Cellphone radiation leaves science in two minds

A schoolboy project on cellphone radiation and health symptons, could swing public health culture, while health science remains in two minds.

SHEQ practitioners and auditors sometimes have unpopular messages to bear, like reminding people of their own bad habits, but the voice of perception, or ‘fuzzy logic’, sometimes turn in favour of public risk re-assessment.

Congratulations to St John’s College in Johannesburg on responding to a schoolboy health science poster project in July 2011 by terminating the lease of a cellphone tower in their grounds. The school’s learners, staff and parents now acknowledge radiation exposure health risks within 300m of cellphone masts.

The school’s united action raises the question of why the general public, parents, workers and authorities took many years to acknowledge that we are at risk from structures related one of our daily habits, or why we do not behave accordingly.

Of course, there is some way to go before the public or the state would call legislators and suppliers to order. Managing cellphone radiation risk is as much a matter of degree as the risk itself is. But these young messengers could not be ignored or ‘shot’, and the proverbial ‘hundredth money’ cell user is sure to become more aware of radiation health risks from 2011.

We could only hope that this brave new element of public health risk assessment would lead to a public health and safety risk management culture, of the magnitude of ‘save the whales, koala bears, birds and frogs’. Any cultural improvement would help occupational sheq practitioners.

Risk rationalisation and tolerance adjustment

Delving into behavioural psychology and communications science, I found a number of all too human radiation risk attitudes, revealing quirks of logic and culture that allow a high radiation risk tolerance;
• Radiation exposure risk as a matter of degree, dropping off sharply with distance
• Radiation effects are complicated and subtle health impacts
• Cellphone masts are accepted as useful
• Some cellphone masts are disguised among aerials and other installations
• Radiation effects are uncertain
• Radiation effects are delayed by years
• Experts have assured the public that cellphones were not proven unsafe
• Some employers and schools have leased their premises to cellphone masts
• Microwave telecom applications have been used for decades
• Radiation is invisible
• Cellphones are associated with enterprise and popularity
• People want to avoid ridicule as spoilers, informer, or ‘not in my back yard’ (Nimby) users
• People want to fit in with a majority, uncontested view
• People rationalise and reject the possibility that they are personally at risk of ‘soft’ diseases like cancers or brain tumours
• Cellphones are heavily advertised as being linked with desirable lifestyles
• Major health, safety and environmental issues like global warming, draw endless debate
• People want to avoid complex and strongly controversial opinions
• Radiation does not leave direct or measurable health impacts
• Health symptoms could rarely be accounted to one particular source or type of source
• RF and EM radiation is not proven as bad as nuclear or ionizing radiation

WHO in two minds on cell risk

It took a privileged school to stem the tide of acceptance of cellphone radiation risk in South African culture. And probably knowledge of a recent World Health Organisation (WHO) caution that potential health effects of prolonged cell phone use, like brain tumours, could not be ruled out. (SHEQafrica.com 2011 June)

The WHO did not say that cellphone uses causes brain tumours, merely sad that link could not be ruled out, as a visitor to SHEQafrica.com pointed out in the COMMENT box below the post about the WHO statement.

Cellphone mast suppliers, and hopefully cellphone users, face a different public risk perception now, than before St John’s headmaster Roger Cameron acted on a serious little study by Christopher Anthony and Daniel Chen, both 14.

The boys used radiation frequency level measurement equipment supplied by engineer Dieter Netter, and their survey of major health symptons suffered by learners at Florida Hoerskool, Westridge High and Gustav Preller Primary school. (Sunday Times, 2011 June 19)

The schoolboy measurements and survey are not scientific, of course, but people seldom base their behaviour on science, especially when health science and authorities seems to be in two minds.

Health excuses and symptoms mount

As human excuses to not want to assess personal risk mounted up, so did 21 known radiation related symptoms among 14 to 16 year olds, which the amateur researchers bravely link to cellphone masts;
• Skin rash
• Sharp muscular pains unexplained
• Heart palpitations
• Extreme fatigue
• Gastric disturbances
• Lymph nodes swollen
• Tinnitus (ears hissing or buzzing)
• Allergic reaction
• Metallic taste in mouth

Respondents aged 14 to 16 at the three schools with cellphone masts, returned theses results;

79% had some of the 21 symptoms
30% had more than 4/21 symptoms each
5% had more than 10/21 symptoms
1% had 12/21 symptoms

Of course, these figures are on the verge between science and popular science, but judging by real peer reviewed research results, and allowing that most sponsored research was commissioned by cellphone suppliers, people believe that health science, as lately the WHO, are in two minds.

When specialists are undecided, people are all too eager to err on the side of instant gratification of perceived needs and perceived convenience. Occupational wellness practitioners face the same dilemma when informing people of lifestyle and diet choices. Instead of seeking to resolve contradictions, people cop out and eat on impulse, trusting that some food and beverage authority ensures that merchandise is safe.

SHEQ practice is communication art

Like the voice of a collective conscience, sheq practitioners speak for vigilance, against health and safety assumptions and risk tolerance. Like whistleblowers, sheq officials sometimes draw sighs or cold shoulders from workers for demonstrating that health and safety management is everyone’s job.

When we know in advance which messages and recommended ‘close-outs’ would be ignored, that almost makes the struggle for risk awareness worse. Still our job is to make a science of what is a practice, and at heart, a communication art.

SHEQ auditors may incur argument, rationalisation, rejection and even their own dismissal, for finding and telling management what most managers do not want to hear.

Dismissal of an independent auditor, and quashing of perceived ‘negative’ audit results at a nuclear plant in Africa, that I would not name to protect the auditor, is among many instances illustrating the perpetual difficulty of reporting whatever does not fit either a popular perception, or a management perception, of a personal risk profile.

Corporate risk profiles have become uncomfortably personal since the extension of company liability to personal liability of directors and top managers, offering more reason for a board and exec to pay close attention to professional third parties and manage risks that they may have become tolerant to.

Unfortunately, some risks become naturalised and ingrained in corporate culture. Public risk perception is no less prone to migrating downward, and risk tolerance upwards.

Chemicals, car driving, taxi transport and cell phones are examples of risk-loaded utilities that seem to make people immune to taking charge of their own health and safety. Monopolistic, collusive and state owned services, like taxis, compound risk by removing safer alternatives.

People expect governments, state authorities, suppliers and celebrities to assess risks, be decisive, and protect them, ignoring obvious collusion between states and industries like mining, chemicals, electronics, and telecommunication.

The most inconvenient truth about health and safety risk exposure is that ultimately we could not blame any conspiracy. We accept many risks as ‘given’, and often fail to make a difference to our own life quality, and ultimately, to our colleagues, society and culture.

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