Ethical issues in international environmental health research

James V. Lavery, R. E.G. Upshur, R. R. Sharp, K. J. Hofman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Environmental health problems are among the world's most significant health concerns. Although environmental risks are experienced disproportionately by people in developing countries, environmental health research (EHR) is conducted primarily in developed countries. Human subjects participate in five main types of EHR: (1) documentation and quantification of exposure to potentially hazardous substances; (2) elucidation of biological responses to these materials; (3) characterization and measurement of susceptibility to harmful effects of hazardous materials; (4) trials involving environmental interventions to reduce risk; and (5) documentation and measurement of various manifestations of disease putatively linked to environmental exposures. Although existing frameworks for the ethics of international clinical research are generally relevant to EHR, they currently lack the specificity necessary to confront three inherent problems in EHR, namely under-determination in EHR findings, the unavoidable nature of some environmental hazards, and environmental justice implications. We examine these issues as they relate to community partnership, risk assessment, and the assessment and management of economic and political interests in EHR. We believe that there are 3 general features of ethical EHR, it has health promoting value, the populations studied are not restricted in their ability to avoid environmental hazards by economic or political repression, and the justification for conducting EHR on populations with known exposure to environmental hazards gets stronger as the limits on populations to reduce the hazards or remove themselves from them becomes greater, as long as the first and second conditions are also met.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)453-463
Number of pages11
JournalInternational Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health
Issue number4-5
StatePublished - Aug 2003


  • Environmental health
  • Environmental justice
  • Ethics
  • Global health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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