The Risks Digest

The RISKS Digest

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

Volume 9 Issue 11

Tuesday 15 August 1989


o Cellular Telephone Causes Airliner Fire Alarm
Dave Davis
o Computer-based airline ticket scam
Rodney Hoffman
o 1989 CPSR Annual Meeting
Gary Chapman
o New Yorker Article on EMF Risks
Gordon Hester
Dan Schlitt
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Cellular Telephone Causes Airliner Fire Alarm

dave davis <>
Tue, 15 Aug 89 08:17:31 -0400
A morning radio news report here in Washington, DC reported that a commercial
airline crew noted a fire alarm signal from a cargo hold in mid-flight.  Upon
returning to their originating airport, the cargo hold was examined carefully,
and no evidence of fire was found.  Apparently, a cellular telephone in a
passenger's luggage had received an incoming call, that activated the smoke (I
assume) detector via RF interference.

This occurrence shows why we have systems engineers.  That is, someone who must
consider not only electromagnetic compatibility between system components, but
also with other systems in the same operating environment.  As a result of this
event, the aircraft companies may have to redesign a lot of sensors.

Dave Davis, MITRE Corp., McLean, VA

Computer-based airline ticket scam

Rodney Hoffman <>
15 Aug 89 09:12:10 PDT (Tuesday)
From the 'Los Angeles Times' 14-Aug-89:

Phoenix police arrested four people as they continued to unravel a bogus
airline ticket ring that allegedly sold millions of dollars of stolen tickets
by advertising discounted fares in national publications.  Investigators said
the individuals put together a major conspiracy by knowing how to access
airline computers to put travel itineraries in the computer system.

1989 CPSR Annual Meeting

Gary Chapman <chapman@csli.Stanford.EDU>
Mon, 14 Aug 89 13:48:33 PDT
                          The 1989 Annual Meeting
               Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
                            October 20-21, 1989
                              Washington, D.C.

The Friday, October 20, program of the CPSR Annual Meeting will be held in the
auditorium of the Pan American Health Organization, 525 23rd Street, N.W.,
Washington, D.C.

Keynote speaker:  Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), on "Technology, Privacy and
Civil Liberties."

Panel discussion, "Federal Support for Computer Science R&D and the Nation's
Technological Base."  Moderated by Lance Hoffman, professor of computer
science, George Washington University.  Panelists:

    Frederick Weingarten, Congressional Office of Technology Assessment
        Division of Information Technologies
    Kenneth Flamm, researcher in information technologies and public
        policy, the Brookings Institution
    William Scherlis, director of the software division of the Information
        Science and Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects
    Marilyn Elrod, staff director, House Armed Services' Committee Subcommittee
        on Research and Development
    Ann Markusen, professor of urban planning and development, Rutgers
        University, nationally-known expert on the economic impact of military
        spending and economic conversion

Awarding of the Norbert Wiener Award for Professional and Social Responsibility
to Professor Daniel McCracken of the City University of New York

Luncheon speaker:  Karen Nussbaum, founder and executive director of the
National Association of Working Women, or 9to5.  Speaking on "Electronic
Monitoring, Privacy, and Public Policy." (Faculty Club of GWU)

Panel discussion, "Computers in Education:  Mixed Agendas and Uncertain
Outcomes", Moderator:  Terry Winograd, professor of computer science, Stanford
University.  Panelists:

    Carol Edwards, Director of the Southern Coalition for Educational
        Equity and Project MICRO
    Linda Roberts, Program Director, Office of Technology Assessment
    Sherry Turkle, professor of sociology, MIT, author of the book, The
        Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit
    Chet Bowers, author of The Cultural Dimensions of Educational Computing

Panel discussion:  "Patrolling the Programmers:  Computer Ethics and Computer
Accountability".  Moderator:  Rachelle Hollander, Coordinator, Ethics and
Values Studies Program, National Science Foundation.  Panelists:

    Bryan Pfaffenberger, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences,
        University of Virginia
    John Shore, Vice-President, Entropic Systems, Inc., author of The
        Sachertorte Algorithm and Other Antidotes to Computer Anxiety
    Carol Gould, professor of humanities, Stevens Institute of Technology

On Saturday, October 21, CPSR activists, leaders, and members and interested
people will meet to talk about the organization.  There will be workshops on
computers and civil liberties, computers and the military, computers and
education, and other subjects.  There will be reports from the chapters around
the country, and a report from the national staff about the finances of the

A highlight of the Saturday program, to be held at the George Washington
University, will be a workshop on local organizing led by Monica Green,
National Field Director for SANE/Freeze.

For more information, call the CPSR National Office at (415) 322-3778, or write
P.O.Box 717, Palo Alto, CA 94302-0717, or netmail to Chapman@csli.Stanford.EDU.

   [By the way, the August 1989 issue of the Communications of the ACM has a
   set of papers from CPSR's Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing
   (DIAC) symposia, guest edited by Doug Schuler and Jon Jacky.  PGN]

New Yorker Article on EMF Risks

Gordon Hester <>
Fri, 28 Jul 89 18:38:13 -0400 (EDT)
I have received numerous e-mail responses, as well as the ones that have
appeared in Risks Digest, to my posting on Paul Brodeur's articles on
electromagnetic fields (EMF) health risks in the New Yorker. I am
forwarding this message to those who have asked for additional information;
references to published sources on the subject appear at the end of it. My
apologies to anyone who feels that I have not resonded adequately to their
requests. Please send me mail and I will try to respond, but I simply do not
have time to respond individually to all of the mail I have already recieved.

First, several people have quite correctly taken me to task for calling
Brodeur's use of the term "radiation" in his article titles "a complete
misnomer." You are all correct: tecnically speaking, EMF is a form of
radiation. My point, which I obviously did not make clearly, is that the use of
this term will create an association in the minds of readers who are neither
scientists nor particularly well-informed about radiation ( and I feel
confident that that includes virtually all regular readers of The New Yorker)
to atomic or ionizing radiation. Public fear of atomic radiation and nuclear
power is well known (and I say this without intending to make any judgment
about whether that fear is justified, as that is irrelevant to the issue of
EMF). I feel fully justified in characterizing Brodeur's use of the term
radiation as misleading; it is one of many instances where he gives information
that is in itself correct but that, due to a failure to include additional
information, will tend to lead many readers to draw conclusions that are not

I was considerably more disturbed by Jan Wolitzky's response to my comments on
Brodeur's articles, and would like to respond in some detail to his criticsms.
I find it very ironic that he chose not to resond to my point that Brodeur
incorrectly assumes that researchers who have done studies that have yielded
negative results on EMF health effects (that is, the results of which have been
inconsistent with hypotheses that some such effects exist) have "cooked" their
data to suit the preferences of their industry or government funding sources.
Nevertheless, he accuses those of us who are working on this issue of doing
exactly that!

In describing a booklet on EMF risks prepared by my colleagues here at Carnegie
Mellon University, Wolitzky claims to have found "in the fine print in the
front of the booklet" information that our research is supported by, and the
production costs are paid for, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He
asserts that this is the reason we are "go[ing] to such lengths to try to
dampen public interest in the health effects of EMF."

Wolitzky omits other information that also appears on the first page of the
booklet: that our research is also sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy
and the National Science Foundation, that preparation of the booklet (distinct
from production costs) was supported by NSF, and that EPRI has NOT reviewed or
approved the contents of the booklet. (They have, of course, seen it since it
was produced.) This information is obviously relevant.  By the way, the booklet
is available from teh Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie
Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. there is a charge of $3.00 to defray
production and mailing costs. (The funds EPRI provided for production are not
separate from the research money we have; we charge this amount only to cover
costs and do not make any profit. This is definitely NOT a commercial
solicitation.) The booklet is titled "Electric and Magnetic Fields from 60
Hertz Electric Power: What do we know about possible health risks?" It is 45
pages long. It was produced, by the way, primarily for use in research on
communicating to the public about this issue. It is being made generally
available only because there is a paucity of information on the subject written
in a way that is accessible to the public.

Wolitzky also writes of the booklet, "It also tries to discount
epidemiological data that establishes a correlation between ELF [extremely
low frequency] radiation and cancers and birth defects, by saying that just
because a rooster crows in the morning when the temperature is rising
doesn't mean that the rooster CAUSED the temperature to rise." This is
simply a distortion. This analogy is used in the booklet to explain
the difference between establishing correlation and establishing
causation, but the booklet does not try to discount the cause for
concern created by the existence of positive epidemiological studies.
It does show results from nine epidemiological studies of cancer, four
of which are positive (i.e., the 95% confidence intervals fall entirely
above the level of no change in cancer risk).

Finally, Wolitzky characterizes the group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon
as trying to "lobby the public that there's nothing to get excited about here,
that scientists don't all agree on the interpretation of the data, and that
therefore we should follow a "prudent" course (they use that word a lot),
by which they mean no government regulation at all, just maybe you should
put your electric blanket on the shelf in the closet." There are four points
here, which I will respond to in the order presented.

First, no one at CMU is trying to lobby the public. We are researchers, not
politicians. We have made no attempt to widely distribute information to the
public. We do, of course, provide information to research subjects who are
drawn from the general population, both as part of our research and after their
participation in that research. It is our responsibility as scientists to do
this; it is also required by our university's policy and by generally accepted
standards of scientific organizations. We also publish results of our research.
Our publications sometimes appear in journals whose audiences include
policymakers, but I don't think it would be accurate to describe this as
"lobbying the public" by any means.  Second, we do not characterize the
possibility of EMF health risks as "nothing to get excited about." If we
believed this, we wouldn't be interested in doing research in this area in the
first place. I think it is fair to say that each of us currently is of the
opinion that a conclusion that there definitely are health risks from EMF is
not justified by the scientific evidence, although our opinions are
individually held and I cannot presume to speak for my colleagues. In the
booklet referred to here, which is the responsibility of M. Granger Morgan
(others, including me, acted as advisors), the following appears under the
heading "Do 60 Hz fields pose health risks?" "The honest answer is that nobody
knows for sure. Scientists have found that fields can produce a variety of
biological effects, like changes in the levels of specific chemicals the body
makes and changes in the functioning of individual nerve cells and the nervous
system. Whether any of these changes lead to health risks is less clear." In my
opinion, this is a fair statement of the facts. However, it certainly does not
mean that there is no cause for concern on the part of the public, government,
researchers, or the utility industry. To the contrary, the scientific evidence
now available is certainly cause for concern on the part of each of these

Third, it is a FACT that scientists don't agree on how the currently available
data should be interpreted. In his articles, Brodeur quotes the few people who
are willing to conclude that there definitely is a health risk extensively -
though I would not accept that those people as responsible scientists, any more
than I would those who are now willing to conclude that there definitely is not
a health risk. It is notable, however, that Brodeur does NOT have any quotes
from some of the quite responsible scientists he refers to in his articles to
the effect that there definitely are significant public health risks - Ross
Adey and Nancy Wirtheimer are the two examples that come to my mind. These
people do say, and quite justifiably, that there is now cause for concern and
for a concerted effort at doing more and better research - as do many other
scientists. But that is not to say that they agree on how to interpret the
available data.

Fourth, it is true that the booklet advocates a "prudent" course of action, and
devotes some consideration to what is prudent. One thing that seems like it
would probably be prudent for most people is to not use electric blankets, or
at least not sleep under them. Another is to not sleep with your head near an
electric clock that is motor driven - even small electric motors produce fairly
strong magnetic fields. These are, clearly, actions that can be taken at an
individual level, and at minimal cost. But large-scale societal action is not
prudent at this time, given the uncerainty about whether there are any health
effects from EMF and the possible extent of effects that may occur, for two
reasons. First, the public expenditures that might be required are potentially
enormous. It is not prudent to undertake those expenditures, which might
accomplish literally nothing beneficial, when there are many other public
health risks that are known to exist for which resources could be used and used
effectively.  Second, even if we were willing to take drastic measures, it is
not clear what measures would be effective. The currently available evidence is
not sufficient to give a clear indication of the measures of EMF exposure, if
any, that are biologically effective and potentially pose health risks. (For
example, the appropriate measure might involve time-averaged field strength,
magnetic but not electric fields or vice versa, the specific wave form of the
fields, the peak strength of the fields, or even exposure only to fields of
specific intensities and frequencies and no others.) For exactly this reason,
government regulation cannot be undertaken at this time with any confidence
that it will be effective in reducing public health effects, even if one is
willing to assume that such effects exist. It is quite conceivable that
government regulations that arbitrarily limit field strengths (and such limits
would necessarily be arbitrary, at least with respect to the potential for
health effects) would actually INCREASE any public health effects that do
exist. (Several states have nevertheless adopted such limits.)  There is one
action that government can undertake that would definitely be prudent, and
those of us at CMU who are working on this problem advocate it strongly. That
is to support further research. Unfortunately, it is the case that government
support in this area has been declining rather than increasing over the last
few years.

Now for some references:

1. Bilogical effects of power frequency electric and magnetic fields -
background paper. Published by the Office of Technology Assessment, U.S.
Congress. 1989. 103 pages. This is a fairly accessible summary of the EMF
health effects literature. It also discusses policy issues, regulatory
activity, and research programs briefly. Let me "warn" you that this report was
prepared by my colleagues here at CMU, though they were commissioned by OTA. If
you view us as a biased group, I guess you will have to look elsewhere.
Available from gov't printing office, stock #052-003-01152-2, price $4.75.

2. Electrical and biological effects of transmission lines: a review.  Focuses
on transmission lines, as the title implies. Prepared by staff of the
Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, Portland, Oregon
97208. 1986.

3. Biological and human health effects of extremely low frequency
electromagnetic fields. Prepared by American Institute of Biological Sciences,
1985. Commissioned by the U.S. Navy. Disparaged in the Brodeur articles, by the
way. Available from NTIS as Report # AD/A152 731.

4. Electromagnetic fields: cell membrane amplification and cancer promotion.
By W. Ross Adey. Review paper presented at the National Council on Radiaton
Protection and Measurements Annual Meeting, National Academy of Sciences
(Washington DC, 20418). 1986. A quite technical review of the scientific
literature on cellular-level studies of EMF effects.  I presume it is available
from the Academy.

5. Biological effects of power line fields. Technical report prepared
for the New York State Power Lines Project (also disparaged by Brodeur).
NYSPLP, Wadsworth Labs, E-297, Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY. 1987.

These are the most recent reviews available, and I think they are from a wide
variety of sources. If I knew of a source that in some way represented the view
that EMF exposure definitely causes health effects I would provide it, but I
don't.  For specific papers, articles, etc., please see the bibliographies in
the above sources.

Gordon Hester, Department of Engineering and Public Policy
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213

      [See also the collection of comments on this subject in RISKS-9.10.  PGN]

Re: Gordon Hester on Paul Brodeur

Dan Schlitt <>
Mon, 7 Aug 89 10:55:53 EDT
I have watched with interest the discussion of the biological effects of low
frequency electromagnetic radiation although I have not followed it in great
detail or done research in the area.  I have been a participant in the
nuclear power safety debate and I find certain similarities in both the
content and the players.  [...]

While I expect that the objection to the use of the term "radiation" in this
case is basically a public relations objection, there is a possible real
distiction to be made.  For the low frequency fields much of the exposure
occurs in the near field region.  The fastidious might wish to limit the use
of the term "radiation" to the far field region.

Since I am more impressed by mechanistic explanations than I am by
statistical epidemiological evidence, I am willing to believe that the
differences in field configuration in the two regions may cause different
biological effects.

>There seems to be a concerted effort on the part of the Dept. of Engineering
>and Public Policy at CMU to lobby the public that there's nothing to get
>excited about here, that scientists don't all agree on the interpretation of
>the data and that therefore we should follow a "prudent" course (they use that
>word a lot), by which they mean no government regulation at all, just maybe you
>should put your electric blanket back on the shelf in the closet.

This is what I have come to expect of this group at CMU.  My own feeling
about prudence is that exposure should be minimized in the face of
uncertainty about safety.  However I think that this can be taken too far.
Wide right-of-ways under high voltage transmission lines seem reasonable to
me.  But I'm not going to get too excited about the effects of electric
blankets.  (But then, I don't use the things.)

BTW, don't be fooled by the signature.  I am a theoretical physicist by
training and spent twenty-some years of my life on the faculty of physics at
a large state university.

Dan Schlitt, Manager, Science Division Computer Facility,
City College of New York, New York, NY 10031                   (212)690-6868

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