Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology by Geoffrey C. Kabat

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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.

A 1993 study, to take an example, linked breast cancer and environmental pollutants. The study connected DDT exposure to breast cancer at the very time women on New York’s Long Island had begun an activist campaign to “discover” the cause of what appeared to be a cluster of breast cancers there. Only after a federally funded, seven-year study found no link to DDT or other pollutants did the issue subside.

People want explanations for cancer. “In retrospect, it is striking how disposed the public was to believe that some form of environmental pollution … must be involved in the development of breast cancer,” Kabat writes.

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.“ The potential for isolated or limited findings to be transformed into major health hazards should alert us to the need for skepticism,” he concludes. And the need for good science. —Nathan Seppa

Columbia University Press, 2008, 250 p., $27.95.

From the Nature Index

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