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Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology

Popular Science

By: Geoffrey C Kabat

250 pages, Figs, tabs

Columbia University Press

Hardback | Jul 2008 | #170817 | ISBN-13: 9780231141482
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £34.50 $42/€39 approx

About this book

The media constantly bombard us with news of the health hazards that lurk in our everyday lives. But many of these hazards, even some that provoke regulatory action, have been greatly overblown.

According to author and epidemiologist Geoffrey C. Kabat, low-level environmental health hazards can be hyped and distorted, leading to needless anxiety and confusion on the part of the public as well as the wasteful misallocation of resources. Given this tendency, how is the public to distinguish between exposures that have important effects on health and those that are likely to have minimal or no effect?

In this book, Kabat examines the forces that contribute to high-profile health scares and the economic, political, and psychological consequences of their "social amplification." In order to better understand the manufacture of health scares, Kabat begins with the premise that science in the area of public health does not exist in a vacuum.A number of factors can inflate the real health risks of a hazard, such as skewed reporting by the media, but also, surprisingly, the actions of researchers who hope to propel their careers with increased research funding and publications, regulatory health agencies eager to show their responsiveness to the health concerns of the public, and advocates with a stake in a particular outcome.

Following four major case studies, Kabat demonstrates how a powerful confluence of interests can subtly (or not so subtly) overstate or distort scientific evidence, sparking a chain reaction that leads to unnecessary policies and actions that divert scientists, health professionals, and the public from more important issues. Kabat carefully considers the health risks of organochlorine compounds as a cause of breast cancer, electromagnetic fields from power lines, radon within residences, and the actual dangers of secondhand tobacco smoke.

He traces the trajectory of each of these hazards from its initial emergence as a public concern to the ideological and political attention that influenced its interpretation. He then explains how more rigorous studies have ultimately changed the "disposition" of the hazard, either cementing its status as a legitimate hazard or revealing it to be much less harmful than had been initially proposed. All four case studies show how the conviction that there was a hazard emerged and held sway, in some cases for two decades or more, based primarily on a selected and consensus-affirming interpretation of the evidence. Kabat concludes with a discussion of the strengths and limitations of the science of epidemiology and the need to make a firm distinction between science and political agendas.

This book represents a vast amount of research and gives readers the tools to examine health claims and scares and put them in perspective. An original contribution to the field. -- Elizabeth Whelan, president, American Council on Science and Health "This book does an exceptionally good job, first by putting epidemiology within the context of public health and then by explaining key terms, concepts, and methods. It provides a penetrating treatment of a difficult and complex subject in a readily understandable way." -- Steven D. Stellman, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University

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Geoffrey C. Kabat's career as a cancer epidemiologist spans thirty years, and his research on the causes of cancer has focused on the effects of smoking, alcohol, diet, hormones, electromagnetic fields, and other factors. He has been on the faculty of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the school of medicine of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and has published over 80 scientific papers. Currently he is senior epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

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