space holder Science Meets Society Sure, smoking is bad for you, but how about living near electric power lines, or getting an X-ray, or having silicone breast implants? Science has answers -- but often not the kind people want to hear, says Bioengineering Professor K

((((By Sonia K. Ellis ((((+)))) Illustration by Anastasia Vasikalis))))

It's winter OF 1992, AND I've just found out that I'm pregnant with my first child. But in the office of the nurse practitioner, my happiness is quickly tempered when she asks if my mother ever took DES -- diethylstilbestrol, a drug given routinely in the 1960s to prevent miscarriage. DES, she tells me, has been associated with a rare cancer in some women exposed to the drug in utero. The answer is no, but I've been infected, nevertheless -- with a realization: There are risks to me and to my unborn child that I can't control or even see.
    It's summer of 1995, and my son is a healthy three-year-old enjoying a visit from his grandparents. I'm a second-rate cook, and most of the meals I prepare for my guests go from the freezer to the microwave oven. Watching me in the kitchen, my father-in-law mentions a report he read in the newspaper: You should stand about three feet away from a microwave oven when it's operating, because that's how far the waves travel before they dissipate. After that, whenever my son hears the beep of the controls, he dashes to the other end of the kitchen until the microwave is done. My own home, it seems, harbors the phantom hazards of technology.
    Now a hypothetical scenario. We're back to 1992, but this time my visit to the doctor's office is grim: I've been diagnosed with breast cancer. I elect to have a mastectomy, followed by reconstructive surgery with a silicone implant. Then I hear the news. The commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration has decided to ban silicone-gel-filled breast implants. Are the implants really dangerous? So far there's no scientific evidence in either direction -- safe or not -- but there have been some stories about women developing connective-tissue disease after getting the implants. Does that mean I'm at risk? If so, then I have another question: Is there someone I can sue?
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