NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 13, 2008

In his new book, "Hyping Health Risks," Geoffrey Kabat shows how activists, regulators and scientists distort or magnify minuscule environmental risks.  But he is more concerned about a less reported problem: The highly charged climate surrounding environmental health risks can create powerful pressure for scientists to conform and to fall into line with a particular position.

Specifically, he examines four of the most persistent and controversial issues in public health:

  • Linking cancer to man-made chemicals.
  • Linking cancer to electromagnetic fields (EMF).
  • Linking cancer to radon.
  • Linking cancer and heart disease to passive smoking.

In each, Kabat found more bias than biology:

  • Regarding linking cancer to man-made chemicals, Kabat notes that the "politicization of breast cancer (which) led initially to the carrying out of the studies (is) based on weak hypotheses and inadequate methods…"
  • In the case of EMFs and cancer, Kabat explains, in detail, how several epidemiologists slanted their studies so that they could justify further funding for their EMF research.
  • In the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulators were eager to charge that residential exposure to radon -- a gas that arises naturally from certain geological formations -- was a major cause of lung cancer; however, it turned out that 90 percent of the lung cancer that the EPA's studies attributed to radon was actually associated with cigarette smoking.
  • Finally, Kabat takes up the vexed case of passive smoking. He shows how anti-smoking activists, in collusion with EPA regulators, steam-rolled over evidence that passive smoke is a very minor cause of chronic lung disease.

By tracing the course of each of these hazards from its initial emergence to the present, Kabat shows how publication of more rigorous studies and critical assessments ultimately helped put the hazards in perspective.

Source: Ronald Bailey, "Scared Senseless," Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2008; review of: Geoffrey C. Kabat, "Hyping Health Risks," Columbia University Press, June 2008.

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