Ethics in environmental epidemiology

Sue Odams

in Essentials of Environmental Epidemiology for Health Protection

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780199663415
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191759116 | DOI:
Ethics in environmental epidemiology

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The British Paediatric Surveillance Unit (BPSU), in conjunction with the Health Protection Agency (HPA), is conducting a 3-year study into elevated blood lead levels in children in the UK (hereafter known as the SLIC Project). Hospital paediatricians, laboratories, and clinical toxicologists, who find an elevated blood lead in a child under 16, complete a questionnaire which is returned to the project team. The project involves the UK National Health Service (NHS), HPA, and Health Service Executive in the Republic of Ireland (ROI). What ethical issues and considerations may be involved in the conduction of this project?

There are examples in the history of health research where ethical principles have either not been used, or perverse justification given for unethical actions (e.g. the non-consented medical experiments exposed by the Nuremberg Trials). Today there is plenty of official guidance from medical and international organizations to ensure that research follows ethical principles. For example the Helsinki Declaration (World Medical Association (WMA), 2008); ethical guidelines to aid practitioners in conducting research (e.g. International Society for Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE), 2011), and national and international regulations. The UK Human Tissue Act (UK Government, 2004) is an example. Unfortunately despite this, the recent MMR research scandal has shown that ethical principles may still not be followed (Flaherty, 2011).

This chapter discusses the ethical issues involved in the SLIC Project, using the ISEE Ethical Guidelines as a framework (ISEE, 2010, ISEE, 2011). It is centred around the main ethical principles relevant to research: autonomy (independent thought), non-maleficence (avoidance of wrongdoing), justice (fairness), and beneficence (doing what is right or good) (Merlo, 2007). There other ethical approaches which are not dealt with here.

It may seem daunting at the beginning of a research project to address all relevant ethical issues and processes; however, it is highly likely that the organization conducting the research has its own guidance and policies and that someone in the organization has done something similar and can help or at least point you in the right direction. If available, the Research and Development Department can be a useful source of advice. However you decide to address the ethical issues, all decisions must be fully documented.

In the case of the SLIC Project, the key ethical issues were the use of children as subjects, informed consent, confidentiality, privacy, data protection, and data sharing. These issues will be explored in this chapter.

Chapter.  3605 words. 

Subjects: Public Health and Epidemiology ; Epidemiology

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