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Two Views On Microwaves

September 22, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 38

Rudy Baum hit a sore spot with his editorial “Menacing Cell Phone Towers” on whether cell phone towers and the microwaves they emit are hazardous (C&EN, July 14, page 3). He presents his opinion as editor-in-chief, but the editorial then has an ACS disclaimer. That’s been one of my disappointments with ACS over 60 years: It’s gutless. If ACS isn’t an “authority” on chemical risks for the public, then who is?

Along the same line, New Jersey is now passing legislation to ban smoking in public parks, beaches, and so on. As a Ph.D. chemist who spent a good part of my career working on detection and control of hazardous materials, I’ve tried to point out that the hazard from such incidental exposure is nil. And I’ve tried to point out that there usually is no correlation between odor threshold and hazard threshold, but, again, no one wants to listen. Years ago, a science teacher cursed me out on the phone because of such a position of logic and science.

There are many similar issues. An individual taking an opposing viewpoint is vilified, while lousy science is embraced. Years from now, when no improvements result from such restrictions, others may finally see the light. In my opinion, ACS has a moral responsibility to stand up and speak out for truth and science, rather than sitting on the sideline because of fear of its commercial advertisers.

Herb Skovronek
Morris Plains, N.J.

Regarding Baum’s editorial, the choice of the American Cancer Society’s website as the voice of reason on electromagnetic fields (EMFs) is a poor one. For example, they never mention that in 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listed radio-frequency EMFs as 2B, “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” based on data from users of cell phones. Instead, the American Cancer Society uses platitudes like the one Baum quotes: “In theory, there are some important points that would argue against cellular phone towers being able to cause cancer.”

How unsatisfying. The public wants a clear “no way, Jose” and to see the data to back it up. But IARC is not scheduled to review cell tower exposure data until 2015.

The editorial raises a bigger question: Why have we always embraced every new discovery as “safe” and only study its effects after there are sufficient numbers of human lab rats? We see this all through history. Marie and Pierre Curie never believed their cancers were related to radium. X-rays were used to amuse children in shoe stores by showing their foot bones. And no one studied the safety of cell phones until everyone had one.

The problem is that federal agencies must be able to prove products are harmful before they can regulate or restrict them. Our regulations make it clear that we value economic growth and the financial security of the majority above the lives of any individual casualties the untested technologies may take. And since victims can only sue for damages that occur after the manufacturer should reasonably have known there was a product defect, industry has a powerful disincentive to test.

I don’t like the crazies and their EMF websites either. But I see them as just as bad as the websites promoting the cell phone industry without warnings about both what is known and what is not known about EMF. At present, we can’t prove either side is right.

Monona Rossol
New York City


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