HELSINKI, Finland, December 13, 2011 — In 2001, I wrote a letter to the editor of the prestigious British medical journal “The Lancet” and called on the WHO to take into consideration the Precautionary Principle in matters of cell phones and health. At that time, however, whenever these two terms were mentioned together, the representatives of the industry strongly opposed it.
Over the years the issue of the Precautionary Principle has evolved and now everyone is talking about “plain” precaution.
The difference between using the term precaution and the term the Precautionary Principle is like the difference between day and night. Precaution is how we understand it in our everyday life. But the Precautionary Principle is a whole lot more.
Here are few quotations from the Precautionary Principle document:
“…The precautionary principle, which is essentially used by decision-makers in the management of risk, should not be confused with the element of caution that scientists apply in their assessment of scientific data.…
“…Recourse to the precautionary principle presupposes that potentially dangerous effects deriving from a phenomenon, product or process have been identified, and that scientific evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty….
“…The implementation of an approach based on the precautionary principle should start with a scientific evaluation, as complete as possible, and where possible, identifying at each stage the degree of scientific uncertainty.…
“…Decision-makers need to be aware of the degree of uncertainty attached to the results of the evaluation of the available scientific information. Judging what is an “acceptable” level of risk for society is an eminently political responsibility. Decision-makers faced with an unacceptable risk, scientific uncertainty and public concerns have a duty to find answers. Therefore, all these factors have to be taken into consideration.…”
This all means that the Precautionary Principle is a socio-political tool that decision-makers use to act upon a danger when identified by scientist and that it is not possible to precisely estimate. The acting upon the danger might take different forms, according to the Precautionary Principle:
“…In some cases, the right answer may be not to act or at least not to introduce a binding legal measure. A wide range of initiatives is available in the case of action, going from a legally binding measure to a research project or a recommendation.…”
As the prerequisite to implementation of the Precautionary Principle, the scientific information should be reviewed and the outcome of this review should indicate a potential danger. In 2001, we knew less than now, but already then, there were some who were calling for the implementation of the Precautionary Principle. But also back then the opponents were arguing that we needed to wait for the evaluation of the potential risk by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the part of WHO that’s located in Lyon, France.
The IARC evaluation of the available science, concerning cancer was done in May 2011. According to the IARC evaluation made by the 30 international experts (I was one of them), cell phone radiation is classified as a possible carcinogen.
Does it mean that the issue of the implementation of the Precautionary Principle could/should be discussed?
In the context of IARC classification of the cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen, inaction should not be an option. The strongest action would be a new legislation, but I am uncertain about it. As a scientist, I think that we need better scientific evidence before we proceed with this legally binding avenue.
What is left is a recommendation to cell phone users to use precaution and to try to limit their exposure to cell phone radiation. Such a recommendation should not be a one-time-thing, but it should be done repeatedly. Special efforts should be made with children who will be the first generation of the long term (lifetime) users.
Users should be also made aware that they should not keep phones in their pockets or close to the body. Cell phones are designed to meet current safety limits when they’re located 1 inch (2,5cm) away from the body. If the cell phone is closer, as in a pocket, then the safety limits will be exceeded and area close to the pocket will be excessively irradiated. This is especially important when using the Bluetooth connection or the wired earphone. All of this advice is not because we know what the risk is but out of precaution until we find out what the risk is.
Besides the recommendation of precaution, it is of paramount importance to set up a new research program(s) in order to determine the scope and the size of the potential health risk.
All decisions of actions should be done openly as the document on the Precautionary Principle urges:
“…The decision-making procedure should be transparent and should involve as early as possible and to the extent reasonably possible all interested parties….”
And finally, in the spirit of the transparency, here is the reason why some may strongly oppose the implementation of the Precautionary Principle (this quotation is after the EU website):
“The burden of proof….However, in the case of an action being taken under the precautionary principle, the producer, manufacturer or importer may be required to prove the absence of danger. This possibility shall be examined on a case-by-case basis. It cannot be extended generally to all products and procedures placed on the market.”
It means that if the Precautionary Principle is applied to the cell phone health risk situations, then the industry might be required to provide evidence that the cell phone emitted radiation levels are safe. It would be the industry’s job to do research to provide proof of safety, not the consumers’ job to provide proof that the radiation levels are not safe. But for now we need to wait for the decisions of the decision-makers.
Read more from Dariusz Leszczynski in his science blog “BRHP - Between a Rock and a Hard Place” at http://betweenrockandhardplace.wordpress.com Dariusz is a Research Professor at the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland.
Follow Dariusz on twitter: @blogBRHP
Disclaimer:the opinions presented in this column are author’s own and should NOT be considered as the official opinions of the STUK - Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland.
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