Summary of "Phantom Risk: Scientific Inference and the Law"

Summary of

Phantom Risk: Scientific Inference and the Law

By K. Foster, D. Bernstein, and P. Huber, eds.

Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Phantom Risk: Scientific Inference and the Law, K. Foster, D. Bernstein, P. Huber, (eds), (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 457 pp.

Phantom Risk will be of interest to those who seek to understand the nature of scientific risk assessment, and relation of risk to legal liability. This work is divided into seventeen chapters, and a final conclusion. In each chapter a scientist addresses an occupational or environmental health issue which has figured prominently in tort litigation.

Chapters one and two present overviews of the scientific and legal perspectives on risk assessment. Chapter one discusses the role of epidemiological and animal studies in determining hazards and assessing risks. Chapter two describes the legal approach to questions of risk, discusses the role of the media and public reaction, describes the financial incentives involved in tort litigation, and discusses the function of expert witnesses and the rules of evidence.

Chapters three through six address phantom risks. Phantom risks are "cause-and-effect relationships whose very existence is unproven and perhaps non-provable." K. Foster considers the possible connection between weak magnetic fields and cancer in chapter three, and between video display terminals and miscarriages in chapter six. J. Mills examines the risk of birth defects posed by spermicides in chapter four. In the fifth chapter L. Lasagna and S. Shulman explore claims that Benedictin (an anti-nausea drug) causes birth defects. The section concludes with a brief summary of the litigation in these areas.

Chapters seven through fourteen explore the risks posed by low-level exposure to substances which are known to be hazardous at high levels of exposure. B. Ames and L. Swirsky Gold discuss the misconceptions surrounding environmental pollution and cancer. R. D'Agostino Jr., and R. Wilson asses the risk posed by low level asbestos exposure. R. Kimbrough examines the human health effects of polychlorinated biphenyls. R. Jaeger and A. Weiss review the literature in toxicology and epidemiology regarding tri-chloroethylene. M. Gough examines the risks posed by dioxin. G. Tokuhata discusses the public health consequences of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. R. Lapp examines the hazards of low level radiation exposure from fallout. B. Cohen reviews the case of a filter system failure in the uranium processing plant in Fernald, Ohio, in 1984. Again, this section concludes with a brief summary of the litigation in these areas.

Chapters fifteen through seventeen examine the legal issues that arise from questionable medical theories. M. Romsdahl discusses the theory of trauma induced cancer. M. Luster, G. Rosenthal, and D. Germolec examine "multiple chemical sensitivities" syndrome. R. Cornfield and S. Schlossman critique the court's decision in Elam v Alcolac, and propose an evidentiary standard for the consideration of immunology legal claims. A brief summary of the litigation concludes this section.

The concluding chapter offers specific guidelines to help the legal system deal with phantom risks.

Phantom Risk offers a careful examination of many current and controversial hazards, and is designed to be accessible to the "intelligent lay reader."