Cell phones and cancer – listen and learn!

Disconnect: A Cancer Muckraker Takes on Cell Phones

By BRYAN WALSH, Ecocentric blog, TIME Magazine

If anyone would be receptive to the idea that cell phone radiation might
play a role in cancer, it would be Dr. Devra Davis. The epidemiologist and
toxicologist is an expert in environmental health, and she’s made a career
out of the idea that cancer often has more to do with what’s happening to us
than what’s going on inside our genes. Her 2007 book The Secret History of
the War on Cancer showed that some of the best medical minds in the U.S.
played down the environmental factors behind cancer””from cigarette smoke to
chemical exposure””far too long, in part because of deception and delay from

But when a colleague raised the possibility that cell phones could be
connected to brain cancer, Davis wasn’t receptive. “I couldn’t believe it
and I didn’t want to,” says Davis. “These were attractive devices. Cell
phones were like cars””you couldn’t imagine life without them.” But as she
began to look seriously into the field, Davis began to have doubts that cell
phones were harmless. She found evidence of studies, some decades old,
showing that the radio-frequency radiation used by cell phones could indeed
have biological effects-enough to damage DNA and potentially contribute to
brain tumors. She found that other countries””like France and Israel””had
already acted, discouraging the use of cell phones by children and even
putting warning signs on handsets. She found evidence of  increases in
certain kinds of brain tumors among unusually young patients who were heavy
users of cell phones. And, just as she saw with tobacco and lung cancer,
Davis discovered that the wireless industry””often with the help of
governments””had fought independent scientists who studied cell phones, and
helped produced questionable science that effectively clouded the issue.
“This is about the most important and unrecognized public health issues of
our time,” says Davis.”We could avert a global catastrophe if we act.”

Her new book Disconnect is the result of those investigations, and it’s
convincing enough to give you pause before you fire up that iPhone. I’ve
already covered the possible connections between cell phones and cancer””you
can see my February story in TIME for a backgrounder on the scientific
debate, and another piece I did recently on the Interphone study, a
collection of international studies on mobiles and cancer that was meant to
clarify the issue, but only ended up further confusing it. It’s a complex
subject””mixing electrical engineering, biology and epidemiology””but Davis
makes a strong case in her book that we’ve underplayed the possible threat
from cell phones for too long. We’re disconnected””even as worrying studies
have begun to pile up, however quietly, the message has been slow to reach
those in public health and even slower to reach the government. “The fact
that we don’t know everything about the subject doesn’t mean that everything
is fine,” she says. “I can’t tell you that cell phones are dangerous, but I
can tell you that I’m not sure they’re safe.”

The wireless industry has an easy answer for this: in the thousands of
studies that have been done on cell phones and health, few of them have
shown any effect””and public agencies like the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) and the World Health Organization have found no clear
health risks. As CTIA, the wireless industry group, says in a statement on
its website: “To date, no adverse health effects have been established for
mobile phone use.”

The magic word there is “established,” because as Davis argues in some of
the best passages of Disconnect, it could be that we haven’t established the
dangers of cell phone use because we haven’t asked the right questions””and
that might be on purpose. “If you don’t want to know the answer,” Davis
says, “don’t ask the question.” Much of the research into the biological
effects of cell phone radiation has been underwritten by the… cell phone
industry, and you don’t have to be a raging paranoiac to wonder whether that
money might have an impact on the conclusions of those thousands of studies.
After all, in this case””just as it was with tobacco and lung cancer””doubt is
the friend of industry. To hold off the possibility of legislation or
regulation””not to mention lawsuits””wireless companies and their advocates
don’t have to prove that cell phones are safe beyond any doubt. They just
have to play defense.

However, as Davis shows in Disconnect, that argument is going to get tougher
and tougher to make. In one of the finest passages of her book, Davis
details the tale of Dr. Franz Adlkofer, a German scientist who had long been
involved in tobacco research. Like many scientists””more than medical science
might like to admit””Adlkofer was willing to take money from the tobacco
industry to fund his research, without really thinking about how that might
constrain his work. He was, in a sense, a company man. But when Adlkofer
began working with the wireless industry and produced research showing that
cell phone radiation unravels DNA, he suddenly found his work under attack
by the industry that had funded it. He was accused of fraud in highly
suspicious circumstances (he fought the charges, and they were eventually
withdrawn), and says the industry paid other scientists to produce studies
that would discredit his own work, as he told Davis in Disconnect:

I can’t prove this, but here’s what I think they did. The industry never
liked this work. From the first they heard about it, they set out to
discredit it. I had seen this happen with tobacco science so often,
especially at the hands of the American companies. Yet suddenly it was
happening to me.

Davis is justifiably suspicious of Adlkofer””he was a tobacco scientist,
after all””but ultimately his story seems to check out. He’s also far from
the only researcher Davis meets whose career suffered after challenging the
conventional wisdom on cell phones and cancer. Davis shows that independent
studies on cell phone radiation found dangers at more than twice the rate of
industry-funded studies””though because the cell phone industry is the source
of much of the funding of cell phone studies, there are far more of the
latter. And ultimately that is what is truly disturbing about Davis’s book.
Time and again, she shows the way that industry has been able to twist
science just enough to stave off the possibility of any regulation””and finds
that researchers are afraid of challenging the status quo, lest they find
themselves suddenly out of a job, denied the lifeblood of research money.
Most of the few brave researchers who challenge the prevailing wisdom on
cell phone radiation””like the electrical engineer Om Gandhi or the
bioengineer Henry Lai””are senior scientists, secure in their positions and
their tenure. But a young researcher just starting out is far more
vulnerable to industry pressure. Science isn’t as pristine as we imagine it.
“There has not been truly independent research in this field,” says Davis.
“That has to change.”

Davis wants to see the government fund new studies on cell phones and
health, independent of government interference””and fortunately the National
Toxicology Program will be running its own tests, though not until 2014. The
good news in the meantime is that you don’t have to throw away your cell
phone to minimize any potential risks. Simply using a wired headset should
significantly cut down on radiation exposure to the brain, although Davis
recommends that children””whose thinner skulls can absorb higher levels of
radiation””avoid using phones altogether. “We do so much to protect our
children from all manner of threats,” she says. “We need to protect them
from this as well.” Read Disconnect, and you’ll be on guard as well.

September 27, 2010
© 2010 Time Inc.

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