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Exploiting the Precautionary Principle

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 10, 2013 1:53 AM


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

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:

Uhm, @reuters, "Despite mounting evidence the phones may cause brain tumors." What basis do you have for saying that? — John Timmer (@j_timmer) May 8, 2013

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.


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

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