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Environ Health Insights. 2011;5:87-96. doi: 10.4137/EHI.S8296. Epub 2011 Nov 24.

From Cancer to Diarrhea: The Moving Target of Public Concern about Environmental Health Risks.

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  • 1Associate Professor, Environmental Health Science, Ohio University.


Public concern about the environment can be unpredictable because it is influenced by numerous factors. Environmental health issues often emerge as important because the public is worried about their health especially when it comes to cancer. Public fear of cancer from environmental exposures is reinforced by many of the US regulations that set pollutant limits based on reducing the risk of cancers rather than other health outcomes. While fear of cancer will never dissipate, recent foodborne outbreaks are contributing to raising public awareness of the health effects from microbes. This paper adds to the dialogue about the challenges of enhancing public understanding of environmental health issues. Internal factors, such as worry, that contribute to public outrage are sometimes more important than external factors such as the media. In addition, relying on the media to inform the public about imminent public health risks may be an ineffective approach to enhancing understanding. In the end, scientists and risk communicators are forced to compete with politicians who are often very effective at manipulating public understanding of risk.


environmental communication; environmental health; framing risk; risk perception

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