Traffic radar guns, which are used to save lives by catching speeders, have come under suspicion as a possible cause of cancer in traffic officers exposed to their microwave beams.
And that has triggered a series of lawsuits by an Agoura Hills lawyer, John E. Sweeney, on behalf of five former traffic officers who contracted lymphatic or testicular cancer. They are seeking millions of dollars in damages from radar equipment manufacturers, whom they accuse of failing to warn of health risks.
The suits--filed in San Francisco and Wisconsin, and apparently the first of their kind--have raised concerns in police and scientific circles, and have prompted some agencies to change the way the devices are used.
Los Angeles police and sheriff's department officials said their training programs stress safe usage of the guns.
The first case, filed by a former Petaluma officer with lymphoma, is set for trial March 17 in U. S. District Court in San Francisco.
"We're plowing new ground in prosecuting these cases, but I don't have the slightest doubt in my mind that they're justified," Sweeney said.
The litigation breaks new ground scientifically as well because studies on such chronic, low-level microwave exposure do not exist.
The U. S. Food and Drug Administration, which has the authority to set safety standards for radiation sources, has no grounds to regulate the devices, said Dr. Larry Cress, medical officer for the FDA's radiation biology branch.
"This issue is something that's recently reared its head," said Mays Swicord, director of the FDA's radiation biology branch. "There's still no biological database for us to suspect that there is a problem."
Nonetheless, Sweeney said he expects to file more suits here soon. A lawsuit and three workers' compensation claims were filed in Connecticut by officers who allege they got cancer from prolonged use of radar.
Others could follow. Gary Poynter, an Ohio state trooper who is an activist on the issue, said he has amassed 85 to 100 more reports of cancer among traffic officers.
Radar guns are usually hand-held, or mounted on patrol cars. They measure speed by bouncing low-power microwave beams off moving vehicles and catching the return signal.
Depending on how the gun is used, an officer's exposure could be nil or continual. Some radar is mounted behind officers, and the beam passes through their heads. One type of hand-held radar is left switched on, transmitting continually during an officer's shift.
When they are not beaming the devices at cars, officers typically have rested the guns on their laps or against a leg. Although the emissions are low--and fall off sharply with distance--the gun can still be transmitting against the body for minutes or hours a day.
Three of Sweeney's clients say they used hand-held units this way. One has testicular cancer, and the other two developed lymphatic cancer with tumors in the groin and leg.
But manufacturers contend that the beam is too weak to cause cancer no matter how the gun is used.
"You've got to come up with some medical evidence to say there's a cause-and-effect relationship," said Mark Oium, attorney for Kustom Signals Inc. of Lenexa, Kan., a defendant and leading manufacturer of radar guns.
Traffic police "are exposed to more auto exhaust than you and I are, yet nobody's saying it's the auto exhaust, which contains known carcinogens, that's causing their cancer," Oium said.
Defendants note that the traffic guns register well below safety limits set by the American National Standards Institute and other organizations.
However, health officials say those groups were mainly concerned with avoiding thermal effects--tissue heating--from microwave ovens.
"It's very questionable whether the ANSI standard is even applicable" to cancer questions, said Norb Hankin, an environmental scientist with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency's office of radiation programs.
While conceding that officers' exposures were low, Sweeney said they were far greater than the general public's. There is "an enormously important distinction between these traffic officers and the population at large," he said, one that is "far more than adequate" to explain the increase in certain cancers.
Although there is no medical evidence that traffic officers suffer unusual rates of cancer, at least one study into the matter is under way.
In the climate of uncertainty, the FDA has recommended that officers stop putting radar guns within six inches of their bodies while the devices are transmitting.
In October, the Connecticut State Police stopped using hand-held radar. It moved its units to the outside of patrol cars.
Some California police agencies have changed training and procedures.
The Los Angeles Police Department continues to rely mainly on hand-held guns, but a year ago it bought a set of so-called "instant-on" guns that transmit only when being beamed.
Their training stresses safety, said Dale Turner, radar coordinator for the department's Valley Traffic Division--more so, he said, than when he became a traffic officer in the 1970s and was told: "Turn it on, kid, point it down the road and what you see is what you get."
Paul Rice, a radar instructor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said health allegations seem to relate to improper use or mounting of radar. He said deputies are taught "that you don't place yourself in the path of an emanating radar beam."
At the California Highway Patrol, officers learn to avoid looking directly into the beam while calibrating radar equipment, and to mount radar to minimize reflections of the beam inside a patrol car, said Paul Crescenti, traffic radar coordinator.
"We don't have any concrete evidence" of danger "but we also have no concrete evidence . . . that they're safe," Crescenti said.