As one of the co-founders of CHE-EMF, I have followed the evolution of the great science, policy and media EMF debate with considerable interest.
As a non-specialist, the best way I have found to stay updated, along with reading CHE-EMF postings, is to visit Louis Slesin’s brilliant website Microwave News.
In what follows, I offer ten contributions to future scenario thinking about current developments in the EMF debate and their potential significance over the coming decades. Anyone who studies future scenario developments knows how intrinsically perilous this kind of work is. Future scenarios are almost always wrong. The benefit of constructing them is that they can clarify our thinking about the significance of current and future trends at the interface of science and policy.
1. CURRENT: First and most important, the issue of cell phones and health is no longer ignored by mainstream US media. That is an important breakthrough (a) in itself, (b) because it gives consumers the capacity to make safer choices based on their own risk appraisals, and (c) because in the long run it may lead to better research, better policies, and market shifts as manufacturers respond to consumer concerns and market opportunities.
2. CURRENT: There is growing interest in EMF the academic and nonprofit communities. When CHE-EMF started, a very small number of academics, NGOs and advocates were actively engaged with EMF. The number of key players has significantly increased in the NGO and academic community. While differences in perspective naturally exist among the key players, the cumulative net effect of more powerful key advocates is very beneficial for the field.
3. FUTURE: As the media, academic, and nonprofit constituencies concerned with EMF dangers increase their visibility and reach, these developments force industry, regulatory, and mainstream health constituencies that claim there is no health risk to up their game as well. Blanket denials of risk no longer suffice. The debate tends to become more granular as mainstream media, sensing a major story, does a better job of pressing both advocates and defenders of EMF to explain their positions. A more granular debate necessarily increases attention to the science. Increased attention to the science necessarily leads to better understanding of the structure of industry support for science and its implications. Likewise, loose and scientifically irresponsible positions by those concerned with EMF dangers become more vulnerable. The granularity of the debate, over time, favors more scientifically grounded arguments on both sides. The well known “sieve” model of such debates usually characterizes the outcome, in which initially widely disparate positions are forced, as the debate becomes more granular, into a narrower “sieve” that generates a broader consensus on science and policy outcomes. That does not mean the outcome will be “right” from any single perspective. But it describes what may be likely to happen.
4. CURRENT: The fact that The BioInitiative played a key role in alerting European governments to EMF risks — in a culture more disposed to see those risks in the first place — created a beneficial international comparison, much as European REACH legislation did in the chemical arena. The BioInitiative gathered some of the best science in the world on EMF issues (in my humble opinion as a lay person) and seized the scientific high ground in a way that European governments seized on to issue precautionary warnings on cell phones and health. Cindy Sage and Nancy Evans of The BioIntiative (also co-coordinator of CHE-EMF), Ken Cook and his colleagues at Environmental Working Group, Devra Lee Davis, Ronald Herberman (Director Emeritus of the University of Pittburgh Cancer Institute) and David Servan Schreiber in France are among those making major contributions to the evolution of the EMF debate. Many more contributors could be cited.
5. FUTURE: All of this means, in my view, that the EMF debate has shifted both quantitatively (more debate) and qualitatively (gradually improved debate) as media, academics, nonprofits and independent advocates amplify their critiques of health risks, and industry, government and mainstream health groups begin to respond. Over the next five years, we can anticipate that some of the mainstream health groups will begin to move away from unqualified support of industry (there are early signs of this movement already). The mainstream health groups have relatively little vested interest in supporting industry, other than their generally conservative views on the role of the environment in health. Industry may seek to invest in support for health groups as a way of delaying the trend, but over time, assuming the science continues to go in the direction it is headed, toward substantiating a wise array of health risks, the health groups will have little choice but to recognize the concerns.
6. FUTURE: As media, advocacy, and health concerns are better established, look for key industry segments to break away to market to those with health concerns. Look for key media personalities to establish EMF as a major concern. Look for key political figures to seize on EMF (some already have) and make it an ongoing part of their profile. Look for key labor groups including fire fighters, policy, military veterans, and others exposed to intense EMF environments to voice increasing concerns with their risks. Above all, look for a widening awareness across the US and around the world of EMF health concerns driven by people who (rightly or wrongly) attribute some of their health concerns to EMF exposures. This combination of media, advocacy, science, health, labor, political and widespread public concern makes it highly likely that EMF concerns — which have now achieved lift-off in the major media, will continue on a sharpening upward trajectory over the next decade. Unfortunately, there has been very little philanthropic or governmental support for independent scientific research and responsible policy advocacy to date. But as these other trends sharpen, philanthropic support for science, policy and advocacy may grow.
7. FUTURE: At the same time, the installed industrial EMF base will continue to grow and the cost of shifting to less harmful technologies will continue to grow. Moreover, other environmental and non-environmental threats — climate, chemical, biotechnology, nanotechnology, infectious diseases, nuclear developments, economic developments, and the like — may relativize perception of the size of the risk. Industry will do all it can to cede scientific ground as slowly as possible. So even if there is an epidemic of brain cancers (for example), industry will switch to recommending ear buds or other ameliorative approaches. And if the background noise of other threats is loud enough, those concerned with health effects of EMF may ultimately win the scientific battle but lose the exposure war. Israel is a perfect example: many scientists and Israelis with scientific understanding have strong concerns about EMF exposures, but competing security concerns relativize perceptions of the EMF risk and reduce demand for action.
8. FUTURE: A key question is whether the full scope of EMF health effects on a systemic level is recognized earlier or later in the evolution of the debate. Generally, it appears that systemic effects will be well demonstrated in lab and animal research, but the strong innate scientific conservatism that opposes generalization from these data to humans may block or marginalize societal and scientific awareness of systemic concerns. A second factor that makes recognition of systemic effects so difficult is that these effects interact with chemical contaminants and many other factors. EMF sensitivity, like chemical sensitivity (and in fact the two overlap) is a lead factor in awareness of human systemic effects, but is likely to suffer the same fate of marginalization that chemical sensitivity has suffered for decades.
9. FOUR SCENARIOS: James McNeil of the Brundtland Commission once told me there were 4 possible futures: business as usual, descent into chaos, achieving sustainability, or becoming artificial people on an artificial planet. The truth is the real future is not one of these four but a constant negotiation for market share among all four futures. To some degree, business as usual continues. To some degree we descend into chaos. To some degree we move toward sustainability. And unquestionably we are becoming artificial people on an artificial planet. Those of us concerned with the environment and health are doing all we can to move the sustainability index upward. EMF is one of a dozen major areas in which we are making that effort.
10. SUMMARY: In summary, these hypotheses suggest one possible future in which those of us concerned with the impact of EMF on health ultimately win the scientific debate. The scientific affirmation may come by 2015 (to pick a plausible date) as mainstream media interest increases, media stars make this their issue, industry players market to those with health concerns, key politicians join the fray (like Arlen Specter), labor expresses concerns, mainstream health groups move away from blanket denials of health concerns, new scientific studies are released into a prepared and concerned media environment, and more and more people experience what they believe to be health effects, and Europe and other regions heighten their policy and consumer response to EMF concerns. At the same time industry will fight a delaying action to discredit, discount and deny the science for as long as possible as installed infrastructure and product streams are developed. Virtually all industries under attack take this approach.
The purpose of these future scenario notes is not to ignite an advocacy debate on CHE-EMF (which is never our purpose). It is rather to frame an awareness of the context in which we continue to work to understand the emerging science on EMF and to sustain a dialogue of science and civility. I welcome comments that contribute to our deeper understanding of the present and future context of our science dialogue.