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Journalist: Melinda Wenner
August 12, 2008
Daniel Shattuck calls himself a soldier,
and you might assume as much from his shaved head and six-foot,
210-pound frame. But he’s never been in the armed forces. Instead,
Shattuck has been reluctantly drafted to fight against something in his
own body: a malignant brain tumour. “To me, it’s a war,” he says. “I’m
at war with this thing every day.”
But what if the published science doesn’t reflect what’s really happening out there? And what if there has been a concerted effort to shield us from the evidence that does exist? Accounts from a handful of well-respected scientists suggest that since the mid-1990s wireless companies have been doing their best to bury worrying findings, discredit researchers who publish them, and design experiments that virtually guarantee the desired results. “Biological effects are undoubtedly there, no question, and it’s a canard to suggest that they’re not,” says Abe Liboff, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University, and co-editor of the journal Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine. The cellphone industry, he insists, “will use any excuse to avoid the truth.”
Even so, a new possibility is emerging. Although cellphones appear to be safe when used sporadically, individuals who use them frequently for more than a decade may be vulnerable. Eight population-based studies published since 1999 indicate that heavy users are twice as likely to develop certain types of brain tumours as infrequent users. Citing recall bias and memory loss on the subjects’ parts, critics reject such suggestions. Still, since cancer often takes decades to develop, other scientists wonder whether these findings are the first faint whispers of a public health crisis. After all, with an estimated three billion users around the world, cellphones have become ubiquitous.
In 1995, Jerry Phillips, a biochemist at the Pettis Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Loma Linda, California, received a call from the head of his biomedical research group. He and his co-workers were doing contract work for Motorola and the US Department of Energy on the effects of electromagnetic radiation, and Motorola, he says, needed a favour: higher-ups had learned of a study just published by University of Washington scientists Henry Lai and N. P. Singh showing that radio frequency fields similar to those emitted by cellphones damaged rats’ brain cells, breaking their DNA structures after just two hours of exposure. The company, Phillips says, wanted to discredit the study.
To Motorola, it didn’t make sense that a cellphone could break DNA. The ionizing radiation of X-rays and atomic bombs has enough energy to knock around electrons and cause genetic damage. But the radiation emitted by cellphones is non-ionizing, similar to radar, and thought to be too weak to do genetic harm. That is, while cellphone radiation fits within the microwave spectrum, it emits too little energy to significantly heat tissue. So how could cellphones, Motorola’s reasoning went, possibly affect or harm the brain?
Nonetheless, Lai’s research suggested they could, and his paper worried Motorola. Phillips recalls that the company asked him to “find ways to put a spin on it that was favourable to them and less favourable to Henry and N. P.” He declined, but did agree to provide Motorola with comments on the study, and to conduct a similar trial if they were interested.
They were. Phillips designed a comparable experiment to investigate how radiation emitted by cellphones affected DNA in cells. He tested two slightly different radiation frequencies and exposure times, and found that in both cases the radiation did affect the cells’ DNA, albeit in significantly different ways: sometimes it increased the base level of DNA damage typically seen in cells, and sometimes it lowered it. He wrote a report and sent it to Motorola with a note saying he wanted to publish the results and, if the company would fund him, design studies to further investigate his findings. A few days later, Mays Swicord, the director of electromagnetic research at Motorola, called him.
“He started questioning a lot of the results, pointing to what he called ‘inconsistencies in data,’” Phillips recalls. “I pointed out that it’s not unusual to see, with a single chemical agent, results go in one direction for one time period, and in the opposite direction for another.” Phillips went on to explain to Swicord that long or heavy exposure to a toxin can initiate a cell’s repair mechanisms, immediately fixing the damage. A shorter or lighter exposure might cause damage, but not enough to trigger the same repair mechanisms. In this manner, paradoxically, the lighter dose might be more dangerous.
Swicord, who has a background in bioelectromagnetics, wasn’t convinced. “He suggested that I consider not publishing anything and that I do more work,” Phillips says. “And I said no. I know when the project is done. I’ve been doing research for twenty-five years.”
Their argument went on for weeks. Eventually, says Phillips, the head of his research group, Ross Adey, phoned him. Apparently under a lot of pressure, and worried that his group might lose Motorola’s financial support if he didn’t cooperate, Adey, says Phillips, “told me that if I didn’t give Motorola what they wanted, it could be detrimental to my career.” Phillips wouldn’t back down. “This isn’t about the group. It isn’t about money,” he told Adey. “It’s about science.”
Phillips refused to work on any further Motorola-funded projects, and in 1998, in the peer-reviewed journal Bioelectrochemistry and Bioenergetics, he published his DNA study, which would be one of his last. That same year, the Department of Energy stopped funding the group’s work on electromagnetic radiation effects. Phillips left Loma Linda and moved to Colorado Springs. Today he’s the director of the Science/ Health Science Learning Center at the University of Colorado.
Lai, the soft-spoken University of Washington scientist who published the study that inspired Phillips’ research, has also felt outside pressure. In a 1994 Motorola memo — obtained and published by the New York–based Microwave News — a corporate communications employee discussed how the company could discredit Lai’s findings. The memo concludes, “I think that we have sufficiently war-gamed the Lai-Singh issue, assuming the Scientific Advisory Group and CTIA have done their homework.”
Shortly thereafter, an anonymous call was made to the National Institutes of Health, the agency funding Lai’s work. The person charged that Lai was performing experiments outside the scope of his grant. The NIH looked into the allegation but told Lai to continue his research. Then, he says, the scientific advisory group created by CTIA to manage $25 million (US) in industry-donated research money sent a letter to the president of the University of Washington demanding that Lai and Singh both be fired. Lai wasn’t, but soon after, all non-industry funding for related research dried up in the US. Like Phillips, he left the field.
Swicord, now semi-retired, admitted in an interview that he asked Phillips to collect more data, but insisted that Motorola eventually encouraged him to publish his findings. Similarly, the Motorola spokesperson acknowledged the “war game” memo, but told me that the company and the wireless industry in general have “demonstrated a strong commitment to high- quality research in the area of the safety of radio waves.”
The industry has indeed funded a number of trials on the potential effects of cellphone radiation, but the results of those studies differ markedly from those funded by the government or other public agencies. In short, industry-funded research tends to show no cause for concern; the findings of other studies suggest a need for precaution.
In a paper published last year in Environmental Health Perspectives, Swiss researchers reported that of the studies published between 1995 and 2005, which investigated whether controlled exposure to radio frequency radiation affected humans, 82 percent of those funded by public agencies, and 71 percent of those funded by a combination of industry and public money, reported that there were effects; only 33 percent of the solely industry-funded studies did. The authors point out that scientists funded by public agencies may have an interest in finding a response in order to secure additional funding, but Lai doesn’t buy this argument. Having shifted his research focus to finding cancer cures, he still follows the literature on cellphones, and has done his own analysis of 336 published papers. Industry-funded studies, he says, are roughly twice as likely as government-funded ones to conclude that cellphones are harmless. Phillips is also convinced that the industry either cherry-picks its data or designs studies to show nothing. “A lot of the studies that are done right now are done purely as PR tools for the industry,” he says.
Recent epidemiological (population-based) studies comparing the cellphone habits of people with brain tumours to healthy individuals suggest that the frequency — and length — of use may indeed play a role in tumour development. “There’s no indication, for people who use their phones for less than ten years, of an association between mobile phone use and these particular cancers,” says Lawrie Challis, former chairman of the UK’s Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme. But “knowing what happens in the short term tells you nothing about what happens in the long term.”
Indeed, of thirteen epidemiological studies
published since 1999 on cellphone use for more than ten years, eight
suggest a two- to threefold risk increase.