Talk Healthy to Me

ColumnPublicly and privately, politicians are straining credibility.

Years ago, I began to hear a steady stream of rumors about cell phones causing brain cancer. I took these warnings quickly to heart, since I have always been an early adopter when it comes to irrational panic. But my fears were dispelled by a number of medical studies showing that the radiation emitted by cell phones was not a health hazard. These studies were backed up by the Federal Communications Committee and the Environmental Protection Agency, both of which assured consumers that cell phone usage was safe. Now it seems that the World Health Organization has reconsidered its earlier, benign stance on cellphones, and is warning consumers that they may be carcinogenic after all.

Is it just me, or is it hard to trust the people who are supposed to be looking out for our health and well-being?

My distrust of government safety pronouncements is deeply ingrained and dates back to the 1960’s, when the Federal Civil Defense Administration tried to convince me that my best chance of surviving a nuclear attack came from hiding under the wooden desk in my classroom – despite the fact that visual evidence led me to doubt that this small and rickety desk could save me from the firestorm and thermal radiation created by an atomic mushroom cloud.

Since that time, countless other lies and misinformation have been fed to a trusting public:

  • The food pyramid, as introduced in 1992, instructed Americans to base their diets on a grain-based foundation of white bread and pasta, until nutritional science proved that advice to be wildly incorrect. The new guidelines have literally toppled the pyramid, which now rests sheepishly on its side and comes with a lithe stick figure scampering up the edge of the fallen pyramid – an activity that, ironically, would be almost impossible for the many Americans who became morbidly obese on the FDA’s previous carb-heavy guidelines.
  • In the days and weeks after 9/11, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, the EPA and OSHA all gave New Yorkers a big, happy thumbs-up, telling them that the unfiltered air downtown was safe to breathe, and that there were no significant health risks to occupants and workers in the affected area. Subsequently, study after study has shown that countless residents and responders who worked on Ground Zero have suffered long term respiratory scarring and illness.
  • The Federal Aviation Administration continues to let parents think it’s safe to hold babies under two on their laps during air travel, despite the fact that safety experts agree that unrestrained babies are likely to fly around the cabin like projectile missiles in the event of a crash or even turbulence.
  • The USDA has given its approval to injecting ground beef with ammonia, in the hopes that this highly toxic chemical would kill the e. coli and salmonella often found in cheaply-produced meat products. Despite initially telling consumers the beef was safe to eat, the agency now seems to be edging away from this policy, since the dangerous bacteria can still be found in the treated meat. Interestingly, the USDA does not seem particularly concerned about the fact that this beef – which is often sold to school lunch programs – still contains significant amounts of ammonia, which is not generally thought to be one of the healthier or tastier food additives.

I am, naturally, angered and offended that the agencies and officials of my government  find it so easy to be less than entirely honest with me. And yet, I really have no cause to complain – not compared to Maria Shriver and the late Elizabeth Edwards, whose politician husbands never quite got around to telling them that they had fathered children with other women. Government officials may occasionally mislead me, but my outrage pales when compared to that of Huma Abedin, whose husband, Congressman Anthony Weiner, neglected to tell her that he was using his Blackberry to photograph his happy place, and then tweeting those pictures to a wide assortment of coeds.

For politicians, at least, it seems that cancer isn’t the biggest risk that their cell phones may pose.

Susan Goldberg is a slightly lapsed treehugger. Although known to overuse paper products, she has the best of intentions – and a really small SUV. Catch her column, The Goldberg Variations, each week here at EcoSalon.

Image: California Literary Review