Cigarettes and cellphones: too Popular to Compare?

- by Paul Murphy -

When does background noise among alarmists become actionable inteligence? Should managers who read then US Surgeon General Luther Terry's 1964 declaration that smoking causes cancer have reacted immediately by banning smoking in the workplace and preferentially hiring non smokers? Should IT managers becoming aware of the recent REFLEX project report on the dangers of radio frequency radiation immediately ban wireless devices in the workplace?

The REFLEX project was funded by The Verum Foundation in Munich and carried out in independent labs across the EU. Its core findings, after four years and about three million dollars, were summarized in a recent article in Microwave news as:

         Experimental data generated in a number of the labs showed that RF radiation could increase the number of DNA breaks in exposed cells, as well as activate a stress response —the production of heat shock proteins. Many of these effects have been reported at scientific conferences over the last few years (see, for example, MWN, J/A01, N/D01 and M/A03).

Franz Adlkofer of the Verum Foundation, who managed the project, has long maintained that genotoxic effects of RF radiation can no longer be denied and warrant more intense investigation. “The now available scientific evidence of such critical events demonstrates the need for intensifying research,” he said on releasing the final report.

         Adlkofer stressed that, “Precautionary measures seem to be warranted.”

There is an English language summary on the Verum Web site.

This study doesn't prove the case against the use of wireless transmitters like cell phones and things, like laptops, that use wireless network access points, but managers with workplace health responsibility may want to place a hedge against future litigation by acting as if it did.

Health care litigation wasn't a major driver in either business or social policy in the US and Europe when Dr. Terry made his announcement and the fact that fourteen years had passed since Doll and Hill had published their ground breaking study (British Medical Journal 1950, 2, PP739ff) on the links between cancer and smoking didn't have many legal consequences. Replay that situation in today's legal environment, however, and the picture changes - companies would be driven to bankruptcy by claims based on the fact that the damage to employee health in companies which failed to provide a smoke free workplace was reasonably foreseeable after publication of the initial research.

Doll and Hill weren't the first to speak up or the first to really research the issue, but they were probably the people whose work tipped the scales to move concerns over smoking from crackpot to mainstream. After their work, people knew about the dangers of smoking and getting the issue on the political front burner just became a matter of time. Unfortunately things like this are clear only in hindsight; there's no reliable way for us to know now whether that situation is repeating itself with the REFLEX report taking the Doll and Hill role and some future US Surgeon General declaring low power RF radiation a health hazard.

Imagine, however, that this does happen and then ask the obvious question: what will plaintiff lawyers claim that today's IT managers should have done to protect themselves and their employees? Kind of a no brainer isn't it? but the trouble is that there's no way to know for sure whether this will happen and not a lot of business support out there now for a move to get rid of wireless.

So what can you do? Take a lesson from the Hazard County cops, that's what.

Hazard County is what my home province of Alberta became, at least with respect to speeding enforcement, after a series of bureaucratic accomodations in the late eighties and early ninties tied police budgets to fines "revenue." What happened was that the contract under which Canada's federal police force provides the equivelent of a state police service in Alberta was renewed with a "revenue offset" -and local police forces promptly demanded similar treatment. As a result Alberta's police forces write an estimated 14 times as many tickets per million driver miles as Ontario's and the only real differences are in who gets the money -and the additional driver stress imposed by the extra policing.

What makes this relevant is that a research done in 1991 implicated RADAR gun use in the development of testicular cancer among traffic officers. When this received widespread publicity in 1993, Alberta's police budget officers suffered a communal epiphany: the public deserved more accurate enforcement tools than the RADAR technologies the police had been investing in. As a result the interests of public safety and the responsible administration of justice mandated an immediate change to LIDAR -a technology which coincidently doesn't put out RF radiation.

If you're an IT manager, you should probably do pretty much the same thing: getting rid of anything that puts out pervasive low level RF starting with wireless networking components and ultimately extending that to cell phones and other sporadic transmitters - but purely in the interests of data security and systems integrity, of course.

You'll have an easier time of this if you happen to work in a health care environment, in part because you can talk about your real agenda without sounding like a nutcase, and in part because the data you protect is more sensitive than average.

No matter where you work, however, systems integrity always trumps convenience and should suffice as a reason to get rid of things like wireless connectivity on your network while protecting you from criticism if Franz Adlkofer and people like him turn out to be wrong.

Just think of it as a variation on Pascal's wager which doesn't contain an inherent contradiction because you really do win either way. At best you get a more secure network with better control over user added devices, at worst you get the security benefit plus the reputation enhancement that goes with being one of the first to address the dangers of low level RF radiation in the workplace. Either way, you'll be doing a good thing, and the worse the consequences of this stuff turn out to be, the better you'll look.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry.