By Manuel Vallee

Research shows that disease is invariably related to pollution in subtle but intimate ways as Manuel Vallee explains. 

How reliable is the disease information provided by mass media? What gaps exist in their coverage? In particular, how well do they cover the link between environmental pollution and human health? Why does this matter? Who benefits from the coverage provided and who does not?

Over the last half century environmental health researchers have documented environmental pollution’s significant contribution to an array of health problems, including cancers, asthma, fertility problems, birth defects, developmental disorders, musculo-skeletal problems, immunological problems, metabolic disorders, and many more (CHE 2018). The research shows that disease is invariably related to pollution in subtle but intimate ways (Schettler et al. 2000; Steingraber 2009). Yet, the environmental causation perspective is rarely present in mainstream media’s depiction of disease, which tends to instead push an individualising understanding of it, where the focus is on genes and individual lifestyle choices (Brown et al. 2001).

This is an important problem because mainstream media significantly influences how people view the world, shaping their understanding of social problems and the potential ways of addressing them. As this pertains to the media’s coverage of disease, if people are led to view disease as an individual phenomenon, they will be unaware of the profound role played by environmental pollution, which will make it harder for families to protect themselves from contaminated living spaces (including the home, workplace, and recreational areas) and harmful consumer products. This problem is particularly important for patients, whose ignorance of pollution’s role will prevent them fully understanding how they became ill, and how contaminated living spaces and harmful consumer products may have contributed to their plight. In turn, failing to identify the sources of toxicants in their lives will condemn them to re-exposure, which will undermine their body’s ability to quickly and fully recover, while also putting them at greater risk of a relapse.

Over the last two decades social scientists have been studying print media’s coverage of disease, documenting not only that environmental pollution is seldom discussed in media stories, but that when it is mentioned the information tends to be dismissed or downplayed as a contributing factor (Atkin et al. 2008; Brown et al. 2001; Lewison et al. 2008). One area that has not received as much attention is online publishers of medical information, such as Healthline.com and WebMD.com.

Numerous factors make these information providers particularly important to study. First, their information is more accessible than conventional print sources because most content is free, can be instantaneously accessed, and can be accessed at a distance. Second, lay audiences are likely to give more credibility to the websites, due to features suggesting a close association with the medical profession: 1) including “health,” “medicine,” “MD,” or “Dr” in their website names; 2) clearly identifying medical doctors as content reviewers; and 3) including medical doctors on the governing boards. Third, the medium has grown significantly in recent years, as indicated by the proliferation of websites, the social following many have developed, and that it has become a multi-billion dollar industry (Bray, 2017).

In an effort to address this gap, my recent study (Vallée 2020) investigated WebMD’s coverage of leukaemia, and found numerous problems. First, the coverage failed to identify most toxicants (i.e. harmful chemicals) associated with leukaemia’s development. Where environmental health researchers have identified twenty-two toxicants associated with leukaemia (including formaldehyde, benzene, ionizing radiation, each of which are “strongly” associated to the disease), WebMD’s coverage only listed eight, and failed to mention two (1,3-Butadiene and ethylene oxide) of the five that are strongly associated to the disease. Instead, the coverage emphasises the role of genes and lifestyle choices.

This is very problematic because if people are not aware of how these toxicants can contribute to leukaemia, they will be less likely to look out for them in the products they use, thereby putting at risk their and their family’s health. Conversely, if people were made aware of the problems with these toxicants, they could avoid using them and press their political representatives to tighten regulations around their production, use and disposal.

The recent study (Vallée 2020) also illuminated that on the occasions when WebMD authors mentioned toxicants, they used rhetorical tactics that downplayed the toxicants’ role in producing leukaemia. One of these tactics was to only place the toxicant information in subordinate locations, which included placing it well after discussions of genes and lifestyle factors. Another tactic is to surround the toxicant information with negating statements. For example, the site’s “Causes” section opens with “No one knows what causes leukaemia,” which suggests there is an absence of knowledge linking the disease to toxicants.

Such obscuring of toxicant information does a grave disservice to patients and their families, who would benefit from understanding how the disease could have been mediated by their environmental contexts. Beyond better understanding the source of the disease, that knowledge could help their recovery by ensuring their living spaces and consumer products are no longer exposing them to harmful chemicals.

Beyond highlighting those impacted by WebMD’s production of ignorance, the study (Vallée 2020) also highlights the beneficiaries of the situation, which include the manufacturers of the harmful chemicals, whose role in producing the disease is obscured, thereby reducing their likelihood of facing financial consequences for their actions, which could include paying fines for their pollution or being required to pay for cleaning up the pollution they have created. Additionally, manufacturers are less likely to face tougher regulations or risk profit-harming consumer boycotts. Obscuring the role of toxicants also benefits politicians, who are shielded from the political repercussions of having written or supported weak and ineffective toxicant regulations.

References:

Atkin, Charles, Sandi Smith, Courtnay McFeters, and Vanessa Ferguson. 2008. “A Comprehensive Analysis of Breast Cancer News Coverage in Leading Media Outlets Focusing on Environmental Risks and Prevention.” Journal of Health Communication 13(1): 3–9.

Bray, Chad. 2017, July 24. “K.K.R. to BuyWebMD and Take Majority Stake in Nature’s Bounty.” The New York Times p. B7. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2017/07/24/business/dealbook/kkr-webmd-natures-bounty.html.

Brown, Phil, Steve Zavestoski, Sabrina McCormick, Joshua Mandelbaum, and Theo Luebke. (2001). “Print Media Coverage of Environmental Causation of Breast Cancer.” Sociology of Health & Illness 23(6): 747–775.

CHE (Collaboration on Health and the Environment). 2018. Toxicant and Disease Database. Collaborative on Health and the Environment. Retrieved from www.healthandenvironment.org/our-work/toxicant-and-disease-database/.

Lewison, Grant. S. Tootell, Philip Roe, and Richard Sullivan. 2008. “How Do the Media Report Cancer Research? A Study of the UK’s BBC Website.” British Journal of Cancer 99: 569–576.

Schettler, Ted., Jill Stein, Fay Reich, Maria Valenti, and David Wallinga. 2000. In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development. Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. Boston, MA: Red Sun Press.

Steingraber, Sandra. 2009. “The Social Construction of Cancer: A Walk Upstream.” In Environmental Sociology: From Analysis to Action, edited by Leslie King and Deborah McCarthy, pp. 287–299. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Vallée, Manuel. 2020. “The Environment’s Absence in Medicine: Mainstream Medical Coverage of Leukemia.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Environmental Sociology, edited by Katharine Legun, Julie Keller, Michael Bell, Michael Carolan, pp. 137-157. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Manuel Vallee is a Senior Lecturer in sociology at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in the sociology of science and is the co-editor of Resilience, Environmental Justice and the City.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

See Also:

What are the roots of science denialism in the time of COVID-19, and how do we untangle them?

Q+A: What’s the cost of dissing science?