The safety-of-X problem, where X is an environmental electromagnetic field (EMF) from a man-made device, is commonly styled as involving facts exclusively within the domain of scientists, who are idealized as coldly rational thinkers. When I began studying the problem, in 1972, earlier concern regarding the health of servicemen exposed to EMFs from military radar and communications equipment had ended, and scarcely a ripple of interest remained in the public consciousness. The bell curve for interest regarding leakage of EMFs from microwave ovens had already crested and was entering its falling phase. Publicity about hazards from EMFs produced by high-voltage powerlines was just beginning. This manifestation of the problem lasted until the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences concluded in 1998 that there was no “conclusive proof” of health hazards due to powerline EMFs, which in industry-talk means “perfectly safe.” At about that time public attention began to focus on the possible effects of cell-phone EMFs on the brain, and we are somewhere in the middle of that cycle. Soon history will repeat itself in the context of smart meters and electric cars. The problems posed by cell phones, smart meters, and electric cars will probably wind up in Boot Hill, just like those triggered by radar, microwave ovens, powerlines, electric blankets, electric welding machines, police radar guns, airport scanners, TV and radio towers, and ham radios.
I’ve been a serious student of the physics, biology, sociology, ethics, justice, and legal structure of the safety-of-X problem for many years, and I’ve studied the long series of government decisions that exonerated man-made EMFs from any role in producing human disease, thereby rationalizing judgments to not regulate environmental EMFs. Not placing the EMF problem in the same regulatory category as smoking, drugs, and alcohol might be a good thing. Perhaps the government should just forget about regulating EMFs, I don’t know because I’ve never seen both sides of the issue briefed. What I do know about is scientific/legal reasoning. On this score, I can plainly see that the government decisions effectively declaring environmental EMFs are perfectly safe were all false negatives. What really interested me was the explicit reasoning the government used. It’s fascinating because it tells us a lot about science, democracy, and what we really care about, so I investigated the matter. The convenient thing about analyzing a series of identical governmental reasoning processes is that if you understand one, you understand them all, like explaining a case of HIV infection on the basis of knowing the genome of the virus.
Usually, pertinent details regarding the safety-of-X genome, who actually did what and why, are hidden inside a government labyrinth behind a corporate veil. X = powerlines was an exception. In that case, l learned details about the government-industry axis by obtaining correspondence between investigators working for the Electric Power Research Institute and the Department of Energy (see Chapter 11 in Going Somewhere), and I took part in the NIEHS process (see The NIEHS RAPID Program: Anatomy of a Failure and Chapter 27 in Going Somewhere). Consequently X = powerlines was what I studied, in depth.
In the mid-1990s Congress adopted the traditional viewpoint that scientists know best, and told the Director of the NIEHS to assess whether powerline EMFs were human health hazards. One reason Congress put the NIEHS on the spot in the first place was the brouhaha about powerlines that had been raised by Eddie Murphy’s role in Distinguished Gentleman. Democratic congressmen needed cover regarding complaints from their constituents about powerlines and cancer, so they called on the NIEHS. The Director was expected to ask scientists he trusted for the answer and then convey it to Congress and the people, like Judge Stone giving advice to Andy Hardy.
The NIEHS treated the safety-of-X problem as if it were an abstract scientific question capable of resolution via a self-extracting procedure based on laboratory and epidemiological data alone. Like an Aristotelian syllogism, the answer was always already present in their premises. Consequently the NIEHS indeed failed to warn the public about the dangers of powerline EMFs, like all other previous government agencies and committees that had considered the safety-of-X problem. The deeper question I sought to understand was how the powerline hazards issue became a matter of Aristotelian logic. In other words, within the four corners of their multi-hundred page final report, how was the NIEHS able to sustain the Pinocchio-type claim that powerline EMFs were perfectly safe? Why didn’t everyone see its nose grow longer? I analyzed the question in 1998 and found that the cognitive structure within which the NIEHS framed the discussion of the problem was what permitted their answer to be deduced. Click here to read the report.
The safety-of-X problem is a personal and sociological mega-issue. There is no scientific solution at any level. Executive-department agencies are political entities. They can’t do any better than the NIEHS, which functioned exactly as Congress intended, which was to confine itself to noncontroversial issues and avoid research that could lead to results supporting government regulation of industry. NIEHS accomplished its goal by arguing from within a cognitive construct that made their perspectives seem objective.
The way the NIEHS and all its doppelganger federal EMF-advice-giving agencies act is what we want, so that’s what we get. I think that more so than any other people who have ever existed, we Americans who choose to vote get what we want. We wanted laws against drugs, under-age drinking, and people blowing smoke in our faces, so we got them. We don’t really care about what makes us sick, or kills us so our government has no mandate to pursue the matter. Actually, it has a mandate not to do so, arising from the loud, strong voices of the EMFs companies, all of which have property and first-amendment rights that are as strong as those of a natural person.
The only possibility for resolution of the safety-of-X problem exists at the level of the individual. That resolution depends on personal choices regarding the relative priority of specific values, and only secondarily on scientific information. Of course the industry research is rigged. We all know that. That simply means that each individual has the responsibility to exercise due diligence in seeking reliable information that promotes safeguarding health. The honest scientific information is not fundamentally controversial, and its meaning is relatively clear. Only individual awareness, knowledge, and choice can lead to an honest resolution, one person at a time.
When I wrote the report I did not fully understand the extent to which science can be corrupted by money, or how little most people care about the impact of the man-made environment on their health, at least in cases where recognition of a serious risk would entail a modification in lifestyle. It would probably be worthwhile for us, as individuals, to take a new look at science, and at the relationship between science and societal values. Exactly what is science, who and what does it serve, and what do we regard as most important?