A commentary in The Lancet on the possible risks of mobile phones makes interesting reading given the Government's decision to issue health warnings on the use of such phones. "No evidence of risk doesn't mean phones are safe" (see Independent) seems to be the generally accepted wisdom in the light of the recent BSE problems. The Lancet, however, steps aside briefly from the issue of the risks themselves to consider what seems to us to be the more important issue here – the things which actually influence people's behaviour. The author of the comment piece, Philip Denby, notes: "public perception of safety will be heavily influenced by the perceived level of benefit from the activity in question. This level is clearly high in the case of mobile telephones and in many other domains where individuals exercise freedom of choice."
This sentiment is very much in line with SIRC's observations that people are increasingly coming to terms with the fact that the world is not, has never been, and never will be an entirely risk-free place in which to live. Some risks are a natural part of our environment – radon seeping from the rocks or storms which destroy our homes. Other risks are self-inflicted as we pursue our notions of enjoyable and fulfilling lifestyles. Some of us ski, for example, despite avalanches and fires in train tunnels. Others ride horses, make parachute jumps for charity and eat beef – all things which carry measurable (or sometimes known, but immeasurable) risks.
The Lancet, unsuprisingly, notes that there is a 'theoretical' risk from mobile phones, even though none has so far been demonstrated empirically, and comments: "In the light of experience with ionising radiation and radioactive materials, out-of-hand dismissal of the possibility of subtle effects of low-intensity, pulsed, microwave radiation is most unwise." That may be so, but this is where the problem starts. There are few, if any, aspects of normal human behaviour where it is possible to make 'out-of-hand dismissal of the possibility of subtle (adverse) effects.' Where can we draw a line between 'safe' behaviours and those which carry a risk of some 'subtle kind'? The answer, of course, is that we simply can't. And we will never be able to do so.
In this context the issuing of health warnings is, and is increasingly seen to be, a quite gratuitous process. The warnings arise primarily in response to orchestrated scare campaigns which single out easily demonised things such as aerial masts on school roofs, genetically modified food or anything else which can be seen as a product of greedy, multinational corporations. (We note in passing how quickly the scare relating to organic pesticides and Parkinson's disease has faded away because it lacked this 'big-business-is-the-real-enemy' aspect.) Having aroused our fears in this way, and having relegated scientific evidence to a side-show, the government colludes to appease the unelected representatives of the 'consumer' by obligingly issuing a health warning, while at the same time seeking to calm us by saying that there isn't really any basis for such a warning.
This peculiarly schizoid approach is both confusing and dangerous. The trend towards issuing health warnings in the absence of any evidence of risk only serves to devalue the medium itself, making those who have not already fallen prey to chronic neurotic indecision even less trusting of officialdom. Warning fatigue sets in – notices of real dangers go unheeded in the noise of trivial anxieties. And we wonder why so many people in our society continue to smoke cigarettes?
The Lancet returns to its theme by concluding with a timely reference to a Guardian editorial penned in 1977 which concerned a government inquiry into a cluster of explosions of domestic gas:
"Whatever the findings of the three-man enquiry (under an independent chairman) gas will not become safe. Some oaf will always leave a tap on and then go down at the dead of night with a lighted taper". This highly explosive substance is piped into millions of homes in the country. Is it safe? Of course not but the amenity value is such that people are prepared to live with the risk.
Twenty three years on we seem to have lost touch with such sanguine commonsense. The mantra of the Precautionary Principle, it seems, has seriously devalued the long-held belief that in pursuit of beneficial, technological progress we should recognise that we may have to pay a fee from time to time in order to achieve it. Ironically, perhaps, it is the Precautionary Principle itself which should come with a health warning – a large sticker which declares "This principle may set back the course of scientific progress to the extent that lives will be endangered, medical innovations will be postponed and reduction of famine world-wide will be delayed significantly."