|Long before the calendar flipped, 2005 had been labeled, hyped and assigned numerous titles, both flimsy and grand: the year of 3G, the year of the digital campus, the year of the blog and (who can forget) the year of the rooster, along with countless other predictions. It will be interesting to see whether 2005 will also earn the distinction of being the year the mobile industry proactively addresses the growing global concern about the health effects of wireless technology. As suspicions grow and new fears are perpetuated, it seems the industry would be smart to start talking.
The birth of such suspicions date back at least to 1993, when a Florida man made headlines by blaming his wife’s brain tumor on cell phone use. In the summer of 2000, a Baltimore neurologist very publicly sued Motorola and Verizon Communications for $800 million, claiming years of cell phone use had caused his brain cancer. And rumors of tumors were revived again this fall after Danish researchers published the initial results of a study analyzing the risk of acoustic neuroma (AN)—a benign tumor that grows on the nerve between the ear and the brain—and mobile phone use. While they found no association between AN and regular mobile phone use, they did discover that the average size of tumors was significantly higher in regular users of mobile phones than in non-users. It’s a fine distinction, and not one that was carefully presented by many media outlets.
Now that 3G has debuted in the West, still more fears and accusations are rising. A bread baker in the U.K. received international press last month for her protests of a 3G tower scheduled to be raised 9 meters from her bakery, which has a certified license from the Biodynamic Agricultural Association that stipulates that the bread cannot be baked less than 50 meters from microwave radiation. An Association officer was quoted by the BBC as saying: “It is because so little is known yet, and there is so little research to prove that radiation from mobile phone masts is safe. Making the bread is a living process, similar to yogurt, where the dough rises and develops with the yeast. Our concerns are about microwave radiation affecting the baking process.”
The world over, mobile phone users are similarly concerned and unsure. Further, little is being said by the enterprises with so much to lose—or to gain, depending on how one looks at it—that comparisons are being drawn between the mobile industry and big tobacco. As hard as it is for anyone under the age of 30 to believe, there was actually a time when people didn’t know that tobacco was harmful; which we now know was because the tobacco companies covered it up. Once the public was enlightened, they were of course all encouraged to quit; who, however, is ready to give up their mobile phone?
No one on either side of the argument is encouraging the public “give up” mobile technology; concerned parties just want to ensure the public’s safety. If our latest and greatest technologies are revealed to be perfectly safe, then perhaps researchers could go on to discover what actually is harming people; and if they’re not, then the industry can work to provide safer products—just as it did in the switch from analog to digital (which emits less radiation). It’s naïve to think this is a topic the industry will willfully embrace; however, the public could benefit from increased research and a more open dialogue. And as big tobacco discovered—everything comes out eventually.
In this time and environment where fear is a popularly employed marketer of products and information, consumers and professionals can use all the hard facts and open dialogue they can get in their attempts to separate rumors and sensationalism from facts; when the industry doesn’t talk, headlines run free.
Four weeks ago, one online news source reported that researchers at New York University believed they’d found evidence that “laptop use of notebook computers by men can impair fertility.” Moving beyond the eye-catching first line, a close reading revealed the article was not warning men against the use of laptop computers but the use of notebook computers directly on their, er, laps. Greater communication can’t come soon enough.