These vignettes from my life -- two of them real, one that might have been -- are really pieces torn from a bigger picture. All three are portraits of this techno-era, a time when technology is our intimate partner. The unsettling images you see are the clashes of science and society.
Technology's positive impact on our lives is ubiquitous and undeniable. But there's a flip side: With increased knowledge comes increased awareness of potential hazards to our health. Open any newspaper or magazine on the racks at your supermarket and you'll read about another health scare, technology's latest threat to your well-being. The computer terminals that we use to transmit information also emit electromagnetic fields, which were reportedly associated with a cluster of miscarriages in pregnant women. The same medical X-rays used to diagnose our health also expose us to radiation, which we've heard can induce cancer. And what about those fen-phen drugs that help people lose weight? Just recently they've been linked to heart-valve damage.
As a society we are becoming severely contaminated with technophobia. But are our fears justified? Are all these hazards real? What exactly is the truth about the scientific findings that dictate to our health and habits?
There is, it turns out, one very logical place to start looking for answers to tough questions like these. You can find Dr. Kenneth Foster, associate professor of bioengineering, on the first floor of Hayden Hall. Foster is president of the Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT), a 2,000-member organization formed to examine the social issues related to technology. A component of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the SSIT has tackled issues ranging from peace technology to professional responsibility. Foster himself -- bearded, articulate, a self-proclaimed skeptic and critic -- is a likely-looking oracle of scientific truth. But if, like me, you have any preconceptions about scientific knowledge, some of Foster's judgments might surprise you.
Phantom or Fact?
Foster's tenure as the SSIT's president began in January 1997, but he has been studying the intersection of science and society for 25 years. Foster's particular focus -- the medical uses of electromagnetic fields -- has given him an insider's perspective on some of the more elusive effects of technology.
His first encounter with a technology-driven controversy came when he served with the Navy in the early 1970s. Foster's assignment was to study the biological effects of radio-frequency energy, which is emitted from microwave ovens and other common household appliances. Researchers knew at the time that exposure to very high levels of radio-frequency energy was not healthy. "Put a rat in a microwave oven and it's clearly dangerous to the rat," says Foster without a hint of facetiousness. No one would argue that. But what about low levels of exposure, like living 10 miles away from a TV station?
"There's been a constant public and scientific debate over whether low levels of exposure can have any kind of adverse effect. It's been an ongoing controversy for decades, with lots of anecdotal stories. But nothing has ever really been shown. After 50 years, the only hazards that have ever been clearly established are similar to those of putting a rat in a microwave oven."
At Penn since 1977, Foster now studies the interactions between electromagnetic fields and biological systems. One issue is whether a link exists between power-frequency magnetic fields and cancer; could workers in "electrical" occupations, for example, be at increased risk for brain cancer? Foster doubts that weak electromagnetic fields pose any real hazard, "but a scattering of weak and inconsistent positive results ... helps keep the controversy alive."
In addressing this problem of evaluating subtle health hazards, Foster frequently uses the term phantom risk. As he explains, "Phantom risks are cause-and-effect relationships whose very existence is unproven and perhaps unprovable." Evaluating phantom risk means determining the precise connection between a suspected environmental hazard and a health effect -- a task that can often be difficult, sometimes impossible.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 2/9/98