How Risky Is It, Really?

Why our fears don't always match the facts

San Francisco and Cell Phones. Reasonable Precaution or Freaked Out Nonsense?

Fear That Feels Right But Flies in the Face of the Facts (a gentle satire)


      San Francisco - Imposing the same precautionary attitude this progressive city has already shown toward chemicals, cell phones, and plastic bags, the Mayor of San Francisco and the city's Board of Supervisors have decided to post signs outside their offices warning people that the decisions about public health being made in those offices may be doing more to help the public feel safe, than actually protecting their safety.
     The action comes after Mayor Gavin Newsom proposed, and the Board of Supervisors approved, a rule requiring cell phone packaging to clearly display the amount of radiation each cell phone emits, addressing public concerns about whether radiation from cell phones might cause health problems. The rule was approved even after the Board of Supervisors heard testimony about the overwhelming scientific consensus that the radiation emitted by cell phones, and cell towers, has no "adverse health consequence." (World Health Organization  "No recent national or international reviews have concluded that exposure to the RF fields from mobile phones or their base stations causes any adverse health consequence.") The fears of radio frequency (RF) radiation from cell phones have centered on suspicion of an elevated risk of cancer. The National Cancer Institute has reviewed the research on that and says, "Research studies have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancer. A large international study (Interphone) published in 2010 found that, overall, cell phone users have no increased risk for two of the most common types of brain tumor-glioma and meningioma.)" In the face of that evidence, California and Maine have decided against versions of the labeling law that San Francisco has adopted.
      Mayor Newsom all but acknowledged the lack of actual risk, an aide saying "this is not to tell anyone to stop using their cell phones," adding that the rule was intended to address people's fears. "We think that for the consumer for whom this is an area of concern, it ought to be easier to find..." information on radiation emissions from cell phones. Federal law already requires manufacturers to make this information available, though not on the outside of the box the phone comes in. So the information goes on the box because people are worried, not because there is any actual danger. Except, doesn't putting a warning on the box suggest there IS a danger?
      Prior to the hearing The San Francisco Board of Supervisors were flooded with petitions requiring similar warning labeling on other products. A parents group wanted labels on syringes used to give children MMR vaccines to say "Drugs in this syringe may cause autism." An environmental group asked for labels on the poles carrying electric power lines saying "Caution, Electrical and Magnetic Fields may cause breast cancer". A group called "Remember Maria Stern", (a San Francisco woman who sued Dow Corning for health damage from the silicone in breast implants) wants labels on all silicone breast implants saying "the silicone in this implant causes auto immune diseases." Other appeals have been made to label the suspected risks of saccharin (cancer), air bags (kill children), microwave ovens (cancer), and toilet seats in public bathrooms (diseases/pregnancy).
     "It doesn't matter that all these risks have been largely disproved by massive scientific research," Newsom's office said in a prepared statement. "If people are afraid that something might be dangerous, especially something that is frightening because it is human-made and not natural, because it's produced by an untrustworthy for-profit corporation, because it uses  modern technology that's hard to understand, and because is especially scary because it may lead to a particularly painful sort of harm or death...those fears need to be respected. So we will be precautionary and give those frightened people what they want. When it comes to risk, in a democracy, it's not just about the facts, but how those facts feel."
      During the hearing on the cell phone labeling proposal, I. M. Greedy, Executive Director of the trade association-funded Professionals Rejecting Obstreporous Fear of Income and Trade (PROFIT) asked "Why not give people information that shows these risks have been largely disproved by lots of careful scientific research, instead of information that reinforces baseless fears?" "Isn't this just a cover for people who don't like capitalism and the free market," he added.
      "Capitalism and the free market and modern technology and the authority and class system they promote are destroying our world," replied Betty B. Scared, founder of the citizens group We're All In This Together, or WAITT. "You bet my cultural views shape how I see these issues. What's the matter with that, if all I want is to do is survive?"
      A shoving match erupted between Greedy and Scared that had more to do with whether society should be ordered and structured, or free and egalitarian, than about the facts of the cell phone radiation risk itself. It was broken up by police. At which point the hearing continued and the resolution to require radiation emission labels on cell phones passed the Board of Supervisors 9-1. The nine officials voting for responding to people's fears, as well as Mayor Newsom, are up for re-election. The one supervisor rejecting the idea, Les B. Sane, is retiring. The head of the Board, Yu All Win, said the other labeling requests will be taken up "as soon as enough voters are afraid of those things."

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     The psychology of risk perception referred to above is described in detail in David Ropeik's new book, How Risk Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Match the Facts.

 

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an Instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

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