November 16, 2011
This is electro-magnetic field week in the European Commission in Brussels. For risk analysts like the Risk-Monger, such a meeting of emotion-rich, evidence-poor debate on the science of EMFs is just like an early Christmas. I admire the Commission for relenting to these public consultations with people who so vehemently hate each other.
I have been following this debate for more than a decade now (which makes me a relative newcomer) as a good case in point of the absolute futility of the use of the precautionary principle in environmental health policy debates. To put it in terms laid out by a clever speaker, I am attending the 2011 International Scientific Conference on EMF and Health to reconfirm my professional bias.
EMFs are ubiquitous. We are not just exposed to EMFs when we push our mobile phones up against the tender tissues of our brains or in passing by power lines, phone masts or microwave ovens. A certain search for my wifi network amid the dozens of other transmissions my neighbours are producing will tell me I am always being electrically charged (my body has a SAR: a specific energy absorption rate). The anti-theft devices in shops, radar cameras at intersections … I learn today that using an electric car is like sitting on a power generator (another reason to not buy an electric car!).
By lighting up the body with high or low level frequencies, we can assume some influence on human health and thus some need for science to assess these risks. But we no longer have local control groups not exposed to EMFs, we can’t rely on animal research data and every individual seems to react differently to exposure. Even measuring EMF exposure is a challenge: are doses linear? Can dosimetry tools measure reliably within the context of all of the variables? It is no surprise then that any research is soon refuted. There is no scientific consensus and the differences of opinion are widening. Still the European Commission is pushing for a consensus (just like the IPCC!). Is 80% agreement a consensus? 60%? This is not science, it is politics.
So we have scientific uncertainty and the potential for health risks on a catastrophic scale (in ten years time, think of all of the potential brain tumors from mobile phones). This is definitely a case to apply the precautionary principle: until science can prove with certainty that mobile phones, electricity and pretty well anything electronic are safe for human health, we must take precaution (ie, stop using and making them). Such a blanket statement of course frightens not only the manufacturing and distribution industries involved in these technologies, but also governments and individuals who have come to appreciate the societal and personal benefits of cell phones, electronics and most modern conveniences. So more studies are conducted along different parameters.
The threat of precaution has led to an “obscuration effect” (my term). With dubious evidence, inadequate exposure measurements, an absence of control groups, research can produce a cornucopia of results. Much like tobacco research in the 1970s, more conflicting research only clouds the debate. Several months ago there was a cohort study that concluded that mobile phones can cause cancer. There was no public panic or big news, because we have been conditioned to expect a study next month that would conclude that my mobile is perfectly safe. Precaution has pushed EMF science to obfuscate itself into irrelevance.
Precaution is also useless. Even if there were no doubt that mobile phones cause cancer, I don’t see many people sending their phones back to the shops (indeed, decades later, people still smoke). What precaution has done is create a policy distraction that has encouraged a cottage industry in EMF research studies (and an endless supply of research funding).
So what do we do? Let us safely assume that electro-charging our cells in some way can affect people’s health. But it does not affect all people – some are more electro-sensitive than others (in Sweden, they are deemed to be environmental refugees), some ages more vulnerable than others (babies to adolescents, depending on brain development, body mass …), some people at risk at certain times more than others (pregnant women, people on medications…). Rather than getting a precautionary “Yes-No” on whether we should have these technologies and their benefits, we should actually be spending our time and energy managing the risks (precaution is not a risk management tool, but an uncertainty management tool).
Despite the obscuring and distracting nature of the precautionary principle, we are in fact managing the EMF risks (and most of the time responsibly without the need for regulations – recall that the EMF Directive failed). The electricity distribution and mobile industries are using the RM tool of ALARA: As Low As Reasonably Achievable. Over the last decade, iterations in the mobile technology have greatly reduced the exposure to EMFs – new phones are emitting much smaller fields. Phone masts are designed to be safer and power lines are being more reasonably located. Protective equipment and safety advice are more widely available. Are they perfect? No. Are the improvements in managing exposures safe enough? That is the question of what is reasonable and reasonably achievable. New technologies (like electric cars, MRI scanners or anti-theft devices) bring new EMF challenges, but if we focus on ALARA, we may be able to enjoy the benefits without decades of politically-induced scientific noise over a “consensus”.
If ALARA fails to reduce exposures to a reasonable level (for example, protecting exposure to children from cell phone radiation), then, and only in this context, introduce precaution. As I left the conference hall, I saw about 30 activists demanding to stop allowing children to use cell phones. I think this is reasonable. We would need to determine what a reasonable age is: 6 years old? 12? 16? That would also determine whether such legislation is achievable.
Strangely, throughout the first day of the conference, not once did I hear the word: ALARA. Maybe Day 2 will bring the hope of rationality.David Zaruk