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Sick of Being a Guinea Pig

Some corporations and governments have used the US public as guinea pigs in uncontrolled experiments conducted without the public’s approval. They were often gambling with our well being when they introduced new products or conducted risky tests. In contrast, there were usually few risks for the CEOs or government officials in charge of these unacknowledged experiments.

If serious harm occurred, it was often very difficult to link the harm to the product or action due to: 1) the long lag time for the development of many diseases; and 2) other possible causes. Moreover, any damages awarded to the injured parties were usually small compared to the product’s profits. The damage awards were viewed simply as a cost of doing business. However, for the victim or his family, money was poor compensation for death or for a disease or disability.

For example, executives of cigarette companies misled the public about how addictive cigarettes were and the horrific damage they caused. Corporations paid fines, but not the executives. Note cigarettes are still on the market.

In the years before the financial crisis of 2008/2009, Wall Street introduced complex investment products that were marketed as being very safe. Unfortunately, rating agencies and regulators abrogated their responsibilities. As a result, these really risky products led to the crisis in which millions of people in this country alone lost their homes and jobs. None of the corporate leaders on Wall Street went to jail for these crimes, and many even received large bonuses.

Exxon began research on climate change about 40 years ago and an internal report concluded that results could be catastrophic and that burning of fossil fuels was a key contributor. Later Exxon shifted its strategy to opposing action on climate change. Due partly to Exxon, the necessary transition from fossil fuels has still not occurred. We are already seeing the impact of a changing climate and it’s likely to become much worse.

More recently, all Boeing 737 Max planes were grounded after two of them crashed killing everyone on board. The Federal Aviation Administration, despite concerns about the process, had allowed Boeing to perform some of the safety inspections. Apparently major problems with the flight control system and its instructions were missed. Will the Boeing CEO and other officials face trial or pay any fines?

There are numerous other products for which corporations misled the public about their safety. Truth and public responsibility have frequently taken a back seat to excess greed. Making matters worse, political appointees chosen to head regulatory agencies often gave priority, despite strong objections from the dedicated staff, to corporate interests over the public interest.

Given this past record, isn’t it finally time for the US to act proactively when a new product is developed, that is, to follow the precautionary principle? If there are legitimate concerns raised about a product, more testing must be performed before the product can be marketed. After all, it is far better to prevent the marketing of a product than being forced to deal with its possibly irreversible impact when it’s shown to be harmful.

Currently, there is a huge push for 5G (fifth generation) technology by the telecommunications industry. According to the industry, 5G offers greater bandwidth than 4G by using the largely untapped much higher portion of the millimeter wave spectrum. Due to its increased speed, 5G is touted as facilitating the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), that is, it will allow smart appliances, self-driving cars, etc. to connect to the internet and to talk to one another. 5G will likely complement 4G for some time. Perhaps more importantly, 5G will also be a major new revenue source for industry.

Because the higher millimeter wave frequencies don’t travel very far, tons more microwave antennas will be required. These antennas will be much smaller than those for 4G and will be ubiquitous, for example, on street signs, traffic signals and utility poles. However, privacy and surveillance issues may become even more of a concern with 5G given that these antennas are so close together.

The Federal Communications Commission under its Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney, has adopted rules essentially removing most of the control by local governments to approve or deny placement of cell towers or to consider health or environmental effects for placement. However, on August 9th, a three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for Washington, DC Circuit ruled against the part of the FCC deregulation that exempted telecoms from considering the environmental and historic preservation reviews for the placement of 5G antennas.

5G also raises new concerns about health as there are few independent studies documenting its safety. Moreover, some independent studies recently have suggested that the health risks are of concern. (https://ehtrust.org/key-issues/cell-phoneswireless/5g-networks-iot-scientific-overview-human-health-risks/)

During a Feb. 6, 2019 Senate Committee hearing on 5G, telecommunications industry representatives replied to a question from Senator Richard Blumenthal about industry support for independent health and safety studies. The response was: “There are no industry backed studies to my knowledge right now.” Blumenthal replied, “ so, we are flying blind here on health and safety”.

Isn’t it time to say no to being a guinea pig? Demand that the FCC and Congress stop the rollout of 5G until independent studies demonstrate its safety.

In addition, given the huge societal changes that are rapidly occurring as a result of the steady stream of technological developments, shouldn’t we say whoa and discuss the implications before going ahead? People, not corporations and their new technology, should determine our future.

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Ron Forthofer is a retired professor of biostatistics and former Green candidate for Congress and for Governor of Colorado.

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