Exploiting the Precautionary Principle

By Keith Kloor | May 9, 2013 4:53 pm

There are a couple of ways to interpret the story about a revoked ordinance in San Francisco that, as Reuters reports,

would have been the first in the United States to require [cell phone] retailers to warn consumers about potentially dangerous radiation levels.

Before it was reversed it was known as–get ready for it–the “right to know” ordinance. Sound familiar?

Here’s some reaction from a disappointed SF resident:

“This is just a terrible blow to public health,” Ellen Marks, an advocate for the measure, said outside the [city] supervisors’ chambers. She said her husband suffers from a brain tumor on the same side of his head to which he most often held his mobile phone.

Now, we could interpret this news as a victory for Big Cell Phone, since they fought against the proposal to warn consumers about the potential lethality of cell phones. Big Cell Phone doesn’t want you to know about a virtually non-existent risk to your health. Imagine that!

But wait a minute, about midway through the Reuters story, this line appears:

Despite mounting evidence the phones may cause brain tumors, scientists disagree and are hesitant to draw conclusions.

Wha? Mounting evidence? This perplexed science writer John Timmer, who tweeted:

There is no basis, unless you subscribe to the view expressed in the Reuters piece by the Environmental Working Group, which advocated for the right-to-know law:

“If the nation’s experience with tobacco taught us anything, it is that it is dangerous to wait until there is scientific consensus about a potential health threat before providing consumers with information on how they can protect themselves,” said Renee Sharp, the group’s research director.

At some point, I’m going to lay out why the precautionary principle, taken to an extreme is it often is nowadays, makes some people unnecessarily fearful of everything in modern life.

UPDATE: See this 2010 post by David Ropeik for excellent background on the cellphone freakout in SF.

PDF of this article, including photo of woman on cell phone

[Click here or on above image to enlarge U.S. Food and Drug Administration article]

  • FosterBoondoggle

    The same nonsense happens with so-called “smart meters” that use wifi to transmit electric & gas consumption back to the utility. PG&E has had to allow residents who don’t want them to retain the older human-read type (though they’re permitted to charge for the service). A N. Cal. town recently tried to ban smart meters altogether. See here: http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Sebastopol-in-standoff-over-SmartMeters-4362281.php. The problem is that the vast majority of people can’t tell pseudo from real science, so they go with whatever their gut tells them.

    • JonFrum

      When the time comes and they put a ‘smart’ meter on my house I’ll smash the damn thing and it won’t be so smart any more.

      • FosterBoondoggle

        Ha! The scourge of the lefty luddites has his own tinfoil hat!

        • JonFrum

          Tinfoil hat? A smart meter that told the consumer exactly what his appliances were costing him is a great idea. A smart meter that tells the power company (and thus the government) how much current he’s pulling in real time can only serve one purpose. Appliances that can be shut down by the power company at times of high power use are already being discussed in Europe. You should be able to understand this with no hat on – and it has nothing to do with Left or Right.

          The power company already knows how much current is being drawn in real time – there is no possible reason for real time data on individual customers – unless you want to institute controls.

          • FosterBoondoggle

            Yes, Agenda 21, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group are all coming to take your Freedomes away. Keep that hat on tight.

  • Johan Jung

    In 2010, I was a 39 year old 135lb 5’8″ healthy man. I got my first cell phone, used with my right ear then in 2 weeks I got a lump on my right outer ear, size of a penny. I had never gotten any kind of lump on my ears in my whole life. So I started using my left ear, the lump on my right ear disappeared in 2 weeks however I got the same size lump on my left ear! I have been using earphone or speaker phone since then! Don’t tell me cell phone is not linking to brain tumors!!

  • Nullius in Verba

    The precautionary principle is, more or less, logically equivalent to Pascal’s Wager.

    Johan, Don’t press it so hard against your ear, and you won’t get callouses.

  • Buddy199

    “If the nation’s experience has taught us anything, it is that it is dangerous to wait until there is scientific consensus..”

    If this nation’s experience has taught us anything it is that many thousands of lives in war and hundreds of billions of dollars in useless social programs could have been saved by
    waiting a little longer for the fog to clear, instead of bum rushing to “fix” something you don’t really understand.

  • dogctor

    My view on the Precautionary principle is that it is embedded in medicine, as “first do no harm”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primum_non_nocere

    I have not done any reading on cell phones and brain tumors, so can’t comment on the science on this ginormous topic. However, my personal experience is of losing a friend who was an international banker who spent 12hrs/ day on the phone at the age of 36 of a horridly aggressive tumor known as glioblastoma multiforme (astrocytoma Grade IV).

    N=1, I know, but what he and his family went through is impossible to put into words, and at the very least suggests that the subject should be addressed with utmost sensitivity to victims of this disease .

    • Tom Scharf

      Try reading “The Emperor of all Maladies”.

      http://www.amazon.com/Emperor-All-Maladies-Biography-Cancer/dp/1439170916

      It’s a history on the battle against cancer. Tying this disease down to “caused by external influence X” and “cured by treatment Y” is very unlikely to happen anytime soon. if ever.

      There are so many contradictory cancer “linkage” studies out there now that the only reasonable reaction is to ignore them all.

      • dogctor

        Thanks for your thoughts Tom.
        Looks like a great book to pick up, and I will.

        My simple explanation of cancer to my clients ( believe it or not, cats and dogs suffer from many cancers just like humans: lymphoma, multiple myeloma, meningiomas, insulinomas, osteosarcoma, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma) is that it is a disease caused by complex interactions between genetics, immune system responses and environment.

        Sorry, I can’t ignore them all. If I did, I would still be vaccinating cats with adjuvanted vaccines, which we now know cause inflammatory responses in genetically susceptible cats leading to cancer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaccine-associated_sarcoma

  • Tom Scharf

    Add another item to the liberal/green “irrational fear of the invisible”.

    1. Nuclear radiation
    2. CO2
    3. GMO
    4. Cell phone radiation
    5. Any trace amount of any chemical found in tap water
    6. Etc. etc.

    There will be a world wide panic if they ever find out we are constantly being “radiated” by the entirety of the electromagnetic spectrum, especially “visible light radiation”. Aaaggghhhhh!!!!!!!

    What is curious is that only man-made items count as things to worry about. Asteroid impacts and gamma ray bursts are totally ignored, even though they pose a very non-theoretical danger. The dinosaurs ended up not having to worry about their cell phones after all.

    Mercury has few ouchies on display:
    http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap080121.html

  • http://twitter.com/andrewadams99 Andrew Adams

    There is no real equivalence between labelling a product to indicate that it contains GMOs and informing customers about potentially dangerous radiation levels from cellphones. The latter statement is extremely dubious with litle or no scientific evidence to support it, the former is a simple statement of fact which leaves the customer to make up their mind about whether it is significant.

    • Nullius in Verba

      There’s no difference between labelling a product to say it does (or does not) contain GMOs and labelling a product to say it does (or does not) contains allyl isothiocyanate. Or any other of a million simple statements of fact.

      If we go down this road, will there be room for them all on the packaging?

      • http://twitter.com/andrewadams99 Andrew Adams

        I see it as a consumer choice issue – if there is sufficient demand from consumers to know if their food contains a particular substance then by all means label it. But AIUI allyl isothiocyanate is specific to particular products and those products would be included in the ingredients list anyway, so there would be no need for separate labelling.

        • Tom Scharf

          Consumers can choose. Buy organic.

          You are simply trying to force “choice” upon others who do not wish it, and are not asking for it.

          The FDA sees no reason to label these products, and the voters don’t either.

          • dogctor

            False. Once GEs are labeled, you will be able to seek out GE- containing foods and will have not lost your choice to eat Round Up and toxic adjuvants. The choice removed, will be from companies making profits selling Round-Up to consumers, millions of whom are fighting daily to have the crap labeled, from exposing their kids to it without consent.

            The FDA chiefs are enjoying torrid affairs with industrial lovers blatantly in the open, which diminish their credibility and authority in the public sphere.

          • FosterBoondoggle

            How was this comment false?!? You want GMO-free food (e.g., because you’ve been reading too many pseudo-science laden websites), BUY ORGANIC. And then leave the rest of us alone.

          • dogctor

            Sorry Mr. FosterBoondoggle. The only people depriving others of choice are the ones fighting transparency. I don’t read, manufacture or spread pseudoscience– you do.

            Here is what I read and watch – remember that junk paper from Entropy on oxidative stress? Hmmmm: what is the antioxidant content of RR corn?
            : https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=X9dWhGlkvGU

          • FosterBoondoggle

            Dr. Valikov: are you really trying to persuade people by citing a paper, published in a pay-to-publish journal, debunked on this very blog? http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/collideascape/2013/04/26/when-media-uncritically-cover-pseudoscience. Doesn’t seem like an effective strategy.

            And I can’t help notice that you never actually *respond* to the straightforward point that you are free to eat GMO-free food, labeled accordingly, right now! I want to eat food picked only by right-handed women, but not during their period of uncleanliness. Where’s MY label?

          • dogctor

            Dr. Ena is fine, thanks.

            Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have your food picked by blond virgins?

            I would support labeling your food just as soon as you post a link to a study demonstrating the mechanism by which reproductive cycle/ virginity of the picker alter the nuclear splicing structures in your liver accelerating its aging; and the mechanism by which right handedness/ left handedness/ ambidexterity affect your pancreatic metabolism.

            It is not true that I am free to eat non-GMO food when I eat out, because restaurants are purchasing unlabeled food.
            It is also not true for my patients because pet foods are unlabeled, Pinnocchio.

            Finally, I did clearly refer to the Entropy paper because science studies do not get scientifically debunked in popular press. That would be sort of like having Tchaikovsky and the Kirov ballet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHYwVfN3wY4 reviewed on American Idol.

            I’ll wait for a peer reviewed journal to review it.

        • Nullius in Verba

          “I see it as a consumer choice issue – if there is sufficient demand from consumers to know if their food contains a particular substance then by all means label it.”

          We’ve already got that situation, sit it can’t be what the campaigners are campaigning for.

          We’re all in favour of consumer choice. People can choose to put whatever (factually accurate) information they like on their products, and if people want it, they’ll buy those products and pay the premium. That’s not the problem.

          “But AIUI allyl isothiocyanate is specific to particular products and those products would be included in the ingredients list anyway, so there would be no need for separate labelling.”

          The point is that the general public don’t know which products those are, just as they don’t know the details of what radiation their mobile phone emits, or what genes and chemicals are in the food they eat, or what meat is in those sausages. They don’t know who packaged them, how long they’ve been stored, how they were prepared, what’s in the packaging, where they’ve been, or what equipment was used. What if customers want labels saying “This food was grown by a farmer named Dave”? Or “This cabbage was trucked to you by Malcolm”? There are a million things just as irrelevant as GMO that you could label food with – if we are able to demand any of it, and force people to comply, where would it end?

          That’s why coercion is only used where there is definite scientific proof of harm done, and for anything it’s else it’s purely voluntary, and market-driven.

          • jh

            Well, I think it’s time we provide information about products. All products should list every chemical compound that occurs in the product: proteins, sugars, carbs, genes and all other organic compounds of all kinds; provide a full breakdown of oxide ratios and/or trace element concentrations and isotopic ration; and provide an encyclopedic description of each of these compounds, how they are used, what plants, animals, rocks and soils they occur in, their abundance on Earth, in the solar system and in the universe and of course including a description of all types of decay and decay rates for radiogenic isotopes.

            Then the public will have the knowledge they need to make proper choices!

  • Anonymous

    Warning: Being alive is hazardous to your health.

    • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.slyfield Matthew Slyfield

      Very true. Being alive is in fact a terminal condition.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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