Hyping Health Risks

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

Geoffrey C. Kabat
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/kaba14148
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  • Book Info
    Hyping Health Risks
    Book Description:

    The media constantly bombard us with news of health hazards lurking in our everyday lives, but many of these hazards turn out to have been greatly overblown. According to author and epidemiologist Geoffrey C. Kabat, this hyping of low-level environmental hazards leads to needless anxiety and confusion on the part of the public concerning which exposures have important effects on health and which are likely to have minimal or no effect.

    Kabat approaches health scares as "social facts" and shows that a variety of factors can contribute to the inflating of a hazard. These include skewed reporting by the media, but also, surprisingly, the actions of researchers who may emphasize certain findings while ignoring others; regulatory and health agencies eager to show their responsiveness to the health concerns of the public; and politicians and advocates with a stake in a particular outcome.

    By means of four case studies, Kabat demonstrates how a powerful confluence of interests can lead to overstating or distorting the scientific evidence. He considers the health risks of pollutants such as DDT as a cause of breast cancer, electromagnetic fields from power lines, radon within residences, and secondhand tobacco smoke. Tracing the trajectory of each of these hazards from its initial emergence to the present, Kabat shows how publication of more rigorous studies and critical assessments ultimately help put hazards in perspective.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51196-4
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Political Science, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. 1 INTRODUCTION: Toward a Sociology of Health Hazards in Daily Life
    (pp. 1-18)

    We are all familiar with what has been referred to as the ″hazard du jour″ phenomenon. Typically, it starts with media reports of the findings of a new scientific study indicating that some lifestyle behavior, consumer product, or environmental factor is linked to some dire disease. Coffee drinking is linked to pancreatic cancer. Eating chocolate is claimed to dispose to benign breast disease in women. Environmental pollution, we are told, may cause breast cancer. Studies appear to show a connection between exposure to electromagnetic fields from power lines and electric appliances and a host of diseases, starting with childhood leukemia...

  6. 2 EPIDEMIOLOGY: Its Uses, Strengths, and Limitations
    (pp. 19-46)

    Epidemiology appears forbidding and unapproachable to many people, starting with its association with ″epidemic″ and its erroneous association in some people′s minds with ″epidermis″ and ″entomology.″ The term derives from the Greek ″epi″ connoting ″on″ and ″demos″ meaning ″people,″ thus conveying the notion of ″on, or pertaining to, populations.″ There are many definitions, but they all have in common the basic idea that epidemiology is the study of the occurrence of health and disease in populations, with a view to illuminating the causes of disease and, ultimately, its control or prevention. Beyond its unwieldy name, epidemiology′s technical terminology and statistical...

  7. 3 DOES THE ENVIRONMENT CAUSE BREAST CANCER?
    (pp. 47-76)

    Barbara Balaban has been a breast cancer activist since the early 1990s, when, like many other educated women on Long Island, her frustration with the lack of an explanation for why she and others around her had gotten breast cancer pushed her into activism. As a breast cancer survivor and a social worker, Balaban had helped establish the Adelphi Breast Cancer Hotline and Support Program, which provided support groups for breast cancer patients. She was familiar with the literature from the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society describing women who were at increased risk for breast cancer as...

  8. 4 ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS: The Rise and Fall of a ″Pervasive Threat″
    (pp. 77-110)

    With the growth of electrification starting in the late nineteenth century and continuing throughout the twentieth, exposure to weak extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields from man-made sources, unknown until slightly more than a century ago, has become virtually ubiquitous in the United States and other technologically advanced societies. As a result, we are constantly exposed to these fields from the electrical power distribution system, the wiring in our homes and workplaces, household appliances, and industrial and office equipment. It is worth noting that, although we live our daily lives in an intimate relationship with electric power, we are rarely aware...

  9. 5 THE SCIENCE AND POLITICS OF RESIDENTIAL RADON
    (pp. 111-146)

    Radon is a colorless and odorless radioactive gas resulting from the decay of radium and ultimately from uranium, which is ubiquitous in the Earth′s crust and occurs in varying amounts in soil and rock. Normally, radon dissipates harmlessly in the air, but it can seep into homes through fissures and openings in the foundation and can accumulate to produce high levels in homes. Although radon itself is inert, it undergoes radioactive decay to polonium-218 and polonium-214 with the emission of high-energy alpha particles. These radon ″progeny″ or ″daughters″ are electrically charged and can attach to fine dust particles in the...

  10. 6 THE CONTROVERSY OVER PASSIVE SMOKING: A Casualty of the ″Tobacco Wars″
    (pp. 147-182)

    In the late 1990s a billboard along California highways showed a handsome young man with an unlit cigarette in his mouth facing an attractive young woman. The man is asking the woman: ″Mind if I smoke?″ And the woman′s carefully counterpoised rejoinder is: ″Care if I die?″ The notion that exposure—even the most casual exposure—to secondhand tobacco smoke could be lethal to a nonsmoker had achieved such currency that the California Department of Health Services could evoke it very effectively with this minimal but pointed social exchange. California′s eye-catching billboard is just one indicator of the attention and...

  11. 7 CONCLUSION
    (pp. 183-188)

    Widespread confusion about what are important health risks is hardly surprising when one considers the positive din of information relating to health that assaults us on a daily basis—claims of benefits, supposed breakthroughs, policies issued by the federal government and professional bodies, and ever-multiplying threats. Although the media clearly plays a pivotal role in focusing attention on certain ″stories,″ responsibility for this confusion cannot be ascribed solely to the media. Rather, it involves complex interactions between the producers and consumers of knowledge in the area of public health, with the participation of scientists, regulators, advocates, journalists, and others. In...

  12. APPENDIX A List of Interviews
    (pp. 189-190)
  13. APPENDIX B How Findings Can Be Reported in a Way That Puts Them in Perspective
    (pp. 191-192)
  14. APPENDIX C An Interview with the Author
    (pp. 193-204)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 205-226)
  16. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 227-232)
  17. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 233-250)
  18. CREDITS
    (pp. 251-252)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 253-262)