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Surprising Science

Cellphones and Radiation: Berkeley’s Silly, and Harmful, Pandering to Fear

A decision requiring cellphone retailers to warn customers of possible radiation risk typifies the emotion-based way that democracy can supersede intelligent government risk policy-making.

             A recent decision by the Berkeley (California) City Council offers some informative, and scary, lessons about how society struggles to intelligently regulate risk. The clearest and scariest message of all is: In the scream-fest that is democracy, government policy-making sometimes reflects emotion more than objective analysis. Which doesn’t make for the most intelligent evidence-based decision-making. Which means that the way the government tries to keep us safe may not be keeping us as safe as we would hope.

Berkeley required cellphone retailers to inform customers

If you carry or use your phone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra when the phone is ON and connected to a wireless network, you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF radiation. This potential risk is greater for children.

Pretty bland stuff. No reference to cancer, which San Francisco tried to include in the label they mandated a few years ago, which was shot down in court when the cellphone industry sued. The Berkeley warning is the same language already in the fine print on the instructions that come with the phone… as required by federal law.

But that warning is buried in fine print few people read, which is insufficiently alarming for the advocates who campaign about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation from cellphones (as opposed to the ionizing kind the comes from nuclear sources)… despite overwhelming scientific evidence that this form of radiation, at such weak power levels, is not known to cause any human health harm at all. (Except — guys might not want to keep their phones in pockets too close to their testicles. It warms the sperm factory that works best at lower temperatures — that’s why testicles dangle dangerously outside the body in the first place — and lowers sperm count and quality.) The advocates want to sound a radio-phobia alarm that the evidence just doesn’t support.

The Berkeley City Council heard all the evidence that cellphone radiation is not a risk. But advocates cited their own research claiming it does pose a risk, including the risk of cancer.

(This included the 2011 ruling by the International Agency for Research on Cancer — IARC — that evidence of a connection between cellphone use and brain cancer was “limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, (two types of brain cancer) and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers.” IARC qualified their finding this way: “A positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer for which a causal interpretation is considered … to be credible, but chance, bias or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence.”)

This is what happens with a lot of risk controversies. To attack the mass of evidence on one side, advocates build their case on the bits and pieces and hints that cast any doubt on that evidence, no matter how unreliable or thin or biased that evidence. Creationists do it. Climate change deniers do it. GMO opponents do it. Vaccine opponents do it. Cast a glimmer of doubt. If doubt means there might be even the hint of danger, we’re off to the races of fear and precaution, and the bulk of the evidence be damned.

If all our governments behaved the way the Berkeley City Council did, we’d have all sorts of caveats written into our curricula about evolution — just what creationists are trying to do. We’d have a wait-until-we-know-more approach to climate change — what the coal industry and arch conservatives would prefer. The use of biotechnology to improve agriculture would have to await years more research. Or at least we’d have to have labels on food warning about GM ingredients, or on vaccines warning about all sorts of phantom fears.

Labels — the public’s right to know — have intuitive appeal. But when they are unsupported by the bulk of the evidence, they can perpetuate a blanket, knee-jerk fear that results in all sorts of opposition to all sorts of things that could do us a lot of good. In this case, the fear of radiation that flies in the face of hard facts perpetuates resistance to power lines that could carry energy to cities from solar and hydro and wind sources out in the country; opposition to cellphone towers on schools or churches that would benefit from renting the space; and fear of smart meters on homes that radio electricity demand back to generators who can adjust supply — which increases the efficiency of our energy system and helps combat climate change.

The problem with labels founded more on fear than evidence is the kind of government response to risk that it represents. Democratic, but not particularly intelligent. You and I are stuck with a subjective, emotion-based risk-perception system that mostly works to keep us safe, but sometimes leads us to worry about some things too much (radiation, “chemicals”) and some things not enough (climate change, skin cancer from solar radiation). But you and I aren’t setting policy that impacts everyone’s lives. Government officials are. They have a profound responsibility to human and environmental health to do better.

Image; Getty Images


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