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


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.

Selected as a Choice Distinguished Academic Title 2009

Brief Reviews

In “Hyping Health Risks,” Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist himself, shows how activists, regulators and scientists distort or magnify minuscule environmental risks. He duly notes the accomplishments of epidemiology, such as uncovering the risks of tobacco smoking and the dangers of exposure to vinyl chloride and asbestos. And he acknowledges that industry has attempted to manipulate science. But he is concerned about a less reported problem: “The highly charged climate surrounding environmental health risk can create powerful pressure for scientists to conform and to fall into line with a particular position.

… [Re: electromagnetic fields] Indeed, epidemiologists kept torturing weak data with sophisticated statistical techniques, trying to force electromagnetic fields to confess to murder. They never did. Physicists eventually showed the biological implausibility of the EMF claim.
                                                                                                                                                               Ronald Bailey, Wall Street Journal

The book can engage and enlighten regarding the complex context in which known and suspected health risks are identified, explored, and acted on.
                                                                                             Barbara Gastel, M.D., M.P.H, The New England Journal of Medicine

A strong, valuable corrective to public understanding of the debate of environmental hazards... Highly Recommended.

This book forcefully examines that question – what goes wrong when the good intentions of scientists and activists are based on weak epidemiologic findings? … Kabat identifies real issues that need closer examination and more open debate than has taken place up to now.  Reading and reflecting on the thesis of this book can only help epidemiologists be more aware of our place in society and thus be more effective contributors.
                                                                                                                           David A. Savitz, American Journal of Epidemiology

With clarity and dispassion, Geoffrey C. Kabat challenges widespread beliefs that secondhand smoke, low levels of radon, and other ostensible environmental nemeses are certain killers. In making his case, Kabat draws extensively on scientific evidence while shunning rhetoric and political posturing. The result is an admirable search for scientific truth amid a sea of conflicting and often uninformed opinions.
                                                                                                                                                           Leonard Cole, Rutgers University

Geoffrey C. Kabat, a respected epidemiologist, provides an insider's account of how a number of ostensible health hazards have been blown out of proportion. While we face a daily barrage of health scares, Kabat cuts through the confusion and provides a lucid and rigorous rationale for rejecting much of the fear culture that permeates our society.
                                                                                                                                                          Shelly Ungar, University of Toronto

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

Hyping Health Risks provides a valuable counterpoint to the confusion and paranoia that seems to grow in proportion to the constant barrage of health risk studies… [Kabat’s] presentation allows us to better discriminate between what matters to our health and what matters to the ‘hypers’ – a wide variety of stakeholders, some well-intentioned, some much less so.
                                                                                                                                                                                               Ernest Drucker,
                                                                                                 Montefiore Medical Center/ Albert Einstein College of Medicine

"Kabat, who wrote Hyping Health Risks--a fascinating and detailed examination of how we fell for certain, illusory environmental hazards--is possibly the only epidemiologist in the world to have also published a book on Dostoyevsky (he got a Ph.D. in Russian and comparative literature from Columbia before switching tracks). And the background in literary analysis and theory adds a crucial ability to explain why we, as a society, are prone to turning hypothetical risks into "social facts." The upshot is that most public alarms about health risks dispense with the tools required to make sense of the alarm--and we end up with "disembodied findings" and ideology."
                                                                                                                                                                        Trevor Butterworth, Forbes

"Health scares come and go, but they often have a tenuous scientific basis. Kabat, a cancer epidemiologist, systematically rips through cancer alerts that overrode scientific rigor in recent decades. In so doing, he dispels the dubious science underlying the scares and explains how public confusion can come about. … He extends his critique to debates linking radon gas exposure and secondhand cigarette smoke exposure to lung cancer. Those chapters will ruffle some feathers, but Kabat is unafraid of controversy."
                                                                                                                                                                      Nathan Seppa, ScienceNews

Reading this book will give you a better understanding of what epidemiology can and can’t do, and insight into how the rational scientific process can be perverted by the press, politicians, and grass-roots activists.
                                                                                                                                                    Harriet Hall, Science-Based Medicine

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