Book review: Environmentally Induced Illnesses: Ethics, Risk Assessment and Human Rights

Thomas Kerns
McFarland and Company, Inc.
ISBN 0-7864-0827-8

Thomas Kern’s Environmentally Induced Illnesses: Ethics, Risk Assessment and Human Rights is a solidly researched, cutting edge analysis of public policy issues relating to environmental illnesses. Kerns builds a framework of accepted ethical and human rights principles, and illustrates how these principles can, and must, be applied in order to safeguard human health. Kerns has divided his book into four parts. Part One, Data, establishes the problem. Kerns summarizes research on the numbers of people suffering from environmentally induced illnesses, including cancers, respiratory problems, behaviour problems, and chemical sensitivity. He draws on numerous articles to establish that low level, long term exposure to environmental toxins which have been previously been considered insignificant are having effects on human health that must not be ignored.

Part Two, Principles, draws from high profile international documents which establish basic public health principles. Kerns illustrates what it would mean to apply these principles to environmental illnesses. He illustrates the ways in which the “risk assessment” model most commonly used by governments in the US and Canada provides inadequate protection. Kerns argues for “an ethical counterbalance” which incorporates basic human rights, for example the right not to be poisoned without consent. He argues strongly that the principles of precaution and consent need to guide decision making.

In Modest Proposals, Part Three, Kerns sets out practical proposals which would advance understanding of environmentally induced illnesses, advance treatment, and provide recognition and support for people living with these illnesses. The proposals are both far reaching and simple. For example, Kerns shows how the established principle of Informed Consent, or “right to know”, if applied, would lead to mandatory labeling of genetically altered foods and full ingredient information on products including cosmetics and pesticides. Kerns makes the ethical case for safe schools and workplaces, and argues that access to public places for people with environmentally induced illnesses is a real and growing human rights issue.

The book concludes with Section Four, Brick Walls. This section, exposes the barriers to applying basic ethical and human rights principals to environmental health problems. Kerns details the ways in which multinational chemical corporations, and the public relations firms hired by them, influence public perceptions as well as government policy. He illustrates how in the medical field, outdated medical approaches block progress in this area.

Kerns does more than outline problems, he provides alternative approaches which are clear and practical, His perspective is a challenge to the ways in which public policy is developed in North America.

The appendixes and footnotes are of value in themselves. Kerns has included full texts of key human rights, medical ethics and industrial safety documents. His extensive footnotes lead the reader to a wealth of sources in a variety of fields.

The preface and introduction to this book are posted at