% fortune -ae paul murphy

WiFi, Cancer, and Legal Liability

As I've said elsewhere ( Cigarettes and Cell Phones: Too Popular To Compare?) mainstream opinion on the health hazards of cell phones and similar gear, including WiFi links, is roughly comparable to mainstream opinion about the health risks of smoking before US Surgeon General Luther Terry declared that smoking causes cancer. As cnet editor Molly Wood pointed out a bit later ( The cell phone industry: Big Tobacco 2.0?) the analogy extends to the industry's behavior, with today's cell phone proponents acting in many ways like their cigarette industry predecessors.

We do not yet know, however, whether a similar link between low level radio frequency radiation and cancer or other diseases will eventually become widely accepted or widely debunked. With smoking we have certainty, and consequent legal anbd political cover for sensible action, but with cell phones and WiFi we do not. There is simply no definitive answer.

In Europe, where licensing and public control policies over traditional phone services have driven cell phone use to much higher levels than we see in Canada and the United States, a great deal of research is being done on this. In particular, the COST 281 Action was "launched to study the effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF) linked to the new UMTS (third generation of mobile phones), Bluetooth (the infra-red communication standard for mobile phones) and WLAN (wide band network using radio frequencies) technologies. About 50 researchers are working on this programme which covers 18 countries at an estimated cost of 75 million over five years."

From a layman's perspective, I'd suggest that the answer seems to be trending toward yes, but industry representatives and others, some of whome are qualified to have an opinion, are generally saying no.

My bottom line is that I don't know - but I do know this: if it turns out to be yes, and some of the key resarch findings - such as the Verum report, turn out to be definitive, some victims will eventually try to place liability for their cancers on the companies that exposed them to the radiation.

Given that the reality and extent of the risk are unknown, does it make sense to consult the lawyers and start taking steps to protect yourself and your organization?

My guess is that it does - but that you should go no further in terms of publically entering the debate than setting a company policy on using only those phones and other radio devices that get the best ratings on the American Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) scale as explained by fellow Zdnet blogger David Berlind. Basically, that kind of action is just good policy and even the most rabid WiFi fanatic won't question you on it.

Unfortunately neither public opinion nor research will yet support you much beyond that -in other words, going public with the concern if you don't happen to work in a health care environment could let others discredit you.

What you can do, however, is look for ways to cut RF exposure that also meet some other agenda. Look, for example, for opportunities to reduce overall corporate communications costs that just happen to require less cell phone use - or to improve document security and reduce information integrity risks by eliminating WiFi networking in most places around the company.

Do things right, and if the case against using these things strengthens as the evidence comes in, you'll find yourself halfway home -but if the evidence goes the other way, you won't be out on a limb.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.