What is the environment in environmental health research? Perspectives from the ethics of science

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 88 (C):172-180 (2021)
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Environmental health research produces scientific knowledge about environmental hazards crucial for public health and environmental justice movements that seek to prevent or reduce exposure to these hazards. The environment in environmental health research is conceptualized as the range of possible social, biological, chemical, and/or physical hazards or risks to human health, some of which merit study due to factors such as their probability and severity, the feasibility of their remediation, and injustice in their distribution. This paper explores the ethics of identifying the relevant environment for environmental health research, as judgments involved in defining an environmental hazard or risk, judgments of that hazard or risk's probability, severity, and/ or injustice, as well as the feasibility of its remediation, all ought to appeal to non-epistemic as well as epistemic values. I illustrate by discussing the case of environmental lead, a housing-related hazard that remains unjustly distributed by race and class and is particularly dangerous to children. Examining a controversy in environmental health research ethics where researchers tested multiple levels of lead abatement in lead-contaminated households, I argue that the broader perspective on the ethics of environmental health research provided in the first part of this paper may have helped prevent this controversy.

Author's Profile

David M. Frank
University of Tennessee, Knoxville


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