What do cellular telephones have to do with a recent outbreak of intestinal disease from fast food hamburgers?
"They represent a form of hysteria, of technophobia (fear of the products of modern technology) latent in the public, which can be relatively easily manipulated," said John Higginson, former director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer and now a professor at Georgetown University.
To the uniformed, this is the face of technology.
The cellular phone scare began four weeks ago when a Florida man announced on national television that he was suing a cellular phone manufacturer because his wife developed a fatal brain tumor a few months after beginning to use their product.
Medical authorities note that not only is there no scientific evidence linking the phones to cancer but that brain tumors usually take a decade or longer to develop, not months.
Despite this, the stocks of cellular phone companies initially took a beating, government investigations were launched, and future phone sales have been threatened.
It was not sciences finest hour, said James Enstrom, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Its really bad when you get down to this, a crisis based on the anecdote of a single individual."
Ironically, one new technology that has been strongly resisted by those whom scientists call technophobes could have prevented a very real recent health crisis — that of the infection of Jack in the Box hamburgers with E. coli bacteria from feces.
The outbreak has resulted in at least three deaths and over 450 hospitalizations in northwestern states. The technophobia involved here is the fear of food irradiation.
E. coli: it looks innocent enough under a microscope.
Agriculture Secretary Michael Espy also has said that irradiating beef could have prevented the Jack in the Box outbreak.
In the irradiation process, food is hit with ionizing radiation similar to that produced by a medical or airport X-ray device, but at higher levels. The food itself is no more radiated than is luggage after going through airport security.
"Its a direct parallel to the pasteurization process of milk," said Everett.
Everett notes that the dose of irradiation that would kill E. coli would also kill other pathogens, all more common and more harmful than E. coli, including salmonella, listeria, and campylobacteria.
The Department of Agriculture estimates U.S. cases of salmonellosis alone at two million to four million, causing approximately 2,000 deaths. Campylobacter strikes 2.1 million Americans annually and kills about 2,100.
"If its instituted correctly, and if the public accepts it, food irradiation could obviously have a dramatic impact" on foodborne disease, said Douglas Archer, director of the Division of Microbiology at the FDA.
Yet a small but highly vociferous group of irradiation opponents have thwarted the food industrys ability to bring irradiated foods to market, largely through intimidation practices such as picketing stores which carry irradiated products.
In the meantime, old, nontechnological food preservation processes such as salt-curing and smoking, which according to the American Cancer Society have been linked to both cancer of the esophagus and of the stomach, remain unchallenged by consumer groups.
"Im at a loss to explain (opposition to irradiation) except that its selfishness, greed, and fear. They whip up people from one scare to the next and as a result they scare people away from these things," said Edward Josephson, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Rhode Island.
Fear of power lines, encouraged to a great extent by a series of articles appearing in recent years in the New Yorker magazine, is yet another manifestation of technophobia.
Four scientific studies, three in the U.S. and one in Sweden, have linked childhood leukemia to exposure to electromagnetic fields generated by power lines. Several other studies, however, in the U.S. and in Britain, show no link.
The media, including the New Yorker, essentially have ignored the negative studies while giving much play to the positive ones.
A search on Nexis, a computerized media reference system, yielded more than 80 references to the Swedish study connecting power lines to cancer. But it contained no references to either of the British studies, which showed no connection.
The British studies were published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed British Journal of Cancer. The Swedish study was simply released without benefit of scientific review or even an English translation.
Power lines may ruin a beautiful sunset, but they dont cause cancer.
However, the British government got almost no attention in the American media when it released a review last year of 80 studies of cancer in electrical workers and eight of childhood leukemia in which it found no "basis for restricting human exposure to nonionizing electromagnetic radiation."
This phenomenon in which good news is ignored and a whisper of bad news gets tremendous media play is not unusual, says Ronald Baily, author of the forthcoming book Eco-Scam: The False Profits of Ecological Doom.
"The usual function of the media is that no problem is no news. As reporters we always reach for the worst situation, the highest number of dead that can be plausibly defended," said Baily.
Four years ago, the apple growth regulator Alar became the target of a massive media onslaught.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentalist group, had earlier failed to get the Environmental Protection Agency to ban it and also had failed to get the courts to force the EPA to ban it.
The NRDC then hired a public relations firm to plan the media campaign, which involved an expose on CBSs Sixty Minutes and the setting up of a front group called "Mothers and Others Against Pesticides," which received major publicity because its titular head was actress Meryl Streep.
The maker of Alar, the Uniroyal Chemical Co., initially fought back with scientific evidence.
Prestigious cancer researchers such as Bruce Ames, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, pointed out that the same evidence used to indict Alar — that it caused tumors in laboratory rodents fed the chemical in massive doses — would make tap water, peanut butter, and mushrooms appear far more dangerous than Alar.
But Uniroyal eventually gave into public fears and the threat of a congressional ban and pulled the product from the market.
Then-FDA Chairman Alvin Young later said of the Alar incident, "This is one of the worst instances of where statements were made without benefit of scientific review."
"You cannot do risk assessment by media," he added.
Nonetheless, flushed with success, the NRDC sued successfully in federal court to force the EPA to strictly enforce the Delaney Clause, a 1958 federal law forbidding the use of any pesticides that have caused tumors in laboratory animals, no matter how little of the chemical humans would end up ingesting.
This would result in the banning of at least some 35 pesticides currently in use and could lead to sharp increases in food costs.
But President Clintons EPA chief, Carol Browner, has taken the position of a National Academy of Sciences panel that said that science has shown the risk to humans from trace amounts of these chemicals is negligible, posing little or no threat to human health.
Considering her reputation as an ardent environmentalist, Browners action may be considered akin to President Nixon going to China.
Some environmentalists have been quick to attack Browners decision.
"At a time when cancer strikes one in three Americans, we shouldnt be lowering our guard against this disease," said Albert Meyerhoff, an attorney with NRDC.
Many scientists and health officials, however, believe that by worrying about parts per billion of chemicals that pose questionable dangers to humans, lowering our guard is exactly what we are doing.
"While approximately 9000 people die from bacteria-related food poisoning each year, there is no scientific evidence showing that residues from the lawful application of pesticides to food have caused illness or death," former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop pointed out in testimony to Congress last year.
Koop added, "Consumer groups, however well-intentioned, continue to tell us that cancer-causing pesticides are present in our foods and that we and our children are at extreme risk. This is just not true — there is no food-safety crisis."
"Its now quite clear that the way in which people live and the circumstances of their lives, which include not only their physical surrounding but also their behaviors, are the major factors (in cancer risk)," said Lester Breslow, a professor in the School of Public Health at UCLA.
Nonetheless, "various people, especially in industrialized countries, think that everything causes cancer," Breslow said.
He added, "toxic agents are accounting for very little of the cancer that occurs, yet the overwhelming attention in the press is given to these quite rare factors and often a great deal is made of alleged factors like the cellular phones where no evidence."
Breslow notes that a 1981 study by Richard Doll and Richard Peto, two world-renowned Oxford epidemiologists, concluded that only 1% to 3% of all cancer is caused by environmental exposure to man-made substances.
Obsession with cancer links to technology and scares of the week, say those who study risk assessment, can be a dangerous, even deadly, distraction from real risks.
Fresh fruit for all is a modern innovation. In the past you needed to live on a farm or near one to get it.
"We have 100,000 fetal alcohol syndrome babies born a year and if we really wanted we could greatly reduce that number, but instead were dancing around with saccharin, parts per billion of Alar, and cellular phones," added Byron Butterworth, a cancer researcher at the Chemical Industry Institute of Technology in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
"The highest priority for our children should be preventing the known risks before we become paralyzed by the speculation," John D. Graham, director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, speaking specifically on the subject of power lines and childhood leukemia. "So lets get on with bicycle helmets, poisoning prevention and immunizations."
Ames also emphasizes lifestyle choices, especially ones choice in foods.
"For most types of cancer, increasing (your intake of) fruits and vegetables will greatly reduce your risks. You should be eating five courses of fruits and vegetables a day, and only nine percent of Americans do."
But its not just diversion of individuals attention from their own risks that is at stake.
No one knows how many lives will be lost because millions of dollars and many of our best researchers will now be shunted into the study of the health effects of cellular phones or other technological bogeymen and away from research on real problems.
Said Breslow, "I wouldnt rule out that 20 years from now somebody might find a relationship between brain cancer and cellular phones, but right now dozens of other things could be looked at that might cause brain tumors."