Danger: facts ahead

We are, apparently, just not safe enough and we need more warning labels. It’s only reasonable. We have warning labels on food, cigarettes, airbags in cars, gas cans, water heaters, children’s toys, you name it. But there are some notable, and very worrying, areas where warnings don’t exist yet. If we’re going to be really responsible and cautious and do everything we can to protect everyone as much as possible, then we need to go that little bit further.

To this end, I think we need legislation to require PC manufacturers to put warning labels on their products along the lines of “Dropping this product on your foot from any significant height may result in injury.” Or what about warning labels for Wi-Fi antennas that would read: “Poking this into your eye may result in eye injury”? 

Or how about for CDs and DVDs: “Using this product as a substitute for a Frisbee may result in injury or death.”  To riff on an old story, we probably need warning labels on toy poodles: “Do not attempt to dry in a microwave.” 
What got me thinking about this under-recognized and pressing need for more warning labels were recent reports that Maine State Representative Andrea M. Boland (D-Sanford) is putting forward a bill that would make Maine the first state to require cell phone manufacturers to put health warnings on cell phone packaging. 

The issue that Bland is picking up on is that there is, in theory, and according to a few researchers, some risk of cancers being triggered in the brain and surrounding tissues from extended exposure to radio frequency energy generated by cell phones.

The problem with this whole idea is that the evidence for cell phone radiation being a health hazard is inconclusive. The opinion of the National Cancer Institute is that ” Several studies have investigated the risk of developing … brain tumors [and the] results from the majority of these studies have found no association between hand-held cellular telephone use and the risk of brain cancer … However, some, but not all, long-term studies have suggested slightly increased risks for certain types of brain tumors … Further evaluation of long-term exposures (more than 10 years) is needed.” 

A recent study, “Time Trends in Brain Tumor Incidence Rates in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, 1974–2003” published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute noted that although “mobile phone use has frequently been proposed as a risk factor for brain tumors, neither a biological mechanism to explain this association nor the etiology of brain tumors is known.” It concluded that no “change in incidence trends were observed from 1998 to 2003, the time when possible associations between mobile phone use and cancer risk would be informative about an induction period of 5–10 years.” 

Of course, the fact that science hasn’t found a causal relationship between cell phones and cancer doesn’t prove there isn’t one, but I think the weight of evidence favors the safety of cell phones.

In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and discussed on the University of South Florida’s Health Web site found that, at least in mice, “long-term exposure to electromagnetic waves associated with cell phone use may actually protect against, and even reverse, Alzheimer’s disease.” 

However, despite the lack of evidence on a relationship between cell phone radiation and human health, the quest to address the “threat” goes on apace. According to the New York Times: “A spokesman for the [Maine] State Senate president … said the legislation was accepted as an emergency because there are over 900,000 cellphones in the state, ‘and if there’s a need to put these warning labels on them, doing it sooner rather than later is probably better.'”

As if Boland’s platforming weren’t enough, Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, who always seemed to me to grok technology better than most pols, has also jumped on the “cell phones will turn your brain to mush” bandwagon. Newsom has plans to require that cell phone packaging in the city display the amount of radiation a phone emits. What a cute idea. How many of us will have any idea how to interpret this data? Very few. Moreover, how many will pay attention to the data? Hardly any.

According to the Los Angeles Times, a spokesman for Newsom said: “The mayor believes that cell phone safety is the next frontier in terms of consumer safety.” Really? They must put something in the water there if they think they got all of the other big risks covered. 

If we were really that concerned about public safety why don’t we require McDonald’s to dire warnings on its burger wrappers? It would only be fair because the science is there. It’s a fact that what’s in a Big Mac is bad for you (and really bad for the environment, but that’s another column).

The Big Mac warning could go something like this: “These food-like substances carry a significant risk of causing heart problems, a fat butt, and really unattractive cellulite.” And for the Coke that comes with it: “This drink contains high fructose corn syrup which is known by science to be one step away from a deadly poison and could cause you to develop type II diabetes.”

You know that finding these warnings or anything like them on any fast food is as likely to happen as I am likely to learn to break dance.

So, why is it that the food lobby can deflect obvious and rational consumer warnings while the high-tech industry seems incapable of doing the same thing? I’m thinking it’s not a question of money; the high-tech world is well-heeled enough to buy enough lobbyists to drive their agenda. Nope, it’s all about education and power politics.

When it comes to high tech and IT and science in general, the public and the pols still think it is all magic. Tell them a joke like “computers run on smoke because when it leaks out they stop working” and they think you’re relating a fact.

Worse still, for the sake of politics, it’s easier for them, pols and populace alike, to all remain ignorant. If you can make it up or use disinformation, it’s easier than having to use rational, considered argument. It’s also quicker and those pesky facts that require actually thinking about, who needs that?

You wait. Next on the list will be Wi-Fi, then Bluetooth. To misquote Pastor Martin Niemöller

First they came for the cell phones, and I did not speak out — because it seemed like a stupid argument; Then they came for the Wi-Fi, and I did not speak out — because it made no sense; Then they came for the Bluetooth, and I did not speak out — because I never use dorky headsets; Then they came for my Internet connection — and it was too late.

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