Q: Your recent column on local police being prohibited from using radar for speed monitoring was interesting and brought another aspect of that subject to mind. Years ago an area woman established a scholarship fund for children of state police in memory of her husband, a trooper who had died at a very young age. She died a few years ago. She had told me her husband died of cancer caused, the doctors believed, by his use of a radar gun in his work as a state trooper, and that similar cancers had been reported elsewhere in the country among officers who used radar. Obviously, I'm not a doctor. Perhaps in the past two decades the link has been disproved. But this concern could help explain why use of radar guns is not more widespread.
— Carol Henn, Bethlehem
A: I've heard some speculation over the years as to reasons Pennsylvania stands alone in prohibiting municipal or regional police from using the most effective speed-limit enforcement tool available, Carol.
The common theme is that many motorists oppose the local use of radar over fears the devices aren't accurate, and/or that municipal officers might engage in abuse, spurred by the need to fill department coffers with ticket revenue. An appealing theory is that state legislators, many of whom travel frequently between their far-flung districts and Harrisburg, simply don't want to get all the speeding tickets they deserve while "making time" on those commutes.
Whatever the real reasons (I don't think legitimate reasons exist), I'd never heard that concern over possible health problems for officers using radar guns could be a factor, but apparently it was, according to news accounts from the 1990s.
A Philadelphia Daily News report in September 1997 quoted Francis Bascelli, then president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, in testimony to the Senate Transportation Committee: "We have always opposed the use of radar because of what we feel are serious health questions that are pending," Bascelli said, adding that a study by the national FOP revealed that officers using hand-held radar guns had a "much higher" rate of testicular cancer than the general population.
I don't know if that played a significant role in maintaining the roadblock for local radar, but it certainly couldn't have helped dismantle it. I couldn't reach incumbent FOP President Les Neri for the group's current view, but municipal police have lobbied for the right to use radar for years, and even state police now think local officers should gain that ability.
I would say studies on this issue have proved inconclusive, but that the consensus is that the risk, if any, is small. "Most forms of radar use waves in the microwave range," the American Cancer Society reports on its website. "Questions have been raised about exposure to radar and the risk of developing cancer, such as in police officers who use radar guns in traffic enforcement. To date there is very little evidence to support such a connection, but studies to look at this possibility are ongoing, and governmental recommendations have been made to reduce any possible risk."
State police spokesman Trooper Adam Reed had not been aware of the issue, though he used radar during nearly eight years as a patrol officer. "I don't have any kind of concern like that," Reed said after being informed of the past worries.
After some research, Reed emailed to say state police now believe "the concerns linking radar use to cancer are not justified." He tracked down a 1992 department memorandum "reassuring the troopers that there is no evidence to substantiate any concerns" and citing a study suggesting no link. "Our department's medical officer also concluded that no link exists," Reed said.
Retired state police Troop M Commander Ted Kohuth of Emmaus recalls the health concerns, but added, "I am unaware of any exposure-related illnesses or controversies from the Lehigh Valley area back in that era."
The most comprehensive study I could find was done by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration back in 1995, and it's one Kohuth referred me to. While noting the results were not definitive, scientists found that the power emitted by radar speed-detection devices was relatively low, achieved limited penetration into the body, and was unlikely to cause damage.
" … Neither the laboratory nor human research literature is sufficient at this time to make possible a definitive assessment of the health risk of long-term, low-level exposure to [traffic-radar] microwaves," the report cautions. However, " … there is no proof at this point that traffic radar devices can be harmful to the police officers who use them."
Unless or until it's determined that the devices are harmless, OSHA recommends precautions including pointing radar guns only away from the officer's body, and switching the units on only when timing traffic. Switches that activate the units only when the "trigger" is pulled are recommended, and Reed said the hand-held units used by state police have that feature. OSHA also advises users to avoid resting the unit against the body whenever it's turned on, and avoid pointing at metal surfaces within the patrol car. Fixed-mount units should be positioned so that they point away from officers or other occupants in the car, the government says. Some states have adopted similar procedures independently, the federal report stated.
At the end of the road, my conclusion is that microwave radiation, including that from our ubiquitous microwave ovens, amounts to an ultra-subcompact concern, running near the back of the pack behind other cars that threaten to run us down.
All this information steered me to a question though: The radar beams cops are supposed to aim only away from themselves are aimed directly at motorists. OK, we're farther away, and in our cars, but … has anybody studied that?
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