Cancer is the Least of It

A few weeks ago I commented on the Interphone Study, the huge international study of brain tumor risks from cell phone use. The official pronouncement was that there was insufficient evidence to show a risk despite the fact that many of the scientists involved concluded that the evidence was sufficient to show risk. The Wall Street Journal’s Numbers Man, who knows something about statistics, agreed with the dissenters after actually looking at the study’s data. Nevertheless, all of the official agencies responsible for protecting our health took the opportunity to declare, once again, that there is no cause for concern.

What captured my attention, in addition to the deeply flawed science and failure of responsible government agencies to protect us, is the obsession with cancer as the marker for what’s safe and what’s not. It seems that the worst thing you can say about something is that it causes cancer. Then it gets our attention. Otherwise, it’s not so bad. It doesn’t cause cancer, so it must be safe.

Each side in the debate over cell phone health effects placed great hopes on the Interphone Study based on this twisted logic. But, really, is a brain tumor the worst thing that a cell phone can do to you? In my opinion, the time, money, and talent used for Interphone should have been devoted to examining the wide variety of suffering associated with the entire cell phone system: the personal devices, where and how they’re used, the antenna infrastructure, and how people are exposed.

I don’t know anyone with a brain tumor. I know many people who, when exposed to a SmartPhone, suffer headaches, inability to think clearly, anxiety, elevated pulse and blood pressure, and require an extended period for recovery, sometimes for a day or more. Those are the acute, short-term effects. Suggested long-term effects include increased risk of permanent neurological impairment (such as Alzheimer’s Disease), infertility, heart attacks, and strokes. And then there are the quality of life issues that affect people who suffer from electrohypersensitivity, people who are under a kind of house arrest because wireless exposures are everywhere—if they venture out, they risk being literally cooked.

But this isn’t a diatribe on the health risks from wireless technologies. As I’ve noted before, one toxicologist asserts that it is scientifically defensible to assume without knowing anything else that a chemical cooked up in a lab is toxic. In our culture, we don’t do that. Just the opposite—harm has to be proven before use is restricted. This insanity is compounded by narrowly focused science that looks at one chemical and one catastrophic effect at a time, typically cancer. If it doesn’t cause a catastrophe, then it must be OK to expose people to it. The same is true of the continuing research that shows the environmental and health damage done by our transportation system.

By focusing on a specific impairment (such as a brain tumor) that results from a specific exposure (such as use of a cell phone), scientists and the governments that use their science have the stick by the wrong end. The scientists hold that end of the stick because of how they are trained, the social structure of science within which they work, and how their work is funded.

The right end of the stick is this…

In addition to the basic assumption that any novel exposure is toxic until proven otherwise, the science needs to start with the assumption that the causal relationship is many-to-many not one-to-one. In other words, the science has to be about how the environment created by a technology with all its exposures affects all aspects of health. Cancer is likely the least of our worries. We need to take account of more than catastrophic effects. If something doesn’t cause cancer, is it reasonable to conclude that it doesn’t harm your health at all? Of course not. But that’s the message delivered by the very structure of how technologies are introduced and judged: it doesn’t cause cancer, so it must be OK.

But here’s the problem: the science happens at a very great distance from you and me and our daily grind. The great distance is physical, political, economic, and informational. How do we close that distance?

I guarantee you that the answer is not in being a smart shopper. I believe that the distance is closed by working with other people to create safe communities where the introduction of a technology is judged by the changes it makes in your physical and social environment, the exposures that result, and the full range of health effects associated with those exposures.

But won’t that strangle innovation, the very heart of our way of life? Yes, it will. That’s the point. Wireless innovation, transportation innovation, chemical innovation, agricultural innovation, and all of those technologies currently in use—they all have baggage. As with any relationship, it seems sensible to check what’s in the bags before you move in together.