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December 22nd, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Interview with Geoffrey Kabat, author of Hyping Health Risks

Geoffrey KabatThe following are excerpts from a recent interview with Geoffrey Kabat, author of Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology that appeared in the Epidemiology Monitor. The November issue was devoted to Kabat’s work and the issues raised in his book.

EpiMonitor: Can you say more about your personal and professional motivations for writing this book? Clearly, hazards are being manufactured all around us. You are presumably like all other epidemiologists in sharing a set of scientific values and standards, but others have not written such books.

Kabat: In the early 1990s I noticed that certain issues in epidemiology seemed to be distorted or exaggerated and that the public was being given the wrong idea. So, I tuned in to a number of these issues, some of which I was doing primary research on. I began to view these topics that got a lot of attention and stirred up a lot of concern from a dual perspective – that of a practicing epidemiologist and that of an outside observer – almost as if I were an anthropologist. I would contend that one can’t really understand what is going on with the hyping of health risks without considering the social context in which messages about health get disseminated. In addition, as a scientist, I tried to assess what the evidence actually indicated and where certain agency reports or partisan interpretations seemed to be overstating the evidence. I guess there were two emotions that motivated me to pursue what was a pretty demanding task – evaluating the evidence on my four topics and trying to sort out how it got refracted by different parties. One was fascination with some of the flagrant contradictions and incongruities; the other was frustration at some of the one-sided and unsupported claims. But above all, I felt that this was a very rich topic that had received little sustained attention.

EpiMonitor: Can you name health risks that are being hyped today and actions being taken to mitigate or study them that you think are not worthwhile?

Kabat: Two topics that come to mind are cell phones and fine particle air pollution. I wouldn’t say that the efforts to study them are not worthwhile. But the problem – the danger — is that certain results get more attention than other results, and influential groups create a narrative that may not reflect all of the relevant science. For example, Lennart Hardell an oncologist in Sweden has aggressively argued that the evidence suggests the possibility that cell phone use and mobile phone use may cause brain cancers and brain tumors. He has gone as far as to attack the work of highly respected epidemiologists in print who have found the evidence unconvincing. Here is an example where certain results get more emphasis and perhaps insufficiently critical attention, contributing to the perception that the evidence indicates the existence of a hazard. There are also self-appointed activist groups like the Bioinitiative which give one-sided assessments of the evidence.

A second example of the clash of interpretations of the scientific evidence has been unfolding in connection with the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) efforts to introduce new and more stringent regulations concerning diesel and fine particle air pollution in California. If enacted, these new regulations will have very real economic consequences through their effect on the trucking and construction industries. The crux of the matter is that CARB is relying on certain epidemiologic studies which appear to show an association of fine particle air pollution with mortality, but it ignores certain other studies which show absolutely no association. My point is simply that it is terribly irresponsible for a powerful government agency to not consider all of the relevant evidence –- I’m only talking about high-quality studies — on a question with such far-reaching effects on the economy and on livelihoods. This is not a matter of being retrograde, or pro-industry, or giving air pollution a pass. We have to get beyond appearances and being ensnared by political correctness. This is a question of evaluating all of the relevant evidence on a question before formulating a policy which will have very far-reaching effects.

To read the full interview, please visit Geoffrey Kabat’s Web site Hyping Health Risks.

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