NYT Buries Lead, Muddies Water on EMF Health Issue

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As I explained in an earlier blog post, I believe potential risks associated with our ever-more-intensive use of wireless devices, and the expanding body of research suggesting such risks do exist, are being unwisely ignored in our rush to enjoy the benefits of these technologies.

As that earlier post suggested, I see a need for:

1) A much-expanded program of research focused on understanding and mitigating EMF-related health risks, especially for vulnerable populations;

2) A fact-based and respectful discussion of research and public policy issues related to such risks.

Given my interest in this subject, I thought I might learn something useful from a recent NYT article by Carol Pogash entitled Cellphone Ordinance Puts Berkeley at Forefront of Radiation Debate. But, as I read the piece, I discovered that it used a mix of questionable journalistic practices to convey a different and dismayingly biased message, one worthy of a headline more like “Crazy Berkeley Radicals Once Again Deny Science by Legislating Onerous Anti-Business Regulations Based on Unfounded Sky-Is-Falling Cancer Claims.”

The first set of warning lights flashed when I read Pogash’s lead paragraph:

Leave it to Berkeley: This city, which has led the nation in passing all manner of laws favored by the left, has done it again. This time, the city passed a measure — not actually backed by science — requiring cellphone stores to warn customers that the products could be hazardous to their health, presumably by emitting dangerous levels of cancer-causing radiation.

While the first sentence may be true (I can’t tell without some independent research, since Pogash doesn’t cite any other “left-favored” laws passed by the city), it’s worth noting because it sets an effective perceptual frame for communicating the “Crazy Fact-Denying Berkeley Radicals Are At It Again” message. And it is especially potent in that regard when followed by two much more egregious statements in that paragraph. These claim that the Berkeley ordinance:

• is “not actually backed by science” and;

• warns customers that cellphones “could be hazardous to their health, presumably by emitting dangerous levels of cancer-causing radiation.”

It seems to me that, after reading the first paragraph,  uninformed readers might reasonably assume that the ordinance’s disclosure requirement made unsubstantiated claims that cellphone use will expose users to “dangerous levels of cancer-causing radiation.”

While launching a piece on the Berkeley ordinance this way may have been fun to write (it is, after all, entertainingly written), I was surprised and disappointed to see that it survived the Times’ editorial process. I found the “presumably” phrase particularly egregious in that regard, since Pogash’s “presumption” had no relation to the actual content of the ordinance, though many readers would not have known it when they read the lead paragraph (or possibly even after reading the whole article).

In her second paragraph, Pogash retains her dismissive tone by referring to the new Berkeley law as the “so-called” Right to Know ordinance, whose provisions she cites partially and in pieces, rather than in whole.

After reading these first two paragraphs, it seems reasonable to me that uninformed readers would assume that the ordinance and its requirements made some extreme statements about health risks, including some direct reference to increased cancer risk. All the more so after Pogash begins her third paragraph by focusing readers’ attention back to her preferred angle on the story, the “there’s no definitive proof of cancer risk” straw man.

Even supporters of the ordinance acknowledge that there is no definitive scientific link between cellphones and cancer, although they argue that it may take years for cancers to develop. The American Cancer Society says that cases of people developing cancer after carrying cellphones may be coincidental or anecdotal.

In the second part of that paragraph Pogash somewhat grudgingly acknowledges the actual content and purpose of the ordinance by adding that:

But some supporters are undeterred, noting that there are similar warnings in the fine print of cellphone manuals, and that the Berkeley warning is carefully written to reflect that language, albeit with additional cautionary words.

But right after doing that she jumps back to a poorly documented and superficial “debunking” of claims regarding potential links between cellphone use and cancer, which takes up the bulk of the remaining column inches devoted to the piece.

What she does not make clear is what Larry Lessig, who supported the Berkeley city council with pro bono legal services, explained in a blog post published shortly after the ordinance was passed:

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The Rush to “Smart” Meters: Maybe Not So Smart?

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In a recent blog post I discussed a critique of today’s “smart meters” that focused on the technology’s shortcomings as a step toward creating a “smart grid” that reduces climate change risks and other negative impacts associated with our current carbon-intensive energy systems. In another recent post I discussed the need for more research on EMF health effects.

In this post I’m going to revisit the subject of smart meters from a perspective informed by both of those prior posts.  One of my goals is to use smart meters as a specific example of how, when making decisions about large-scale technology deployments, we can and should give more weight to the precautionary principle, especially when a technology’s benefits are as poorly understood and/or overstated as seems to be the case with today’s generation of smart meters.

As discussed in my earlier post on smart meters, their initial rollout (like much of the stimulus bill’s spending) was intended to invest in technologies and initiatives that had strategic value to our society, and to do so as quickly as possible (the federal government was, after all, trying desperately to revive demand following a global crisis that pushed our financial system to the brink of total collapse, and our economy into a deep recession).

Though this was a worthy goal, I’d argue that, in the case of smart meters (as well as electronic health records and other areas covered by the bill), the need to “spend fast” made the task of “spending wisely” very difficult and, perhaps in some cases, impossible.

To clarify this point, let’s briefly compare these two programs (smart meters and EHRs) to the broadband connectivity portion of the stimulus bill. Though the latter was not without some risk of misallocated investment, it involved mature and largely standardized technologies, and fairly straightforward and time-tested planning and execution steps.

In contrast, the investment in smart meters and EHRs involved inserting much less mature and standardized technologies into key interface points within essential infrastructure systems (e.g., electricity and healthcare) whose urgent need for fundamental and systemic change confronts a complex web of entrenched interests. For these programs, the potential risk of unintended negative consequencies is far more serious and difficult to predict than those involved in extending broadband networks to underserved areas.

Flying too fast and too blind?

As suggested by my earlier post, one of the risks associated with the current generation of wireless-networked smart meters relates to potential negative EMF impacts on health. My point here is not that these impacts are necessarily large and ominous, but that: 1) they are not well understood, especially when we consider the range of factors involved in the smart meter deployment (including, as discussed below, the configuration of devices in multiple dwelling units) and; 2) virtually no in-depth research on health risks was done prior to the nearly nationwide smart meter rollout now underway (in that earlier post I argued that such research was important to do and suggested one approach to funding it).

In the discussion that follows, I’m going to use my own evolution from barely-informed enthusiasm to somewhat-informed caution to make some key points about the smart meter deployment.

A few years ago I was living in California when San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), the local utility, began its smart meter rollout. I was initially pretty excited about it, since the move to a “smart grid” was something I’d thought was a good idea since doing some research and consulting in this area back in the 1990s. But, after the meters were installed, I was exposed to information (ranging from personal stories to scientific studies) that made me wonder if more attention to safety was warranted. This information also convinced me that more research should have been done before utilities started deploying RF-networked smart meters on a massive scale and in ways that may have been most convenient, inexpensive and profitable for them, but that might increase the risks of negative health impacts; or to put it another way, that the overly-hurried smart meter rollout was premature and an unnecessary and unwise violation of the precautionary principle.

My concerns were initially triggered by my own situation with regard to the smart meter rollout.

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EMF Health Impacts: More Research Needed

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I’ve long been an enthusiastic supporter of using information and communication technology to support healthcare, education and political and economic empowerment. My interest dates back to 1982, when I wrote a graduate school paper entitled The Human Development Network. At that time, cable TV and desktop PCs were the new technologies of the day, the first brick-sized portable cellphones had yet to hit the market, and the closest thing to smartphones and “wearables” were found in the fictional worlds of Star Trek and Dick Tracy. Given my longstanding interest in beneficial uses of technology, it’s exciting to see today’s explosion of innovation related to wireless connectivity, and to consider future possibilities, including graphene-based wearables (see here and here).

That being said, I’m concerned that, in our rush to exploit the power of today’s wireless technologies, we are ignoring an uncomfortable issue raised by its rapidly expanding usage: the fact that we don’t understand very well the health impacts of surrounding ourselves (particularly our children, elderly, infirm and other vulnerable populations) with ever-increasing amounts of electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation, using an ever-expanding array of devices, frequency bands, duty cycles, modulation schemes, etc. (it’s worth noting here that some forms of EMF have been shown to have health benefits).

Though I’m not an electrical engineer, biologist or healthcare expert, I’m convinced that I’ve read enough about this issue to conclude one thing with confidence: that we, as a society, would be wise to invest more time, money and expertise in studying the real-world biological and health impacts of the expanding array of digital technologies we use today—and that we’d be foolish not to.

I’ve also come to believe that, while such research may be challenging, it should be a top priority as we continue to increase our usage of and exposure to EMF-producing devices. And while it may be comforting (psychologically and financially) to cite the limited research currently available (perhaps with a bit of cherrypicking) as a basis for dismissing health concerns as we race eagerly forward into the next wave of wireless connectivity, I’m convinced that such a conclusion is premature and overly simplistic…and perhaps even dangerous, especially for our most vulnerable citizens.

Replacing baby rattles with smartphones

A recent MarketWatch article highlights some of the potential risks and lack of research necessary to adequately understand and address them:

Executives dream of winning young customers over to their products. Companies like Apple…and Samsung…appear to be succeeding when the customers are barely out of their cribs.

More than half of babies in low-income households are tapping on smartphones or tablets by the age of two, with some spending more than an hour at a time using them. And more than one-third of low-income children have used them by the time they turn 1. That’s according to a study presented last month at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego by Hilda Kabili, a third-year resident doctor at the Einstein Health Network in Philadelphia. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the use of computers, smartphones and tablets by children under age 2, but there’s little long-term research on the effects of using them at such a young age.

I have to admit I find these statistics troubling in light of the last sentence about a lack of long-term research, coupled with research suggesting children absorb more EMF radiation than adults (for a short synopsis of this study, see this Forbes article).

More light, less heat needed in EMF health impact debate

I’m all for leveraging the power of wirelessly-networked digital technology. But if this technology is going be an ever growing part of our life (which seems extremely likely), I think we owe it to ourselves, our children and future generations to invest a small percentage of the many billions of dollars we spend on it to understand if and how it is impacting our health, and how we can best reduce any negative impacts. This seems especially important when it comes to the health of children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations.

I’m not going to argue here that EMF health risks are large, small or anywhere in between. In fact, I’m tired of hearing blanket assertions that various wireless technologies are either “safe” or “harmful.” [If you’d like to explore the debate and the research surrounding it, you might begin here and here (“harmful”) and here (“safe”)].

Simplistic assertions of safety or lack thereof may be emotionally and/or financially satisfying for those heavily invested in either side of the debate, which has been marked by dismissiveness and dissembling on one side, and sometimes blinding anger and distrust on the other.  But in such an environment, scientific and public policy questions that are already challenging become very difficult even to discuss, let alone to address with well-designed, unbiased research.

Yet it is exactly that kind of research that’s needed to clarify how we can continue to expand the benefits of wireless technology while mitigating harmful impacts associated with its ever-increasing use.  And this research should be well-funded and ongoing, as no doubt will be our continuing investments and innovations in wireless networks and devices.  And it should be well protected from money-driven (or any other) bias.  In my view, science influenced by corporate profit-seeking simply cannot be trusted as science (big pharma’s growing control and distortion of medical research, discussed here and here, is a troubling example of this dynamic).

$1B/yr. of research for the price of a small latte

In terms of funding, consider the following very rough calculation as an indicator of what might be possible if, as a society, we decided to take this issue seriously:

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