Monday, September 22, 2014

Interesting letter on EMF and cell phones

Also from this week's issue, a chemist writes in about a Rudy Baum editorial: 
Rudy Baum hit a sore spot with his editorial “Menacing Cell Phone Towers” on whether cell phone towers and the microwaves they emit are hazardous (C&EN, July 14, page 3). He presents his opinion as editor-in-chief, but the editorial then has an ACS disclaimer. That’s been one of my disappointments with ACS over 60 years: It’s gutless. If ACS isn’t an “authority” on chemical risks for the public, then who is? 
Along the same line, New Jersey is now passing legislation to ban smoking in public parks, beaches, and so on. As a Ph.D. chemist who spent a good part of my career working on detection and control of hazardous materials, I’ve tried to point out that the hazard from such incidental exposure is nil. And I’ve tried to point out that there usually is no correlation between odor threshold and hazard threshold, but, again, no one wants to listen. Years ago, a science teacher cursed me out on the phone because of such a position of logic and science. 
There are many similar issues. An individual taking an opposing viewpoint is vilified, while lousy science is embraced. Years from now, when no improvements result from such restrictions, others may finally see the light. In my opinion, ACS has a moral responsibility to stand up and speak out for truth and science, rather than sitting on the sideline because of fear of its commercial advertisers. 
Herb Skovronek
Morris Plains, N.J.
(ACS has commercial advertisers? I guess it does.)

I suspect that this has been a major fight over the years within ACS -- should ACS stand up for specific classes of chemicals? How can it speak the scientific truth without bending to its members (some of whom work for major chemical manufacturers?) Surely, with cell phone towers, the large preponderance of the data is that electromagnetic radiation from them is mostly harmless.

I wish I knew the history of ACS and whether or not it's taken stands on specific chemical issues over the years: PCBs, Agent Orange, etc. My guess is 'no', but I dunno. Readers? 

35 comments:

  1. Even if second hand smoke in outdoor areas is not dangerous, it's still majorly distasteful. I would 100% support a ban on smoking in public areas.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dangerous or not - cigarette smoke odor is disgusting and I wholeheartedly support such bans. If they need to do it under the pretense of health hazard - so be it, I can live with that.

    ReplyDelete
  3. my former colleague works for a small speciality chemicals company - they make unstable stuff like organic peroxides for polymer initiation. Cell phones are absolutely banned on the plant floor.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They give bad vibes.

      Delete
    2. I think they covering their ass, or the insurance company insisted. But really the most likely explanation is they make dangerous stuff on giant quantities, with narrow safe temperature margins (but the process is boring and totally repetitive) and they don't want the operators distracted by texting or checking the football scores...

      Delete
  4. I have to disagree with the trend of the comments - I don't think we should enact bans under any pretense. We are scientists, we make data driven, evidence based decisions and our reputations can only be harmed by promoting bad science. I don't know either way if second had smoke in the open is harmful (my gut instinct is - not really). I do know that littering is significantly more though - San Diego implemented a beach ban on the basis of reducing littering that was successful.

    As to the original question - does the ACS ever take a stance - I don't know. But such disclaimers are more likely to be built into a standard template and used without thought, than this actually being a conscious thought process on the part of the ACS. My rule of thumb is to always assume laziness before intent.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, lying to the public out of a sense of 'end justifies the means'.... that'll help our long-term credibility.

      I stopped smoking a long time ago but making up reasons to ban it so completely just seem heavy-handed and lacking in justification... a sort of bullying.

      Delete
    2. They are not scientists, they are lawyers.

      Delete
  5. Current ACS positions on policy issues can be found here:
    http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/policy/publicpolicies.html

    Click through on the different groups to see the specific position papers.

    ReplyDelete
  6. We should absolutely ban smoking in public. It doesn't need to be about health--just base it on the shared wishes of the majority of people who don't want their activities to be disturbed by something they find extremely distasteful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That line of reasoning could take us down a rather unpleasant path . . . but, I suppose its one way to go.

      Delete
    2. Ban vehicles. The exhaust makes people sick. See, everyone wants to ban something without rational thoughts.

      Delete
    3. Generally, there are lots of things you can't do in most public places. You can't be naked. You can't be drunk and disorderly. You can't disturb the peace. Potentially, this could lead us down an unpleasant path, but not if people are deliberate and reasonable about the things they're banning. Smoking provides very little benefit to the smoker while causing them a huge amount of harm (which ultimately tends to increase the health care burden for everyone). A large majority of people find smoking to be incredibly gross, to the point that smelling smoke ruins what they're experiencing. It's a case where someone's activities provide no benefit to anyone while actively bothering a lot of people.

      I think people should be able to express themselves in diverse and wide-ranging ways, which includes having opinions and practices that I hate. I think that kind of diversity is good. But if my body reacts and gags just by standing next to someone, I think that's something different.

      Delete
    4. But the same things are also applicable if you're next to a homeless person who hasn't bathed in a while, or someone who ate the all-you-can-eat bean burrito fiesta at Chipotle, and we don't ban those activities. In a park or beach it is likely that smokers and nonsmokers can avoid each other, which would mitigate the costs of the behavior without a ban. (Walking around without clothes, for example, exposes lots of people; its costs aren't clear, but there is not a way to mitigate the effects - you won't know where not to look, and probably couldn't even if you did.) Protecting people with severe unhappiness/illness caused by smoking doesn't particularly help, either; there aren't any bans on various foodstuffs in parks or public places, even though for some people, they may cause even more serious hazards (Smoke drifts more than peanut butter, but some people's sensitivities to it don't require high local concentrations for triggering.)

      Contrast to indoor or very local (20 ft from a door) smoking bans, where 1) people can't avoid the consequences of smokers (they have to work there or be there - government buildings) and 2) those consequences (concentration and exposure time to smoke and its consequent health risks, saturation of clothes and belongings with smoke) are likely to be significant.

      Whether something is banned depends (or ought to?) on the cost to others of the activity and the facilitiy of avoiding it; avoiding smokers in a park is easy (and even if you can';t the costs are likely to be lower), while at workplaces, the costs are both higher and the costs to avoid it even higher (most people can't leave their jobs to avoid smoking, while smokers could go outside or elsewhere to smoke with much lower costs).

      Delete
    5. "In a park or beach it is likely that smokers and nonsmokers can avoid each other" - what you are really saying is "if a guy with a cigarette plops on a bench next to you just move on". I don't see it that way at all.

      Delete
    6. It's a little thing called "America."

      Delete
    7. Yep, and I want the stinky guy to move on. You know, on the basis him being a public nuisance.

      Delete
    8. Let me add an equal opportunity correction - I don't want a stinky lady anywhere near me either.

      Delete
    9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

      Delete
    10. Godwin's law! You lose.

      Delete
    11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

      Delete
    12. bad wolf, how about some civility here?

      Delete
    13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

      Delete
    14. bw, the vast majority of the time, I value your comments, but I can't have you specifically calling people pejoratives, especially with the "you" attached.

      Delete
  7. I am confused: The hazard from breathing second-hand smoke in public beaches and parks is "incidental" and "nil"?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Second-hand smoke in a confined space may build to a level where there is a problem. Smoke being emitted several feet away from you, in the open air...? How fast does smoke diffuse? Is merely seeing a cigarette harmful? You go from indoors (possible health problem) to near the entrances (less likely but whatever) to nowhere in a public area, and try to use the same pseudo-science justification. That way risks turning us all into Food Babe.

      At my local ballpark cigarette smoking is banned, yet there is a huge cloud of smoke from the open grill barbeque stand. Strangely no one seems unduly effected.

      Delete
    2. BBQ stands (or other cooking stands) are usually at the park edges - depending on the structure (Camden Yards or Jacobs Field?) they might be much more exposed to airflow than the seats are. In the seats in a baseball park, the occupation density is much higher, and because of the bowl shape of stadiums, smoke (or other pollutants) are likely to linger around an area for a while before they dissipate, so that people are likely to get a decent dose of whatever other people put out. If there's more than a few smokers in a section, you could get reasonable amounts of smoke in the air around for a while. I don't know if the toxicities of the smokes are different. At a park or beach, though, there's no bowl shape to contain smoke, reasonable air flow, and far lower occupation densities. If someone smokes around you, you will get a dose, but the dose should be relatively low because you won't be exposed to it for long (both because of dilution and wind translating the smoke plume).

      I imagine that the smoking bans are a combination of the unpopularity of smokers and cities' desire to make smoking as painful as possible if they can't make it illegal (to lower its burdens on their health costs, and maybe in this case to minimize labor for park cleanup). While I think the letter writer is closer to the truth about smoking's health burden in parks and beaches than the cities attempting to ban smoking there, talking out of one's orifices doesn't help. I imagine that the aerial concentrations of smoking-related pollution could be measured, and the doses compared to those of other pollution sources - if cities actually cared about the alleged purpose of the bans or wanted to figure out how to act to maximize health benefits of their actions, that might be a place to start.

      Delete
    3. I meant that the "nil" health cost by the letter writer was probably a case of pulling a number out of an orifice.

      Delete
    4. I know there are statistics about second-hand smoking deaths but I seriously doubt that's actually entered as a "cause of death" on the certificate. Outdoor second hand smoke, if it has ever been linked to anything, has a death toll that i would comfortably approximate as "zero".

      As Quintus says below, I see plenty of trucks and buses that go far beyond a person's output.

      Delete
    5. I can see the purpose to banning smoking in enclosed areas, but I don't see the legitimate purpose in banning it in parks or beaches that can't (in theory) be covered by antilittering laws - there, I assume the pollution burden of cars and trucks would be greater as well. However, numbers on exposure could be gotten if they cared, and numbers would be better than guesses.

      Of course, since this is about telling smokers to !@&* %$^ and die, I don't think data would help much.

      Delete
    6. Fair enough. I guess i could restate that as "zero to a first approximation."

      Delete
  8. One thinks that this equates to total stupidity by the NJ authorities. But I suppose they have to justify their existence to the poor suffering tax payer(s).
    I think that 1 garbage truck driving around the parks picking up the rubbish would produce more harmful effects than a small percentage of a few attomoles of smoking humanity would cause.

    ReplyDelete