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Lessons Of The BSE Blunder Make Scientists
Why won't the scientists who have spent the past three years reading hundreds of papers about the effects of mobile phones and masts give them a clean bill of health?
Why did Professor Swerdlow, who chaired the committee which reported yesterday, offer such nuances as "in aggregate the research published [in the past three years] does not give cause for concern ... the possibility remains open that there could be health effects from exposure to radio frequency fields below guideline levels; hence continued research is needed." Why not just say, "We think they're safe"?
The answer can be dated back to 1988 when an independent panel of scientists told the Government BSE probably did not pose a risk to human health. So the Government told people that eating beef was safe. In March 1996, it had to eat its words: BSE does transmit to humans.
Scientists have learnt from that; the arrogance of sweeping statements is gone. Nobody will say genetically-modified crops are safe; they will offer degrees of safety.
Was the thought of the BSE error in Professor Swerdlow's mind in making his report? "I guess scientists can't help but notice what's happened over the past few years," he said yesterday.
"But it's true to say that there is some uncertainty remaining about safety. That would still have been true if BSE hadn't happened."
Any biologist would be delighted to prove that mobile phones make you ill. To get a paper published in Nature or Science demonstrating that mobile phones, or living or working near a mobile phone mast, gives you cancer, or headaches, or skin rashes, or tingling feelings would be a breakthrough on a par with Professor Sir Richard Doll's seminal 1950 paper which first drew an epidemiological link between smoking and lung cancer.
It would affect millions; it would be quoted far and wide; it would tweak the noses of the powerful. Scientists long to do all three.
Yet though there have been thousands of papers published looking for just such a link between mobile phones, or masts, or their associated radiation, and any sort of illness, we still haven't seen that "Doll moment". And with each month, it looks less likely that we will. With the publication yesterday of the report by the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) independent advisory group on non-ionising radiation (Agnir), the possibility receded still further.
Professor Swerdlow thinks that any risks from mobiles now lie in what Donald Rumsfeld famously classed as "the unknown unknowns", that is, an effect which we simply don't have a way of looking for yet.
Opponents say they have ignored the ones which do show effects, and that this bill of near-enough health is simply suppression. "Independent scientists don't get the funding to produce work that would go against the grain," said Lynne Edmunds, the anti-Tetra co-ordinator for Mast Sanity.
"It's not in the interest of any of the official bodies to admit that it causes harm." What piece of work then would convince her that mobile phones and masts are safe? "Nothing," she said.
Which leaves scientists, who always allow themselves a little room to change their minds, with the problem that they can never come up with the right results, unless those agree with the opponents.