The Times (London, UK)
November 12, 2005


Pull the plug on health scares

By Sam Lister

Can kettles kill? The question, as surreal as it might sound, is worth
answering if supporting evidence exists. Likewise, the equally
alarming prospect that crop spraying, hairdryers, electricity pylons,
power substations and mobile phones might, unbeknown to many of us,
cause early death.

Such concerns have become a staple diet of government bodies lately as
public health has sped its way up the agenda. The driving force is a
concept known as the Precautionary Principle, a better-safe-than-sorry
stance dictating that risks should be minimised even before hard
evidence emerges.

So it was that an official from the Health Protection Agency (HPA)
issued a heart- quickening warning last week about electric kettles,
hairdryers and other household appliances. There are unanswered
questions, she said, about the health effects of electromagnetic
fields around such equipment which, until known, should demand advice
to limit possible dangerous exposure.

That the HPA report itself, an investigation into electrosensitivity,
found no evidence of a proven scientific link between electromagnetic
fields and suggested symptoms such as rashes, headaches and fatigue
was not sufficient to silence the doubters. When the official was
pushed to explain the report's message, a familiar theme emerged: in a
world governed by precaution, anything can carry an ill-effect until
proven otherwise.

The media, somewhat surprsingly, treated the suggestion that the
public should do "practical things to reduce exposure, such as staying
away from appliances and not buying cheap, tinny hairdryers", with
commendable restraint.

While the trend for tub-thumping scares is not new, it is growing
rapidly and at a time when measured assessments of threats to public
health are needed as never before. In September a report from the
Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution gave warning that "it is
not implausible that there may be a link between pesticide spraying
and chronic ill-health", though no cases could be confirmed. It went
on to recommend compulsory 5m "buffer zones" on farms, which
campaigners against crop spraying took as vindication of their claims.

The National Radiological Protection Board sparked lurid headlines
earlier in the year over the safety of mobile phones. Sir William
Stewart, its chairman, said that if there was a health risk -- which
remained unproven -- it would be greater for the young. This prompted
Rosie Winterton, the public health minister, to warn parents to be
"very careful" about the time spent by their children using mobiles.

These problematic reports appear to have two sources: self-
justification on the part of researchers who want grants renewed and
the determined desire of scientists not to miss a health horror on
their watch. The latter motivation -- borne of sorry sagas such as mad
cow disease, asbestosis and the miners' affliction pneumoconiosis --
is commendable. But it is worth remembering that while there are
possibly unpleasant and unknown health risks at large, a little
knowledge can be an even more dangerous thing.

Sam Lister is the Times health correspondent

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.