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Towering Babel

Imagine if the safety and effectiveness of prescription medicines were decided not by the federal Food and Drug Administration but by each individual town or village. If a new drug was ruled harmful by the Santa Fe City Council it might be marketed instead in Española or Taos. Or suppose that any city could trump the Environmental Protection Agency. Albuquerque and Las Cruces could compete to attract more industry by steadily racheting down their air and water quality standards.


Except to the most rabid Tea Partier, some matters are best decided on the federal level. In that spirit (and to avoid unconstitutional impediments to interstate commerce), the Telecommunications Act, passed by Congress in 1996, bars municipalities from using health fears as a justification to deny applications for wireless installations that meet or exceed safety standards set by the Federal Communications Commission in consultation with the F.D.A. Yet Santa Fe’s wi-phobes continue to speak as though the restriction were part of some nefarious plot.

The New Mexican didn’t help matters with the weird lead on its story last week about a recent public hearing on the city’s proposed new telecommunications ordinance:

	The federal government does not want cities to talk about possible
	health or environmental consequences from the growing number of
	wireless antennas.

Um, what? Maybe it was simply the imprecision that can arise from writing on deadline, but a clumsy opening like that can only feed the paranoia of those convinced that Santa Feans are under a gag order imposed by F.C.C. agents secretly in the employ of the Verizon Corporation.

The story had other shortcomings. By choosing not to mention that Arthur Firstenberg and Bill Bruno were, as an observer, Steve Stockdale, put it, “the primary front-row speakers for the event,” the reporter may have misled readers into thinking that anti-wireless sentiment has spread beyond the small self-reinforcing fringe group (the “Santa Fe Alliance for Public Health and Safety”) that shows up at every meeting.

Even worse, the story lent false legitimacy to one of the activists, John McPhee, by describing him, without qualification, as an employee of the state health department. According to his Linked-In profile, Mr. McPhee, whose title is childhood safety prevention coordinator, has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology from Lake Forest College. He is no more of an expert on the health effects of electromagnetic fields than the befuddled citizen who proclaimed at the hearing:

	I've read a lot of [cell phone] studies on the Internet. They
	range from 'Oh, everything is fine' to 'Children should stay away
	from them.' I don't know what to think. ... I don't know about
	you, but I felt a lot better before cell phones and cell towers
	and Wi-Fi.

As Mr. Stockdale noted in his blog post, “Dude, you’re 65 years old. Of course you felt better when you were 50!”

The speaker’s confusion is understandable considering the campaign of obfuscation waged by the Santa Fe Alliance with the help of groups like Powerwatch in the UK and in the United States. Powerwatch has been expertly skewered by skeptic Andy Lewis on his Quackometer site, and the self-published Bioinitiave Report has been condemned for its bias by several international scientific organizations. A European Commission study group called attention to the “alarmist and emotive language” and to conclusions that “have no scientific support from well-conducted EMF research.”

	No mention is made, in fact, of reports that do not concur with
	the authors’ statements and conclusions, [which] are very
	different from those of recent national and international reviews
	on this topic.

The Bioinitiative Report, in other words, is a joke. That doesn’t keep the Santa Fe Alliance from promoting it as gospel.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review