the comforting cultural associations of bacon. While I was researching this article, I felt a rising disgust at the repeated dishonesty of the processed meat industry. I thought about hospital wards and the horrible pain and indignity of bowel cancer. But then I remembered being in the kitchen with my father as a child on a Sunday morning, watching him fry bacon. When all the bacon was cooked, he would take a few squares of bread and fry them in the meaty fat until they had soaked up all its goodness.

In theory, our habit of eating salted and cured meats should have died out as soon as home refrigerators became widespread in the mid-20th century. But tastes in food are seldom rational, and millions of us are still hooked on the salty, smoky, umami savour of sizzling bacon.

We are sentimental about bacon in a way we never were with cigarettes, and this stops us from thinking straight. The widespread willingness to forgive pink, nitrated bacon for causing cancer illustrates how torn we feel when something beloved in our culture is proven to be detrimental to health. Our brains cant cope with the horrid feeling that bacon is not what we thought it was, and so we turn our anger outwards to the health gurus warning us of its hazards. The reaction of many consumers to the WHO report of 2015 was: hands off my bacon!

In 2010, the EU considered banning the use of nitrates in organic meats. Perhaps surprisingly, the British organic bacon industry vigorously opposed the proposed nitrates ban. Richard Jacobs, the late chief executive of Organic Farmers & Growers, an industry body, said that prohibiting nitrate and nitrite would have meant the collapse of a growing market for organic bacon.

Organic bacon produced with nitrates sounds like a contradiction in terms, given that most consumers of organic food buy it out of concerns for food safety. Having gone to the trouble of rearing pigs using free-range methods and giving them only organic feed, why would you then cure the meat in ways that make it carcinogenic? In Denmark, all organic bacon is nitrate-free. But the UK organic industry insisted that British shoppers would be unlikely to accept bacon that was greyish.

Then again, the slowness of consumers to lose our faith in pink bacon may partly be a response to the confusing way that the health message has been communicated to us. When it comes to processed meat, we have been misled not just by wild exaggerations of the food industry but by the caution of science.

On the WHO website, the harmfulness of nitrite-treated meats is explained so opaquely you could miss it altogether. In the middle of a paragraph on what makes red meat and processed meat increase the risk of cancer, it says: For instance, carcinogenic chemicals that form during meat processing include N-nitroso compounds. What this means, in plain English, is that nitrites make bacon more carcinogenic. But instead of spelling this out, the WHO moves swiftly on to the question of how both red and processed meats might cause cancer, after adding that it is not yet fully understood how cancer risk is increased.

The typical British sausages does not fall into the processed meat category. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP

This caution has kept us as consumers unnecessarily in the dark. Consider sausages. For years, I believed that the unhealthiest part in a cooked English breakfast was the sausage, rather than the bacon. Before I started to research this article, Id have sworn that sausages fell squarely into the processed meat category. They are wrongly listed as such on the NHS website.

But the average British sausage as opposed to a hard sausage like a French saucisson is not cured, being made of nothing but fresh meat, breadcrumbs, herbs, salt and E223, a preservative that is non-carcinogenic. After much questioning, two expert spokespeople for the US National Cancer Institute confirmed to me that one might consider fresh sausages to be red meat and not processed meat, and thus only a probable carcinogen. (To me, the fact that most sausages are not processed meat was deeply cheering, and set me dancing around the kitchen with glee thinking about toad in the hole.)

In general, if you ask a cancer scientist to distinguish between the risks of eating different types of meat, they become understandably cagey. The two experts at the National Cancer Institute told me that meats containing nitrites and nitrates have consistently been associated with increased risk of colon cancer in human studies. But they added that it is difficult to separate nitrosamines from other possible carcinogens that may be present in processed meats like bacon. These other suspects include haem iron a substance that is abundant in all red meat, processed or not and heterocyclic amines: chemicals that form in meat during cooking. A piece of crispy, overcooked bacon will contain multiple carcinogens, and not all are due to the nitrates.

The problem with this reasoning, as I see it, is that it cant account for why processed meat is so much more closely linked to cancer than cooked red meat. For that, there remains no plausible explanation except for nitrates and nitrites. But looking for clear confirmation of this in the data is tricky, given that humans do not eat in labs under clinical observation.

Most of what we know about processed meat and cancer in humans comes from epidemiology the study of disease across whole populations. But epidemiologists do not ask the kind of detailed questions about food that the people who eat that food may like answers to. The epidemiological data based on surveys of what people eat is now devastatingly clear that diets high in processed meats lead to a higher incidence of cancer. But it cant tell us how or why or which meats are the best or worst. As Corinna Hawkes of City University comments, The researchers dont ask you if you are eating artisanal charcuterie from the local Italian deli or the cheapest hotdogs on the planet.

I would love to see data comparing the cancer risk of eating nitrate-free Parma ham with that of traditional bacon, but no epidemiologist has yet done such a study. The closest anyone has come was a French study from 2015, which found that consumption of nitrosylated haem iron as found in processed meats had a more direct association with colon cancer than the haem iron that is present in fresh red meat.

It may be possible that epidemiologists have not asked people more detailed questions about what kind of processed meats they eat because they assume there is no mass-market alternative to bacon made without nitrates or nitrites. But this is about to change.

The technology now exists to make the pink meats we love in a less damaging form, which raises the question of why the old kind is still so freely sold. Ever since the war on nitrates of the 1970s, US consumers have been more savvy about nitrates than those in Europe, and there is a lot of nitrate-free bacon on the market. The trouble, as Jill Pell remarks, is that most of the bacon labelled as nitrate-free in the US isnt nitrate-free. Its made with nitrates taken from celery extract, which may be natural, but produces exactly the same N-nitroso compounds in the meat. Under EU regulation, this bacon would not be allowed to be labelled nitrate-free.

Its the worst con Ive ever seen in my entire life, says Denis Lynn, the chair of Finnebrogue Artisan, a Northern Irish company that makes sausages for many UK supermarkets, including Marks & Spencer. For years, Lynn had been hoping to diversify into bacon and ham but, he says, I wasnt going to do it until we found a way to do it without nitrates.

When Lynn heard about a new process, developed in Spain, for making perfectly pink, nitrate-free bacon, he assumed it was another blind alley. In 2009, Juan de Dios Hernandez Canovas, a food scientist and the head of the food tech company Prosur, found that if he added certain fruit extracts to fresh pork, it stayed pink for a surprisingly long time.

In January 2018, Finnebrogue used this technology to launch genuinely nitrate-free bacon and ham in the UK. It is sold in Sainsburys and Waitrose as Naked Bacon and Naked Ham, and in M&S as nitrate-free bacon. Kirsty Adams, who oversaw its launch at M&S, explains that its not really cured. Its more like a fresh salted pork injected with a fruit and vegetable extract, and is more perishable than an old-fashioned flitch of bacon but that doesnt matter, given that it is kept in a fridge. Because it is quick to produce, this is much more economically viable to make than some of the other nitrate-free options, such as slow-cured Parma ham. The bacon currently sells in Waitrose for 3 a pack, which is not the cheapest, but not prohibitive either.

I tried some of the Finnebrogue nitrate-free bacon from M&S. The back bacon tasted pleasant and mild, with a slight fruitiness. It didnt have the toothsome texture or smoky depth of a rasher of butchers dry-cured bacon, but Id happily buy it again as an alternative to nitro-meat. None of my family noticed the difference in a spaghetti amatriciana.

Nitrate-free bacon still sounds a bit fancy and niche, but there shouldnt be anything niche about the desire to eat food that doesnt raise your risk of cancer. Lynn says that when he first approached Prosur about the fruit extract, he asked how much they had sold to the other big bacon manufacturers during the two years they had been offering it in the UK. The answer was none. None of the big guys wanted to take it, claims Lynn. They said: It will make our other processed meats look dodgy.

But it also remains to be seen how much consumer demand there will be for nitrate-free bacon. For all the noise about bacon and cancer, it isnt easy to disentangle at a personal level just what kind of risk we are at when we eat a bacon sandwich. OK, so 34,000 people may die each year because of processed meat in their diet, but the odds are that it wont be you. I asked a series of cancer scientists whether they personally ate processed meat, and they all gave slightly different answers. Jill Pell said she was mostly vegetarian and ate processed meats very rarely. But when I asked Fabrice Pierre, a French expert on colon cancer and meat, if he eats ham, he replied: Yes, of course. But with vegetables at the same meal. (Pierres research at the Toxalim lab has shown him that some of the carcinogenic effects of ham can be offset by eating vegetables.)

Our endless doubt and confusion about what we should be eating have been a gift to the bacon industry. The cover-up about the harm of meat cured with nitrate has been helped along by the scepticism many of us feel about all diet advice. At the height of the great bacon scare of 2015, lots of intelligent voices were saying that it was safe to ignore the new classification of processed meats as carcinogenic, because you cant trust anything these nutritionists say. Meanwhile, millions of consumers of ham and bacon, many of them children, are left unprotected. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this controversy is how little public outrage it has generated. Despite everything, most of us still treat bacon as a dear old friend.

In an ideal world, we would all we eating diets lower in meat, processed or otherwise, for the sake of sustainability and animal welfare as much as health. But in the world we actually live in, processed meats are still a normal, staple protein for millions of people who cant afford to swap a value pack of frying bacon for a few slivers of Prosciutto di Parma. Around half of all meat eaten in developed countries is now processed, according to researcher John Kearney, making it a far more universal habit than smoking.

The real victims in all this are not people like me who enjoy the occasional bacon-on-sourdough in a hipster cafe. The people who will be worst affected are those many on low incomes for whom the cancer risk from bacon is compounded by other risk factors such as eating low-fibre diets with few vegetables or wholegrains. In his book, Coudray points out that in coming years, millions more poor consumers will be affected by preventable colon cancer, as westernised processed meats conquer the developing world.

Last month, Michele Rivasi, a French MEP, launched a campaign in collaboration with Coudray demanding a ban of nitrites from all meat products across Europe. Given how vigorously the bacon industry has fought its corner thus far, a total ban on nitrites looks unlikely.

But there are other things that could be done about the risk of nitrites in bacon, short of an absolute veto. Better information would be a start. As Corinna Hawkes points out, it is surprising that there hasnt been more of an effort from government to inform people about the risks of eating ham and bacon, perhaps through warning labels on processed meats. But where is the British politician brave enough to cast doubt on bacon?

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

Read more:

Google search results for abortion services promote anti-abortion centers

When users seek facilities for the procedure, Google Maps often presents crisis pregnancy centers that discourage abortions

Google search results for abortion services promote anti-abortion centers

When users seek facilities for the procedure, Google Maps often presents crisis pregnancy centers that discourage abortions

Read more:

Christmas after a hurricane: ‘We still must celebrate the holidays’

Residents in Puerto Rico and the Virgin islands, Houston and the Florida Keys talk about this years challenges shelter, electricity and good cheer to make the best of the holidays

For seven weeks in autumn, images of homes in ruins, trees stripped bare and people wading through floodwaters dominated the news as hurricanes devastated the American south and Caribbean.

The US had never been hit in one hurricane season by storms as strong as Harvey, Irma and Maria, according to modern records, and the areas hit hardest by those intense storms are still far from recovery.

Quick guide

How can I help hurricane victims?

In all the affected regions, local nonprofits and churches continue to collect donations to aid in recovery efforts.

People donated $1m to the United Way in Florida Keys, including a person displaced by Harvey who sent $5 while still living in a shelter in Texas. The nonprofit disbursed much of the money to local charities that provide food, shelter and utilities to people hit hard by Irma including theFlorida Keys Children’s Shelter.

TheUnidos disaster relief and recovery programfor Puerto Rico has provided water filtration systems, medical support, meals, solar lamps, mosquito nets and other supplies to more than 500,000 Puerto Ricans. More than 175,000 people from all 50 US states and 23 countries donated to the group, which has delivered 3.4m lbs of food and water across the island.

In Houston, mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Ed Emmett have established theHurricane Harvey Relief Fund.

In Houston and the Florida Keys, thousands of people still dont have homes. In Puerto Rico, full electricity services have not been restored and those that have power know it can go out at any moment. At least 200 people were killed on the US mainland in the storms and the death toll in Puerto Rico is expected to be hundreds of people higher than the 64 reported by the islands government.

Other islands in the Caribbean were also badly hit.

These catastrophic events unleashed death and destruction but also an outpouring of support from people with no connection to the regions affected. As the holiday season approaches, nonprofits leading the recovery continue to see significant donations that will help provide food, water and shelter to those still in need.

Three months since the trio of storms unleashed life-threatening rain and winds, the Guardian spoke with people on the frontlines of the recovery.

A unique Christmas tree in Vega Alta. Photograph: Norbert Figueroa for the Guardian

Puerto Rico: Christmas lights brighten the dark

Residents like Jessica Fontnez are decorating their houses and powering them with the aid of portable gas-powered generators.

I debated whether to decorate or not since we have no power, but I got motivated to do it right after my nine-year-old daughter asked me, Mom, if we dont have a Christmas tree, where will Santa put all the presents? Now I just use the generator to turn it on for a few hours every day, said Fontnez, who lives in the Caguas municipality.

Fontnez has also moved her traditional Christmas dinner to lunchtime to reduce the impact on her generator.

Play Video

‘Some dont have bodies to bury: My journey back to Dominica after the hurricane – video

At least 100,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island but the 3.3 million who remain have adapted their lives, and now Christmas traditions, to the limits imposed by the storm. Christmas specialities like roasted pork, pasteles and Ron Caita are only available at premium prices and traditionally festive city squares are withholding Christmas decorations because government funds are supporting recovery efforts. The darkness has also inspired debates about decorating with Christmas lights.

In the Vega Alta municipality, the local government did not have money to use on Christmas decorations so it transformed wooden scraps, metal panels and other debris into Christmas trees, ornaments, traditional miniature homes, and cheerful boards. A dead white indigo berry tree that toppled during the storm was placed in the center of the square.

Quick guide

Tropical storm Harvey and climate change

Is there a link between the storm and climate change?

Almost certainly, according to astatementissued by the World Meteorological Organization on Tuesday. Climate change means that when we do have an event like Harvey, the rainfall amounts are likely to be higher than they would have been otherwise, the UN organisations spokeswoman Clare Nullis told a conference. Nobody is arguing that climate change caused the storm, but it is likely to have made it much worse.

How did it make it worse?

Warmer seas evaporate more quickly. Warmer air holds more water vapour. So, as temperatures rise around the world, the skies store more moisture and dump it more intensely. The US National Weather Service has had to introduce a new colour on its graphs to deal with the volume of precipitation. Harvey surpassed the previous US record for rainfall from a tropical system, as 49.2 inches was recorded at Marys Creek at Winding Road in Southeast Houston, at 9.20am on Tuesday.

Is this speculation or science?

There is a proven link known as theClausius-Clapeyron equation that shows that for every half a degree celsius in warming, there is about a 3% increase in atmospheric moisture content. This was a factor in Texas. The surface temperature in the Gulf of Mexico is currently more than half a degree celsius higher than the recent late summer average, which is in turn more than half a degree higher than 30 years ago,accordingtoMichael Mannof Penn State University. As a result there was more potential for a deluge.

Are there other links between Harvey and climate change?

Yes, the storm surge was greater because sea levels have risen 20cm as a result of more than 100 years of human-related global warming. This has melted glaciers and thermally expanded the volume of seawater.

Its free, natural, and local. It looks like a corpse, but what can we do, said Juan Negrn, a resident of Vega Alta who helped deliver the tree to the square. Negrn smiled as he explained how this Christmas reminds him of his childhood holidays in the 1960s, when a small white indigo berry tree, or Tintillo as its known locally, would be decorated like a Christmas tree.

Technologically, weve gone over 15 years back in time after the hurricane. This tree represents that. Still, we must celebrate the holidays; its a tradition we must not lose. We cant stop celebrating because of these natural occurrences, said Negron.

The dead white indigo berry tree in Vega Alta. Photograph: Norbert Figueroa for the Guardian

Three months after Hurricane Maria carved a trail of destruction across Puerto Rico, the island remains cloaked in darkness, with electricity services not expected to be restored until early next year. People there are living in a lingering disaster zone, with acts of daily life defined by the recovery: food cant be stored in refrigerators, traffic lights dont work in many places and restaurants, malls and bars remain shuttered.

Many Puerto Ricans have questioned the sensibility of adding unnecessary energy consumption to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa), especially when so many people still dont have reliable access to a generator, or the money to pay for one.

Prepas director of occupational safety and health, Shehaly Rosado Flores, said extra energy consumption generated by Christmas decorations does not affect their efforts to restore power across the island.

The US Army Corp of Engineers estimated that power would not fully be restored to Puerto Rico until the end of May a full eight months since Maria hit. The most remote areas will likely be the last to have power restored.

There is not enough you can say about the need for electricity. You cant operate society without it, said Jos Caldern, president of the Hispanic Federation, which created the Unidos disaster relief and recovery program for Puerto Rico.

Unidos has provided water filtration systems, medical support, meals, solar lamps, mosquito nets and other supplies to more than 500,000 Puerto Ricans. More than 175,000 from all 50 states and 23 countries donated to the group, which has delivered 3.4mn lbs of food and water across the island.

Caldern said he was uplifted by how many people donated, including people who have no connection to the island and children as young as three and four who he said had sent their allowance. But, three months on from Maria, he is still frustrated by the federal governments response. Caldern said: It is actually criminal what our federal government has done in Puerto Rico.

Houston, Texas: All I want for Christmas is housing

Electricity returned to Houston days after Hurricane Harvey hit, but cheer was still in short supply when two-dozen Houstonians rallied outside City Hall in mid-December to sing a festive song with a twist: All I want for Christmas is housing.

Christmas Day marks exactly four months since Hurricane Harvey made landfall about 200 miles south-west of Houston, dropping 50-odd inches of rain over parts of southeast Texas and causing widespread flooding.

Across the state about 900,000 people applied for federal assistance. Tens of thousands of people in Houston were forced out of their homes. While life is back to normal in much of the area, plenty of properties remain unusable and many residents are still in hotels and other forms of temporary accommodation.

People make their way onto an I-610 overpass after being rescued from flooded homes during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on 27 August 2017 in Houston, Texas. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas Babineaux and his wife, Julie, who have an 18-year-old son, were among those who gathered to call on the city council to distribute more federal relief money quickly to fund housing for low-income families.

They had hoped to move into an apartment in time for Christmas after spending a month in a hotel. They did not leave their home when it was flooded, he said, because they had nowhere else to go. But mould and mildew quickly grew and the couple developed respiratory problems.

After losing all their possessions, it is hard to find money for presents. We had to start out fresh, said Julie, who has breast cancer. We cant really celebrate because weve got to find a way to get a place to stay.

Some displaced families discovered that moving out of flooded places created a new set of challenges. Elsa Bazaldua came to Houston after her apartment in the coastal town of Rockport, a three-hour drive away, was wrecked. But the home where she currently lives with her husband and four children, paying $650 a month in rent after signing a one-year lease, is poorly maintained and the cost of water is extortionate, she said, clutching a bill for $189. She is a cleaner, though not working at the moment, and her husband works in construction. I dont know if were even going to do Christmas this year, she said through a translator.

A home surrounded by floodwaters in Spring, Texas. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

Willie Fegans loves hosting her three daughters and grandchildren for Christmas dinner but this year she is skipping the family tradition. The apartment where she lived for three years with her husband flooded up to knee height and after a spell in a hotel a charity found them a unit at an apartment complex. But the 61-year-old does not feel safe. Im scared to stay there because every day theyre out there shooting, she said. I wont take my family there. Too much violence. I was at home cooking and I heard what I thought was two cars crashing, I went to the door and it was a dude shooting at another guy, he hit a sign and lost control.

They sleep on the floor because they are worried that a stray bullet might fly through the window and hit them while they are in bed, she said.

On Christmas Day, she added, Ill probably go to one of my daughters houses. Bullets dont have no name, dont have no eyes, my family could be there and they could be out there shooting and somebody in my family could get killed. I dont want to take that chance. I havent even thought about gifts for Christmas because Im too busy worrying about getting somewhere to live thats safe.

Festively decorated boats in Key West, Florida on 15 December 2017. Photograph: Carol Tedesco/AP

The Florida Keys: Christmas is more powerful this year

Hurricane Irma skirted Puerto Rico days before making landfall in Florida, where the Keys bared the brunt of the Category 4 hurricane destruction.

Tourist hotspot Key West emerged with minimal damage but three months out from the storm, other Keys islands are still recovering from the housing crisis the storm left behind.

Thousands were displaced from Big Pine Key, Cudjoe Key, Marathon and Ramrod Key where many people lived in mobile homes, houseboats or vulnerable homes that were not up to modern property codes. For some families its probably going to be a year before they are rebuilt, have a place again, said Bill Mann, co-ceo of the Florida Keys Childrens Shelter.

Mann said families are split because people have moved to the mainland, but have jobs in the keys or vice versa or are working more jobs to survive. Mann said one young boy the shelter assisted told them the one thing he wanted most for Christmas was to see his dad, a single father, more often because he is now working a second job.

Damaged homes in Cudjoe Key, Florida on 17 September 2017. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Floridians have donated many toys to the shelter so Mann expected the children the shelter helps will all have presents to open on Christmas day, but families still desperately need grocery gift cards and home improvement gift cards. And tourism, Mann said, because it is a foundation of the regions economy. Caribbean islands that suffered in the storm also rely on tourism and are encouraging people to visit to aid the recovery.

In Big Pine Key, the rebuilding effort is also coming from informal social media networks.

Herv Thomas, who has lived in Big Pine Key since 1998, created a Facebook group to help coordinate the communitys response to Irma. For Christmas, the group organized a surprise for 12 families, including 32 children, hit hard by the hurricane Santa Claus at their door in a fire truck, delivering presents donated by community members.

Last week, a woman who assists children in the domestic abuse system said she needed Christmas presents for seven children. Within three hours people had responded with donations, including paying for a meal for the caretaker.

You cant block good when its on its path, Thomas said.

His home was perfectly intact after the hurricane but just 100ft away, a neighbors home was completely destroyed. He said Big Pine Key looked like a warzone immediately after Irma and that feeling remains in some of the devastated homes.

There are fewer decorations around the Keys and fewer homes to fill with Christmas trees, but Thomas said he felt this Christmas was more powerful than in years past.

You can feel there is something, Thomas said. If I think about it I believe its maybe an answer to the strength of what we went through.

He continued to say Christmas provided some relief. You can drop everything and say its Christmas.

Play Video

‘I’ll be here until I die’: Florida Keys residents on life after Hurricane Irma

Read more:

One drug dealer, two corrupt cops and a risky FBI sting

The long read: Davon Mayer was a smalltime dealer in west Baltimore who made an illicit deal with local police. When they turned on him, he decided to get out but escaping that life would not prove as easy as falling into it

On a humid summer day in 2004, Davon Mayer stepped out of his house on Bennett Place in the heart of Baltimore. Sixteen years old, Davon was short, plump and baby-faced, still more of a kid than an adolescent. Like many other boys in his neighbourhood, he had long since stopped going to school and was dealing drugs full-time.

On any other day, Davon would have been busy by this hour, trading vials of crack for cash on the pavement, keeping an eye out for the police. But this morning, he was on his way to meet with a narcotics detective named William King. Weeks earlier, the detective had arrested Davon after catching him selling drugs. He had taken Davon to the police station and then let him go, asking that Davon call him. When Davon failed to call, King had paid him a visit to let him know he wasnt playing around.

As Davon walked to a nearby strip mall where King had arranged to meet, his mind was weighed down by anxiety. What could a city detective possibly want from a small-time drug dealer such as himself? The only answer Davon could think of was that King wanted him to become an informant. The more Davon dwelled on that possibility, the more panicked he got. Where he came from, there was nothing worse than helping the police. To snitch on fellow drug dealers was to invite death.

He got to the malls parking lot and saw Kings pickup truck. King was sitting behind the wheel, dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt. He asked Davon to get in the back seat and turned on the engine. I have been watching you, King said, as they drove around. I like the way you do business.

Growing up, Davons parents werent around much. His father, Marvin Bunk Nutter, spent much of his sons childhood in jail on robbery and murder charges. Davons mother, Tonya, spent some of those years in jail, too, for drug possession, and the rest on the streets, sustaining her crack addiction with prostitution. Davon reserved the word Ma for his grandmother, Norma, who had raised him, along with his sister and a cousin.

Norma was a small woman with a big presence, a matriarch to the entire block. She had fought her own battle with drug addiction when she was younger; at one point, her kids had been taken away by social services. When she finally overcame her addiction, she committed herself to discipline and order, toiling from morning till night to take care of her husband, a factory worker, and three grandkids. The entire block could be dirty and dishevelled but the front of 947 Bennett Place was always spick and span.

What Davon didnt know at the time was that Norma couldnt remain insulated from the world of drug dealing herself. Even though her husband earned enough for her to be able to feed and clothe the kids, she struggled to find the money to take care of their wants toys for Christmas, gifts on birthdays, an occasional afternoon out to the movies. And so she had to make a few bucks on her own. There were drug dealers in the neighbourhood who trusted Norma to keep their money safe for them, to provide a place where it wouldnt be stolen or discovered in a police raid. Dealers usually paid her a small amount for the service.

Davon Mayers old neighborhood in west Baltimore. Photograph: JM Giordano for the Guardian

Despite Normas best efforts, by the time Davon was about 11, he began to feel the pull of the drug business. He was growing more and more conscious of all the things he wanted that his grandmother couldnt give him. All the boys he knew in the neighbourhood seemed to own a pair of Nike Air Jordan sneakers, but not even in his wildest dreams could he ask Norma for the $100 it would cost to buy a pair.

Davon told a friend, AC, who worked for a dealer in west Baltimore, that he wanted to make some money. One morning, AC took Davon to see one of the dealers men, LJ, outside a row of apartment buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. Davon felt himself trembling a little as LJ looked him over from head to toe. Then he handed Davon a sandwich bag with 50 vials of crack, each capped with a purple top.

Davon slid the pack of vials into his pocket as LJ and AC walked off. He stood nervously in the fenced passageway leading to the door of the apartment building, wondering what he would do if the cops came. Minutes later, a young woman with a sickly pallor came out of the apartment building; recognising him right away as the seller, she asked him for a vial. After Davon had sold to her, he turned around to find a crowd of at least a dozen other buyers waiting on the sidewalk. The pack was gone within minutes.

LJ gave him another pack, which Davon dispensed with in short order. At the end of his first days work, Davon had $750 in dollar bills. It was more cash than he had seen before. He was allowed to keep $75. Walking back to Bennett Place, Davon felt a sense of exhilaration.

Over the summer, as Davons shoebox savings grew, he couldnt resist the Jordans, deluding himself that they would somehow escape notice at home. But one night, when he was sitting in the living room talking on the phone, his mother Tonya overheard him bragging about the sneakers.

Davon, where did you get these shoes from? Tonya asked him.

I got them from Bunk, he answered, without skipping a beat. His father had got out of jail the previous year, and came around every few days.

Tonya didnt believe him. She called Bunk, and he came over the next day to take the shoes away and give Davon a beating. He warned Davon to stay off the streets. But Davon was back on Pennsylvania Avenue the very next day. He was hooked on the money he was making. A few weeks later, he packed up his things and left home.

As he built up a reputation for hard work, Davons boss gave him more drugs to sell and his earnings went up to more than $500 a day. He had moved into the apartment building where hed been selling drugs, living with an addict named Lisa who let him stay in a spare bedroom in exchange for her daily fix of crack. At night, he would lie on the floor of his bare room, longing for the comfort of the bed he had left behind at Normas house. Sometimes, staring out of the window, he would feel so overcome by loneliness that he would break down and cry.

One afternoon in August 2000, Davon was caught selling drugs by police. He felt a tingle of excitement as he was marched into a police van. He would finally be able to brag about having been to jail. The price of this glory would be minimal, too: as a minor, he expected to be let off lightly.

Davon was released later that day, returning home with his mother. Over the next few days, he mulled over whether to return to Pennsylvania Avenue. He didnt want to go to prison and decided he was better off going to school, which was about to reopen after the summer break. He was also concerned about Norma, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

From the very first day of school, Davon felt a restlessness that quickly transformed into a yearning for his old life. At school, the popular kids were much better dressed than he was. The girls he liked paid him no attention. Davon felt he had taken a big step down in status.

Police on patrol in Baltimore. Photograph: Rob Carr/AP

Frustrated, he decided to dip his toe back into the drug business. After school let out in the afternoon, he would go over to a street three blocks from Bennett Place and hustle for a couple of hours before coming home. By the winter, he had saved enough money to buy his first car, an old Grand Marquis. He didnt want Tonya or Norma to see it, so he parked it a few blocks away and walked the rest of the way home.

Throughout the summer and autumn of 2001, Normas health worsened. She would spend most of her time in bed. One day in November, after Davon had started in 10th grade, he went into Normas bedroom to check on her. She looked like she was napping, but he touched her, and she was cold.

Two years later, Davon lost another family member, when his father was shot in a revenge killing. That night, for the first time in his life, Davon got drunk. Sitting by himself, he wept uncontrollably, although he would never quite understand why he felt so much grief over the loss of a father who had barely been present in his life.

By this point, Davon had long since quit school and his drug-dealing career was taking off. He had seen smalltime dealers in his neighbourhood remain stuck at the bottom of the pyramid, and he hustled day and night to move up. Once he realised there was more money to be made from selling heroin than crack, he branched out into a neighbourhood west of Bennett Place. He was making more than $1,500 a day.

When Davon was arrested and let off by the narcotics detective William King in the summer of 2004, he had no idea what King wanted. Now, weeks later, sitting in the back of Kings pickup truck, he silently took in Kings compliment on how he did business, trying to divine Kings intentions. He wasnt used to hearing praise from a cop.

Softly spoken and reserved, King did not have the kind of intimidating presence that some of his colleagues did. But after joining Baltimores narcotics squad in the late 1990s, he had quickly gained respect for his skill at cultivating informants and collecting intelligence. King usually worked with a partner named Antonio Murray, who was shorter and stockier in physique, and more aggressive. The duo were feared by drug dealers, who knew that King and Murray didnt mind bending the rules if it suited them.

After driving around for a few minutes, going nowhere in particular, King finally came to the point. If Davon could tell him where other dealers in the area were hiding their stash, he would raid them. So far, it sounded exactly like what Davon had been worrying about the detective wanted him to be an informant. But King went on. After the raids, he would turn only some of the confiscated drugs over to the authorities. The rest he would sell to Davon wholesale, at a price significantly lower than the market rate.

Davon studied Kings face in the rear view mirror. Was this a set up? He saw nothing in Kings expression to make him doubt that the proposition was serious. As the seconds passed, Davon was overcome with the giddy realisation that if this arrangement actually worked out, it could catapult him into the stratosphere of Baltimores drug trade.

Absolutely, Davon said finally. Absolutely.

A few days later, Davon got a phone call from King telling him to come to the parking lot of a McDonalds in east Baltimore. When Davon arrived, he recognised Kings black SUV. He had expected King to be alone but his partner, Murray, was in the car, too.

In the back of the truck were four or five boxes, filled with plastic bags of marijuana. There were four different grades, King told him, 5kg (12lb) in all. King wanted to know if Davon could take the marijuana and wholesale it.

Ive got to advertise it first, Davon said. Ill need a sample.

Davon left the parking lot with four Ziploc bags containing the different kinds of weed, and told King that he would call him. He met with a dealer in his neighbourhood, and they settled on a price of $12,000 for all of it. A couple of days later, the dealer brought the cash over to Davons house, handing it to him in the presence of Tonya, who had long given up on trying to stop her son from selling drugs.

Once again, Davon met King and Murray at the McDonalds. He had negotiated them down to a purchase price of $7,000 for the drugs. Davon transferred the boxes from the back of the SUV into his car, and drove out of the parking lot, experiencing a sense of security he had never imagined he would feel under the gaze of two police officers.

Davon Mayer between the business centre and the Rite Aid where he met Detective King for the first time. Photograph: JM Giordano for the Guardian

In the weeks following the marijuana deal, King began calling Davon every few days. They would meet at the Rite Aide parking lot, across from the western district police station. King would hand Davon whatever drugs he and Murray had confiscated typically crack or heroin, occasionally marijuana. Davon would take the drugs back to Bennett Place or Pennsylvania Avenue and offload them as quickly as he could.

Davon could usually guess who King and Murray had seized particular batches from. He had been in the business long enough to know which dealers were selling what line of vials the red tops, purple tops, green tops, blue tops. To reduce the risk of being linked to King and Murray, Davon would repackage the drugs before selling them.

Once the drugs were sold, he would text King to let him know that he was coming over to deliver the money. Within weeks, both of them had got so comfortable with the arrangement that there were times when they didnt even meet in person. Davon would simply walk over to the parking lot, get into the unlocked SUV and drop off money for King, or collect the drugs King had left for him while King worked his shift at the police station less than 200 yards away.

King was not a man of expensive tastes, but he was bad at managing his money. By the middle of 2004, even with the cash that was rolling in from the secret venture that he and Murray were running on the side, King fell behind on the monthly payment toward his SUV. By comparison, Davons finances were remarkably robust. He sensed an undertone of jealousy in the comments King made when he showed up wearing a new shirt or a new pair of shoes. Somebodys looking good these days, King would say.

Toward the end of the summer, King became desperate to make more money. He and Murray were not having as much luck as before in making seizures, as their raids had already put some smaller dealers, the softer targets, out of business. They began to turn up the heat on Davon, secretly keeping track of who he was meeting with. They often showed him pictures of dealers that they knew to be among his friends and associates.

Do you know this guy? King asked one day about a particular dealer.

Yeah, Davon answered uneasily.

Well, I want him, King said.

I cant help you with that, Davon replied.

Well, when they go down, youll go down with them. And we cant do nothing to help you, King told him.

Davon had entered into the partnership believing it was a deal between equals. The veiled threats from King broke that illusion. The difference between a drug dealer like himself and a pair of drug-dealing cops, he realised, was that they could operate with impunity where he couldnt. When King and Murray began actively targeting Davons friends in the drug world, he interpreted it as a warning.

Things were about to get worse. One autumn evening, police picked Davon up as part of a street sweep operation a few blocks from Bennett Place. He was taken to the western district police station, where he found himself in an interrogation room with King. The detective looked at him with an even gaze, as if he were facing a stranger.

You want to stop yourself from going down with the others? King asked. You will tell us who the bosses are. Tell us whos who here and whats going on.

I cant help you with that, Davon said.

Davon was released without charge, but Kings threat could not have been any clearer.

When he got home, Davon began looking for a way to overcome the sense of powerlessness he had experienced. Not long after, he looked up the website for the FBIs Baltimore field office. Over the following days, he called the number a few times but always hung up at the last minute, worried about the possible consequences for himself if he reported the matter to the FBI. Turning it over in his mind, he finally concluded that the legal risk he faced would be minimal because he was 17 still a minor.

He called the number again. This time, he didnt hang up.

One day in November, Davon approached a silver Buick parked in Lexington Terrace, a neighbourhood of housing projects and row houses similar to his own. A tall FBI agent named Richard Wolf was sitting inside with a colleague, the only two white faces on the street. Davon glanced at them through the window and climbed on to the back seat.

Davon told the agents how he had been recruited by King and what he had been doing for the cop since the summer. Wolf wanted to know why he had decided to turn on his former partners. I dont trust King, Davon said. He was worried that the detective could put him in jail whenever he pleased, if Davon didnt do his bidding. And there was another reason he had contacted the FBI, he explained. He wanted to get out of selling drugs for the sake of his newborn daughter. Becoming an informant, he reasoned, could give him a safe exit from the world of dealing.

Wolf was struck by how self-assured Davon was. As a special agent, he knew it often took some coaxing to help whistleblowers and informants overcome their nervousness. But Davon didnt seem nervous at all. Wolf proceeded to lay down a condition: Davon would be paid to help the FBI develop a case against King and Murray, but he would have to stop hustling. If he got caught dealing drugs while working as an informant, he could face federal charges. Davon nodded.

Every year, the FBI investigates dozens of complaints of corruption by public employees. Since turf battles between the FBI and local law enforcement agencies around the country are not uncommon, federal agents tasked with investigating police officers have to be especially careful about pursuing charges of wrongdoing, lest they be perceived as pushing a hidden political agenda. The agents must also restrict knowledge of their investigation to an unusually small circle, since a cop, especially a guilty one, would be more likely to sniff out an ongoing probe and move to cover their tracks. Wolf, who was joined by a fellow agent named Wendy Munoz, was keenly aware of these sensitivities as he followed up on the information Davon had provided.

The first step toward building the case was to collect evidence of a drug deal between King and Davon. It was Davon who came up with the plan. He would tip King off to a stash of crack hidden in an alley off Bennett Place, enabling King to confiscate the stash and give it to Davon to sell. But this time the crack would have to be fake, since the FBI couldnt knowingly allow real drugs to be exchanged for money.

Through a Baltimore police sergeant, Wolf got hold of a recipe for baking a fake crack pie, which involved mixing Anbesol, the pain-relief medication, with baking soda and water, and heating it in the microwave. The resulting product was meant to have the yellowish colour and the grainy texture of crack. But when Wolf and Munoz attempted the recipe, in the FBIs office kitchen, the results left something to be desired. What they had made looked nothing like crack.

Wolf called the sergeant again to tell him, with some embarrassment, that the recipe hadnt worked. The sergeant gave him an easier alternative: macadamia nuts. Wolf went out and bought a bag of macadamias from the store, and Munoz spent hours splitting them into slivers with her fingernails. The agents made up 160 yellow plastic baggies and showed them to Davon, who gave his enthusiastic approval. In casual handling, he said, the bags could easily pass off as the real thing.

Drugs and cash seized by Baltimore police. Photograph: Rob Carr/AP

A week later, on 30 December 2004, the agents met Davon again. He put the bags of fake crack in a McDonalds paper bag and stashed it in the alley. At 11.50am, King parked his car near Bennett Place, entered the alley and phoned Davon, who guided him to the stash. Davon and the agents heard rustling noises as King searched. I got it, he said, finally. I got it.

Shortly after noon, Davon walked over from Wolfs car to meet King at the Rite Aid parking lot, across from the police station. In his trouser pocket was a digital recorder. King handed him the McDonalds bag. He wanted the crack sold as quickly as possible. Need some money, King said.

A few hours later, Davon met up with the agents again and gave them the bag. Wolf gave him $750, all in crumpled singles and five- and 10-dollar bills, as would be expected if the money had come from peddling crack on the street. Near the bottom of each bill, Wolf had scribbled his initials RJW with an ultraviolet pen. Davon gave King another call.

I got that dough, he said.

You for real? King said, surprised that the crack had sold so quickly.

The shit jumped off, Davon said.

Minutes later, he met up with King and delivered the cash.

By mid-February, the FBI had received court authorisation to tap King and Murrays phones. From the calls, the FBI agents could deduce that the detectives were forcing dealers they nabbed into their vehicle and, after talking to them, letting them out. But Wolf and Munoz had no evidence of what was transpiring inside the Chevrolet Lumina. They needed a microphone in the car.

One night in late March, after King and Murray had ended their shift, leaving the Lumina in the Rite Aid parking lot by the police station, FBI agents drove up in an identical Lumina and parked it next to King and Murrays vehicle. Next, they swiftly unlocked King and Murrays and drove it away, leaving the decoy in place. To a casual observer inside the police station, which the agents knew was staffed 24 hours a day, nothing would have looked amiss. A couple of hours later, the agents brought King and Murrays car back to the lot now rigged with microphones and GPS trackers and drove away the stand-in car.

Now the FBI began listening in on conversations King and Murray were having with dealers picked up from the street. Some of the dealers appeared to know what to expect, thanks to the reputation the cops had earned. Threatened with arrest, the dealers surrendered their cash and drugs meekly, sometimes pleading to get a few dollars back.

By early May 2005, Wolf and Munoz along with other officials were convinced they had enough evidence to wrap up the investigation. Later that month, the FBI invited King and Murrays squad to their office for a meeting whose stated goal was to form a taskforce aimed at fighting drugs in Baltimore. As soon as King and Murray got there, agents put them in handcuffs and informed them that they were being arrested on federal drug charges. In separate interviews with the two men, agents played back recordings of the some of the incriminating phone calls. King listened, crestfallen. I really think I should have my attorney, he said, nervously. Dont you think I should have my attorney?

When the case went to trial in March 2006, Davon was one of the first witnesses to take the stand. King and Murray watched from across the courtroom as Davon described how their partnership began and what he did to enable the FBIs sting operation. Up to that moment, Davon hadnt shared the secret of his collaboration with anybody, not even his girlfriend, Keisha.

After word got out about his appearance in court, the FBI moved Davon to a hotel in a suburb of Baltimore for his own safety. He got threatening phone calls. Keisha was stopped on the street by gang members. Tell him were going to kill him, they said. Even Tonya, who was still living at Bennett Place, was angry that her son had helped the feds. He had violated a sacrosanct rule of where he had grown up: you never work with the police, because law enforcement can never be your friend.

As the trial proceeded, the evidence against King and Murray mounted. Since the duo were carrying police-issued guns while shaking down dealers for drugs and cash, the jury found them guilty on multiple counts of armed robbery, in addition to several other counts of extortion and possession of drugs with intent to distribute. The judge sentenced the men to a combined 454 years in prison.

Throughout the investigation and the run-up to the trial, Davon had not thought much about what would happen after it was all over. He had vaguely imagined getting a lot more help from the government, taking his cue from movies in which the FBI relocated witnesses and bought them houses. The reality was somewhat different. After the trial ended, the FBI helped Davon to move into a rental apartment, giving him $1,500 to put down as a deposit. As the case was over, Wolf explained to Davon, the bureau could no longer justify paying him as an informant.

He was now on his own, without much cash to support himself. At one point, he had made a substantial amount of money dealing drugs, but he had ultimately squandered it, and now had nothing to show for the drug-dealing career he had had: no house, car or significant savings.

Davon Mayer on the steps of his old home in west Baltimore Photograph: JM Giordano for the Guardian

Davons girlfriend, Keisha, worked for the county government and had a daughter from a previous relationship. Davon didnt want to be financially dependent on her, and he eventually found work at a Wal-Mart, making $9 an hour unloading trucks at the stores warehouse. After all those years of making quick money, the backbreaking labour was an unpleasant dose of reality. The inside of the trucks felt like an oven. The Wal-Mart was more than 20 miles from where he lived, and since he no longer had a car, he had to pay an acquaintance a few dollars a day to take him to work. He had to ask Keisha to pick him up at the end of his shift. It felt humiliating. Of the $1,300 or so he made a month, more than $1,000 went toward paying rent and bills. How do people survive off of this? he asked Keisha.

As the months passed, he felt his patience for this new way of life depleting. The only way out, Davon decided, was to get back into hustling. But he had no capital to invest and there was no way anybody would front him drugs.

Bit by bit, he saved up a few hundred dollars. Then he called his grandfather, Ford, who reluctantly helped him re-establish contact with a couple of suppliers. Davon began selling to dealers who had bought from him before but didnt know his real name. Within weeks, he was back to making $300-$400 for work that took no more than a few minutes. Shortly after, he quit working at Wal-Mart. The job was slowing down the hustle, he told me.

When the lease on his apartment ended, he moved in with Keisha, but he kept her in the dark about the extent to which he had resumed his drug dealing. The black hole had pulled him back in.

In January 2009, Keisha and Davon had a baby girl, who they named Daylyn. Up until this point, Keisha had downplayed the consequences of his drug dealing in her mind, accepting it as something he simply couldnt get out of. But now, after having become the mother of his child, and after Davon had another close call with the police, she gave him an ultimatum. You have to make a choice, she said. The streets or family. You cant have both.

Davon had already lost his grandmother Norma, and his mother had died earlier that year. The only family he had left was Keisha. He agreed to give up his drug dealing. Over the next year-and-a-half, Davon began making a small income by working at bars and giving haircuts on the side. He and Keisha divided the household expenses down the middle. The house was in Keishas name; Davon paid her a part of the mortgage in the form of rent. Then, one day in the fall of 2011, after weeks of growing increasingly distant and quiet, he told Keisha he didnt have the money that month.

What happened to your paycheck? You just got paid, she asked. He admitted that he had given the money to a dealer, but the guy had been arrested. The money was gone.

Keisha was furious. She was convinced that Davon was incapable of shaking his addiction to the easy money that drug dealing brought. Im not going to live like this anymore, she said. She told him he was going to have to find another place to live. Davon knew that it wasnt an empty threat. He had to make a lasting change.

A week before Thanksgiving in 2011, I met up with Davon at a mall in Towson, Maryland, about 25 miles from Baltimore. I had made contact with him earlier that year after learning about the King and Murray investigation, which had left me wondering how things had turned out for him since. When I made my way through a throng of holiday shoppers into the restaurant, Davon rose from the table where he was seated with Keisha and Daylyn, and greeted me with a handshake, flashing a grin that revealed two gleaming gold teeth. Although he was nearing his 26th birthday, he still looked boyish.

He described how poor he felt now every time he walked into a mall with Keisha. I used to spend $1,000 at a mall in the blink of an eye, he said. He ruminated about how things might have turned out if he had chosen to continue working with King and Murray instead of going to the FBI. I know if I had chosen to go down the path that I was on, and if I werent in jail right now, I would be at the top of the game, he told me. I would be untouchable right now.

We stayed in touch over the following months, and in March 2012, Davon got a job with a company specialising in lead and asbestos abatement. The work was gruelling but Davon seemed happy. But keeping the past at bay had not been easy, he told me one day that spring when we met up for lunch at a mall in Columbia. Some of his old friends kept asking him to join them. I get offers all the time, he said. Because I still know guys who are pretty high up. They think that I know how to avoid a lot of stuff with the police. That I got some kind of deal. His bond with both his daughters had been growing stronger each day, he told me. Thats what kept him straight.

Reporters are supposed to stay neutral about their subjects, but the more I got to know Davon, the more I slipped into the role of a supportive confidante. As we continued to meet over the next two years, I began rooting for his success, not least because I wanted to see his story end in redemption and hope rather than failure. He would call me every few weeks to share his dreams of starting his own business one day.

When I was at the beach on Memorial Day weekend in 2013, he called me to tell me that his cousin and that cousins one-year-old child had been murdered in downtown Baltimore. He was immensely troubled by this news. A few months later, Keisha called me to tell me that Davon had suffered a panic attack. He had called her from the highway crying hysterically and saying that he was lost. He had managed to drive to the nearest hospital, which transferred him to a psychiatric ward.

When Davon was released three days later, his mental health was still fragile. He often called me for support, and I worried that he would unravel. I urged him to look into college. He passed a test for admission into preparation classes for a high-school equivalency qualification from Baltimore City Community College. Davon was short of money, and despite knowing that I was about to breach the barrier that is supposed to always keep a reporter separate from his subject, I paid the $80 fee he needed to register in the fall.

After he began attending class, he returned to his optimistic self. In December, I lent him $150 so that he could take his exams. He scored one of the highest in his class, and sent me a joyous text in January to say that he had been accepted into the ITT Technical Institute in Baltimore county to pursue an associate degree in network systems administration. While taking courses toward that degree over the next year, he began working as a contractor specialising in hooking up internet cables and other infrastructure for computer networks at government departments and private businesses. For the first time in his life, he had what he saw as a viable career.

In our conversations over the past two years, during which Davon continued to thrive, we had occasion to reflect on his lifes arc. The endless hours he spent telling me about his childhood and teenage years appeared to have given him an understanding of his story that he had never had before an appreciation of the complex interplay between the circumstances he found himself in at various points in his life and the choices he had made along the way. He might not have become a drug dealer if he hadnt grown up on Bennett Place. Nor would he have considered giving up that career if circumstances hadnt led him to become an FBI informant. Yet, without Keisha to hold him to account and to a lesser extent, my desire to tell a story I had always imagined to be one of redemption he could have easily slipped back into the black hole. The more perspective he gained about his own journey, the more he realised how impossible it was for many with his kind of background to climb out of their situation.

One morning not long ago, Davon took time out to give me a tour of his old neighbourhood. We walked down Bennett Place, past boarded-up houses. The sidewalks were deserted, and there were no signs of drug activity anywhere. We sat on the steps of a townhouse a couple of doors down from the one he had grown up in. It saddened him to think that there were so many like him on these streets who had suffered what he had but didnt have a way out.

I hate it when people say you have a choice, he said. It angers me. What choice do you have when your mother is out prostituting herself to feed her drug habit and your father is out murdering people?

We walked toward my car. He turned back to take another look at his grandfathers townhouse. Thats our house, he said. His plan was to buy it and turn it into a safe space for teenagers, off the streets. It would just be for the community, he said. You dont have a place to stay? You can come here. That would make my grandmother proud.

Main photograph: JM Giordano for the Guardian

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

Read more:

Maryam Mirzakhani, first woman to win mathematics’ Fields medal, dies at 40

Stanford professor, who was awarded the prestigious prize in 2014, had suffered breast cancer

Maryam Mirzakhani, a Stanford University professor who was the first and only woman to win the prestigious Fields medal in mathematics, has died. She was 40.

Mirzakhani, who had breast cancer, died on Saturday, the university said. It did not indicate where she died.

In 2014, Mirzakhani was one of four winners of the Fields medal, which is presented every four years and is considered the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel prize. She was named for her work on complex geometry and dynamic systems.

Mirzakhani specialized in theoretical mathematics that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics: moduli spaces, Teichmller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry, the Stanford press announcement said.

Mastering these approaches allowed Mirzakhani to pursue her fascination for describing the geometric and dynamic complexities of curved surfaces spheres, doughnut shapes and even amoebas in as great detail as possible.

Her work had implications in fields ranging from cryptography to the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist, the university said.

Mirzakhani was born in Tehran and studied there and at Harvard. She joined Stanford as a mathematics professor in 2008. Irans president, Hassan Rouhani, issued a statement praising Mirzakhani.

The grievous passing of Maryam Mirzakhani, the eminent Iranian and world-renowned mathematician, is very much heart-rending, Rouhani said in a message that was reported by the Tehran Times.

Irans foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said her death pained all Iranians, the newspaper reported.

The news of young Iranian genius and math professor Maryam Mirzakhanis passing has brought a deep pang of sorrow to me and all Iranians who are proud of their eminent and distinguished scientists, Zarif posted in Farsi on his Instagram account.

I do offer my heartfelt condolences upon the passing of this lady scientist to all Iranians worldwide, her grieving family and the scientific community.

Mirzakhani originally dreamed of becoming a writer but then shifted to mathematics. When she was working, she would doodle on sheets of paper and scribble formulas on the edges of her drawings, leading her daughter to describe the work as painting, the Stanford statement said.

Mirzakhani once described her work as like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.

Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne said Mirzakhani was a brilliant theorist who made enduring contributions and inspired thousands of women to pursue math and science.

Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, Jan Vondrk, and daughter, Anahita.

Read more:

In a world ruled by rumour, it is vital that scientists speak with humility and clarity | Sue Desmond-Hellmann

Facts are the science worlds stock-in-trade, but in an era of fake news it is ever more important to build public trust by avoiding exaggerated claims and jargon

One of my most cherished possessions is a handmade cherrywood salad bowl thats never held a leaf of lettuce. It is 25 years old and gets more beautiful every year. The bowl was a gift, carved by a widower who was left to raise his daughter alone when his wife died under my care as an oncologist. My patient, who Ill call Erica, had the most challenging form of breast cancer and I didnt have the tools to save her life. Ive always felt undeserving of the gift, despite doing everything I could.

Five years later, I participated in the development of a medicine for Ericas type of cancer, Herceptin. While regretting that it had not come fast enough for Erica, I am deeply grateful for the scientific advances that mean better care for patients like her today.

Now, at the helm of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I see how scientific breakthroughs, such as new vaccines and hardier crops, are helping to make the world safer, healthier and more equal. Life is better because of science, and in the next few decades more discoveries will further improve the human condition.

But the scientific community is nervous. Science and specifically the scientific method is at risk in an era of fake news, anti-expert feeling, and science denialism. Healthy scepticism is at the heart of the scientific method and scientists believe in challenging todays knowledge to best uncover truth. But denialism is different. Denialism is the refusal to accept established facts.

The Oxford English Dictionary declared post-truth as the 2016 word of the year, defining it as circumstances in which objective facts are less influential than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Today, there is fear among scientists that even the best innovations will have less resonance if policies and decision-making arent influenced by evidence, truth and facts.

We need to argue against this in a post-fact, post-truth era. Scientists must participate effectively in the public dialogue around facts and truth. And there are three aspects of the debate that I believe are crucial for the scientific community to address so that we remain relevant: consequences, confidence and credibility.

At the March for Science in New York City, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against an assault on facts. Photograph: Erik McGregor/Pacific/Barcroft

The best scientists and innovators are fully aware of the consequences of their achievements. Jennifer Doudna, one of the scientists behind the gene editing Crispr technology, speaks of a time when we might cure genetic diseases. Yet she is also a part of a scientific coalition that introduced a worldwide moratorium on gene edits that would be passed on to subsequent generations. When reliability for more than a billion users was at risk, Mark Zuckerberg changed Facebooks decade-old motto from Move fast and break things to the less catchy Move fast with stable infrastructure.

We should learn from such people. It is seductive to be boastful, or exaggerate the novelty or importance of ones work, especially given the funding challenges scientists encounter. Scientists would do better if they showed more humility. Well be better at assessing and solving problems and, more importantly, understanding the impact of potential solutions if we deepen our understanding and respect for others.

Humility is also a big part of building greater confidence in scientists. Confidence is essential if we want to be spokespeople for the truth. We want policymakers to understand and value what we say and put forth. We want leaders to encourage and favour research and policies based on evidence that has been challenged and tested.

Open sharing of data, teamwork, more dialogue and visibility when a study is negative or not reproduced, will all give consumers of science more confidence. For our part, the Gates Foundation has introduced an open access policy that enables the unrestricted access and reuse of all our funded work, including any underlying data sets, so that others can benefit from this knowledge, and to encourage collaboration and debate.

Ultimately, the relevance of scientific experts in this post-truth era depends on credibility in terms of trustworthiness and expertise. Conflicts of interest and publicity about scientific literature retractions, or fraud, have eroded public esteem for scientists. Were not alone. Traditional authority figures have become diminished, with identity increasingly influencing peoples beliefs rather than established sources of knowledge. This echo chamber phenomenon is exaggerated by the algorithms of social media.

But behavioural scientists are improving our understanding of denial and the way people make decisions. This is beginning to yield fascinating insights into how it is possible to inoculate audiences against misinformation. It turns out that by exposing them to some of the techniques of denialism, such as cherry-picked statistics and spurious petitions, they become more resistant to believing such messages.

People also become more open to hearing the scientific or expert consensus. This is known as the cognitive psychology of debunking. It is a key tactic when a scientist confronts a conflict between science and myth. Investing in decision science and behavioural psychology, and using new insights to get the facts straight, are vital in catching up with a world where rumours spread like wildfire.

Read more:

The female journalists defying taboos and braving death threats in Afghanistan | Sune Engel Rasmussen

The countrys first female-run radio station was looted and its staff persecuted but, despite the risks, women in the media are making their voices heard

When Radio Shaista goes silent, you know the Taliban are close. The female-run radio station was looted and wrecked when the group captured Kunduz, Afghanistans embattled northern city, in 2015, sending journalists fleeing. Even after the Taliban were routed, female journalists have been on guard, if they ever returned, that is.

Zarghoona Hassan, Radio Shaistas director, fled after armed militants knocked on her door at home. They accused her of converting listeners to Christianity and announced a date for her execution.

She says the Talibans anger was fuelled by talk of empowering women. The radio broadcast discussions with religious scholars about womens rights and called on mothers of Taliban combatants to prevent their sons from fighting.

We had conversations about women studying, and talked about female pilots, says Hassan.

Hassan now splits her time between Kunduz and the capital, Kabul. Since 2015 she has shut down her radio station twice in fear of Taliban advances.

A vibrant media is one of the great successes of post-2001 Afghanistan. However, womens position in it is fragile. For many Afghan families, when security worsens, protection of women overrides most other concerns.

[When we started], women flocked to the radio to work, even for free. But when the Taliban came closer, around 2012, peoples attitude changed, says Hassan, who founded two other radio stations in Kunduz. Many women in Kunduz want to work in media but their families wont let them.

This anxiety highlights the complexities around western endeavours to empower Afghan women, particularly outside liberal, urban classes. And when efforts to promote human rights do make Afghan women visible, they are usually cast as victims.

One magazine is hoping to change that. In May, the first issue of Gellara, Afghanistans first womens lifestyle magazine, hit the newsstands.

Until now, the media mostly focused on women facing violence, baad [compensating for a crime by giving a woman away in marriage], and women who had their faces cut, says Fatana Hassanzada, 23, the magazines founder and editor. We want to portray other faces of women.

Modelled on international magazines like Vogue, Gellara addresses Afghan women as consumers of fashion and culture, as book readers and as love seekers. As human beings, says Hassanzada.

The cover of the first monthly issue, 2,000 copies of which were printed at offices in Kabul, features Canadian-Afghan singer Mozhdah Jamalzadah, her hair unveiled. Inside, articles on breast cancer and yoga follow pieces on Iranian film and beauty.

We want to show that a woman can have a pretty face and be well dressed. We are trying to teach society not to be shocked by these things, says content editor Aziza Karimi.

Perhaps most controversial, in a country where arranged marriages are still widely enforced, is an introduction to the dating app Tinder.

When asked how that would go down in conservative rural areas, Hassanzada laughs. We try to target everyone. There is something for the cities and something for the villages, she says, while recognising that many rural women would probably only see the magazine if their husbands brought it home.

Producers in the editing room of Afghanistans first womens TV channel, Zan TV. Photograph: Hedayatullah Amid/EPA

This month, Afghanistan also saw the launch of Zan TV (Womens TV), the first channel dedicated to women. Female presenters are common on Afghan television, but Zan is the first with all-female newsreaders (though its owner is a man).

Mehria Afzali, 25, a presenter, says her parents opposed her working in media until her husband convinced them. Some people in the provinces believe women on TV are destroying the unity of the family, she says. But we wear proper hijab. We are an Islamic channel.

Conditions for Afghan journalists are deteriorating. Last year was the bloodiest for media workers since 2001, according to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee.

Though cities offer a larger, liberal audience, they are not always safe. A few years ago, Hassanzada, then a TV presenter, fled to Kabul from Mazar-i-Sharif with her family after a group of men stabbed her younger brother in the street, demanding that she stop working.

In Kabul, she faces threats, too. On a visit to Kabul University this week to promote the magazine, students from the Islamic law faculty tried to intervene, calling the magazine infidel, before security blocked them.

Hassanzada says she would not go back to the university. But three of our reporters study there. I am worried something will happen to them.

Yet, she says, reporting on controversial topics is worth the risk. We are the second generation of democracy in Afghanistan. In a revolution, there will always be sacrifices.

These issues are not dangerous. Its society thats dangerous.

Read more:

Rolling Stone ‘Jackie’ trial: university administrator awarded $3m for defamation

Former associate dean of students Nicole Eramo wins case over discredited gang rape story that cast her as a villain

Jurors have awarded a University of Virginia administrator $3m for her portrayal in a now-discredited Rolling Stone magazine article about the schools handling of a brutal gang rape a fraternity house.

The 10-member jurys decision came after they concluded on Friday that the magazine, its publisher and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely were responsible for defamation, with actual malice, of former associate dean of students Nicole Eramo in the 2014 story A Rape on Campus.

Eramo sued the magazine for $7.5m, claiming it cast her as a villain who sought to discourage the woman identified only as Jackie from reporting her alleged assault to police. A police investigation found no evidence to back up Jackies rape claims.

Jurors heard testimony on Monday about the extent to which the story has damaged Eramos life and reputation before they began deliberating to decide how much to award her in damages.

Eramo told jurors that after the storys publication, she had trouble sleeping, feared for her safety and struggled with how to explain what was happening to her then-seven-year-old son. One day, she crawled under her desk and contemplated suicide as she felt her world come crashing down around her, she said. Her husband testified that she told him: I dont know that I can live anymore.

I just wanted to disappear, said Eramo, who cried throughout much of her testimony. I didnt know how it was going to be OK.

She claimed the article prompted the university to move her out of her job as an associate dean into a different administrative role that she doesnt like as much because she rarely works with students. When the article was published, she was also preparing to undergo a double mastectomy for breast cancer. Eramo and her attorneys suggested that the stress she was under could have contributed to a post-surgery infection that led to a hospital stay.

Even the strongest people have a breaking point, said Tom Clare, an attorney for Eramo.

The story roiled the University of Virginia campus, prompted calls for Eramos resignation and sparked a national conversation about sexual assault at elite institutions. Jackies story quickly fell apart after reporters from other outlets started asking questions and determined that Rolling Stone never spoke to the womans alleged attackers or even verified their existence before going to print.

Because the judge determined that Eramo was a public figure, she had to prove Rolling Stone made statements with actual malice, meaning it knew that what it was writing about her was false or entertained serious doubts about whether it might be true.

Jurors found that the magazine and its publisher, Wenner Media, acted with actual malice because they republished the article on 5 December with an editors note after they knew about the problems with Jackies story. The jury also found that Erdely acted with actual malice on six claims: two statements in the article and four statements to media outlets after the story was published.

Jurors awarded $2m to Eramo for statements made by Erdely and $1m for the republication of the article by Rolling Stone and Wenner Media. Rolling Stone could appeal the verdict.

Rolling Stone has agreed to pay Erdelys legal costs and the damages levied against her.

Rolling Stones attorneys argued throughout the three-week trial that while it may have been a mistake to trust Jackie, their portrayal of the university and Eramo was fair and accurate.

On Monday, attorney David Paxton told jurors that the magazine was heartbroken by Fridays decision and urged them not to be tempted to award a large sum of damages in order to send a message to the magazine and the media. Theyve already done that with their verdict, Paxton said.

This was tough medicine to receive, Paxton said.

Paxton apologized to Eramo, but stressed that Eramo not only kept a job at the university after the article was published, but she received a pay raise.

In their damages defense, attorneys for Rolling Stone showed jurors just one exhibit: A 2015 Office of Civil Rights report that criticizes the universitys handling of sexual assault complaints and specifically mentions that Eramo helped to create a hostile environment for victims on campus.

Rolling Stone also faces a $25m lawsuit from Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity where Jackie claimed her assault took place. That case is schedule to go to trial late next year.

Read more:

Cancer deaths among women to rise 60% by 2030, new reports warn

American Cancer Society and Lancet studies point to devastating increases, mostly in poorer countries, with breast cancer diagnoses set to almost double

Two reports have warned of an explosion in cancer deaths among women, with a toll, mainly from breast cancer, of around 5.5 million a year by 2030 roughly the population of Denmark.

This represented a near 60% increase in less than two decades, said an analysis conducted by the American Cancer Society (ACS), released on Tuesday at the World Cancer Congress in Paris.

As the global population grows and ages, the highest toll will be among women in poor and middle-income countries, it said, and much of it from cancers which are largely preventable.

Most of the deaths occur in young and middle-aged adults, placing a heavy burden on families and national economies, said Sally Cowal, senior vice-president of global health at the ACS, which compiled the report with pharmaceutical company Merck.

A second report, published in the Lancet medical journal on Wednesday, said the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer alone could almost double to 3.2 million a year by 2030 from 1.7 million in 2015.

For cervical cancer, the number of diagnoses could rise by at least 25% to over 700,000 by 2030, mainly in low- and middle-income countries, said a statement from the Lancet.

Cancer is already killing one in seven women around the world, said the ACS report the second highest cause of death after cardiovascular disease.

All four of the deadliest cancers breast, colorectal, lung and cervical cancer are mostly preventable or can be detected early, when treatment is more successful.

In poorer countries, a much smaller proportion of cancer cases are diagnosed and treated than in rich ones, while a much bigger group dies. The relative burden is growing for developing countries as people live longer due to better basic healthcare.

Women in these countries are also increasingly exposed to known cancer risk factors associated with rapid economic transition, said Cowal, such as physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, obesity, and reproductive factors including postponing motherhood.

Due to these changes, cancers that were once common only in high-income countries are becoming more prevalent, said the report entitled The Global Burden of Cancer in Women.

Read more: