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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Warning: Your Magazine May Be Hazardous to Your Health

10 Feb 2010. I admit that when I see somebody using a cell phone while driving a car, riding a bike, crossing a busy intersection, or talking loudly about personal matters in public places, I wonder about brain damage. It seems like the only ones who are worried, however, are mass media journalists.  Christopher Ketcham's latest effort in GQ magazine, "Warning: Your Cell Phone May be Hazardous to Your Health," is a case in point. Ketcham goes the extra mile, however, to explain the behavior of the ubiquitous cell phone user. He tries to make the case that there's been a government-industry conspiracy to hide the truth from the general public. If so, the conspirators might want to go back to the drawing board; they don't seem to be scaring anybody. Nor does the cell phone/brain cancer manufactroversy seem to be working, at least not in the United States: comScoreMobiLens claims that 234 million people age 13 and older in the U.S. used mobile devices in December 2009. That's more than 75% of the total population.

Ketcham makes a convincing case that cell phones and Wi-Fi are harmful, that the government knows this, the industry knows this, and both have actively silenced those who say otherwise. The only ones who have been telling the truth about the dangers of cell phones are mass media newspapers and magazines, a guy named Allan Frey who hasn't done any research for 25 years, and a guy named Louis Slesin who's made a living out of scaring people about EMFs since 1980. All the science that has found no causal connection between cell phones, cell phone towers, Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi towers is tainted and biased because of its connection to the industries that are making billions on this stuff. Ketcham reminds the reader that the same thing happened with tobacco and asbestos. The only thing missing from Ketcham's story, however, is the evidence similar to what we have for the tobacco and asbestos stories.

Let me begin my deconstruction of Ketcham's fable by noting that I have been following the EMF issue for many years and recently posted a short summary of most of the key issues regarding cell phones. For more details, see the Skeptic's Dictionary entry on electromagnetic radiation. The one thing you will find in those pieces that you won't find in Ketcham's piece is detailed reference to the scientific studies that have been done on the issue of health hazards from cell phones and Wi-Fi. The only recent science Ketcham cites is the Interphone study, sponsored by the World Health Organization. It  involves a compilation of studies from 13 nations and has been going on for a decade. Different countries have found conflicting results. The latest results from the Interphone studies were published on 8 Oct 2008. Here is Ketcham's take on those studies:

Interphone researchers reported in 2008 that after a decade of cell-phone use, the chance of getting a brain tumor—specifically on the side of the head where you use the phone—goes up as much as 40 percent for adults. Interphone researchers in Israel have found that cell phones can cause tumors of the parotid gland (the salivary gland in the cheek), and an independent study in Sweden last year concluded that people who started using a cell phone before the age of 20 were five times as likely to develop a brain tumor. Another Interphone study reported a nearly 300 percent increased risk of acoustic neuroma, a tumor of the acoustic nerve.

What Ketcham doesn't tell the reader is that none of the findings in the Interphone studies show a robust correlation between cellphone usage and brain tumors or other diseases. No causal connections have been established at all. Where positive correlations were found, the authors used cautious language, e.g., "possibly reflecting participation bias or other methodological limitations," "finding could either be causal or artifactual, related to differential recall between cases and controls," "based on few subjects (7 cases and 4 controls) needs to be investigated further," and "additional investigations of this association...are needed to confirm these findings." It is important when reporting on a scientific study to provide these kinds of details. Otherwise, the writer distorts the science, arousing false hope or fear based on inconclusive data. This kind of incomplete, misleading reporting is typical of the mass media's treatment of scientific studies. It is also revealing that most of Ketcham's sources are mass media reports, not scientific studies. Also, he doesn't mention that the WHO is sponsoring the Interphone studies, perhaps because he later attacks the WHO and claims that the cell-phone industry has influenced the WHO by making payments "to WHO personnel working on wireless health effects."

The lead-in to Ketcham's article sets the tone for the article itself: it aims to frighten the reader by suggesting two lies: that the evidence is piling up that cell phones are damaging brains and that there is a cover-up.

Ever worry that that gadget you spend hours holding next to your head might be damaging your brain? Well, the evidence is starting to pour in, and it's not pretty. So why isn't anyone in America doing anything about it?

The evidence is piling up, but it is piling up in the other direction: there is growing evidence that cell phones are not damaging our brains. Furthermore, even though there is no need for it, there are government officials who are trying to spread the word about the dangers of cell phones. State Rep. Andrea Boland of Maine believes that "numerous studies point to the cancer risk." So, she proposed that a law be passed in her state that would require cell phone manufacturers to put warnings on packaging, like those on cigarettes. Apparently, Boland reads the same newspapers that Ketcham reads. She, too, cites the Interphone Studies without mentioning the cautions that the authors of those studies have stated about the results of their research. Boland relies on a retired electronic engineer, Lloyd Morgan, for much of her support. I have already given a detailed critique of Boland's arguments [and an update that noted her bill failed to pass by a margin of 83-62], so I won't repeat it here. Since Ketcham provides no new science to consider, critiquing his work is a bit easier.

The critical reader will recognize in Ketcham's first paragraph that careful reasoning from scientific data is not going to be the strong point of the article. He begins with a story about an anonymous guy who, along with his anonymous doctor, thinks that his tumor was caused by his cell phone and that there is a conspiracy by the cell phone industry to discredit studies that show cell phones are dangerous. Ketcham comments: "It's hard to talk about the dangers of cell-phone radiation without sounding like a conspiracy theorist." Actually, it isn't that hard to avoid sounding like a conspiracy nutter if you stick to the facts and go easy on the speculation, though that might not get your story accepted by a mass media publication like GQ.

Ketcham's next hook to the dangerous conspiracy theme is to cite scary headlines in mass media publications from around the globe. He then asserts that "the scientific debate is heated and far from resolved." His evidence? "There are multiple reports, mostly out of Europe's premier research institutions, of cell-phone and PDA use being linked to "brain aging, brain damage, early-onset Alzheimer's [or not] , senility, DNA damage, and even sperm die-offs." If Ketcham has looked at these reports, he doesn't reveal it. Instead, he simply notes that in September 2007 the European Environment Agency warned that cell-phone technology "could lead to a health crisis similar to those caused by asbestos, smoking, and lead in petrol." True enough. The EEA did suggest that there could be dangers from cell phones and that just because the sum of the data so far indicates there is no serious health threat does not mean that at some time in the future we won't find out otherwise. The EEA is upfront about its ignorance of EMFs ("the EEA does not have specific expertise in EMF") and of its reliance on the precautionary principle.

On the other hand, there is a big difference between saying that even though the data don't show that cell phones or Wi-Fi are causing serious health problems, we should err on the side of caution, and saying that the data show our cell phones are causing brain damage and there is a conspiracy to keep this data suppressed. My position is that the current data is very robust, indicating we need not take extraordinary precautions regarding cell phones and Wi-Fi. Obviously, this could change, but until it does I don't think we are justified in taking unnecessary precautions. On the other hand, I don't appreciate the landscape being blighted by unsightly towers. I support the restriction of such constructions for aesthetic reasons. And I support laws that make it illegal to drive while using a handheld cell phone.

It is true that some studies have collected data suggestive of possible harmful effects from cell phone microwave exposure, but they are too small to have ruled out chance or other causal agents (2006) or they have not been tested on in vivo cells (2004; 2006a; 2006b).

A report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on a study of 891 adults who used their cell phones between 1994 and 1998 found that there was no increased risk of brain cancer associated with cell phone use. (Joshua E. Muscat et al. "Handheld Cellular Telephone Use and Risk of Brain Cancer," JAMA. volume:284. December 20, 2000.) Of course, it may take many years for the effects of something to show up, so this study doesn't prove once and for all that cell phones don't increase the risk of brain cancer. Six years may not be long enough for the effect to occur. Yet, in one of the most frequently cited cases to support the cell phone/brain cancer connection, the user had owned a cell phone for only seven months before she was diagnosed with a tumor on her brain near where she allegedly held her phone. Ketcham mentions this case (but not the length of time the woman had been using a cell phone) and quotes Slesin regarding it:

"This [that modulated microwaves could cause DNA damage in lab rats] was explosive news," Slesin said. "The reason it was so important was at the time you had all these allegations of brain tumors and cell phones being connected"—specifically the 1992 lawsuit brought by a Florida man, David Reynard, against a number of companies that manufactured phones and provided cell service, following the death of his wife from a brain tumor. "If you can break up DNA with cell-phone radiation, suddenly it's not such a stretch to think of brain tumors developing from this radiation."

Ketcham's comment on the matter? "Galvanized by the Reynard case, Motorola frantically mobilized to reassure its investors." One can't deny that the media can motivate a company to frantically mobilize to reassure its investors.

In 2006, in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Danish researchers published the results of a study of more than 420,000 mobile phone users. They looked at data on people who had been using mobile phones from as far back as 1982. They found no evidence of an increased risk of tumors in the head or neck. They found no evidence to suggest users had a higher risk of leukemia or of tumors in the brain, eye, or salivary glands.*

In 2009, the results of the latest study on the subject were published. Researchers identified 59,984 cases of brain tumor diagnosed between 1974 and 2003 out of a population of 16 million from four Scandinavian countries. Cell phones were first introduced in these countries in the 1980s, but use did not become widespread until the 1990s. No difference in brain cancer rates was found after cell phone use became common.

Allan Frey and Louis Slesin

Ketcham's two main sources for much of his article are Allan Frey and Louis Slesin. Frey hasn't done any research for 25 years and these days considers himself a philosopher. Frey was a neuroscientist who worked on biological effects of microwaves. Ketcham writes:

In a study published in 1975 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Frey reported that microwaves pulsed at certain modulations could induce "leakage" in the barrier between the circulatory system and the brain. Breaching the blood-brain barrier is a serious matter: It means the brain's environment, which needs to be extremely stable for nerve cells to function properly, can be perturbed in all kinds of dangerous ways. Frey's method was rather simple: He injected a fluorescent dye into the circulatory system of white rats, then swept the ­microwave frequencies across their bodies. In a matter of minutes, the dye had leached into the confines of the rats' brains.

Frey says his work on radar microwaves and the blood-brain barrier soon came under assault from the government. Scientists hired and funded by the Pentagon claimed they'd failed to replicate his findings, yet they also refused to share the data or methodology behind their research ("a most unusual action in science," Frey wrote at the time). For more than fifteen years, Frey had received almost unrestricted funding from the Office of Naval Research. Now he was told to conceal his blood-brain-barrier work or his contract would be canceled.

Whatever the truth about Frey and the government, it is a fact that work in this area has continued. Some readers might remember the stories about the microwave ray gun (Microwave ray gun controls crowds with noise or the 60 Minutes story on microwave guns). We know that microwaves can be harmful to our brains. Put your head in a microwave oven and turn it on for about 5 minutes to find out, if you're not sure. Ketcham makes no effort to sort out the differences between what's going on in a microwave oven or a microwave weapon from what's going on with a cell phone or with radiation from sunlight for that matter.

The energy emitted by cell phones, cordless phones, and baby monitors (10 milliwatts) is pretty weak. There is more EMF exposure from radio and TV, and the wiring in our homes and the electrical appliances we use, than from our cell phones or Wi-Fi. No one can avoid electromagnetic radiation. It is everywhere. We are constantly exposed to it from light, commercial radio and television transmissions, police 2-way transmissions, walkie-talkies, etc.

Photons of visible light carry more energy than microwaves and bombard us much more frequently than microwaves from such things as cell phones or wireless networks. Dose matters, of course; i.e., intensity, focus, and duration of exposure. Think of the difference between a healthy 15 minutes in the sun, hours of exposure to intense sunlight, and even a short exposure to sunlight focused on the skin by a magnifying glass. Ketcham's argument, backed by Frey and Slesin, is akin to saying we shouldn't go into the sunlight because of the damage photons can do when intensified and focused.

These facts have not stopped Louis Slesin from continuing his campaign against the science that finds no reason to fear EMFs. Unlike Frey, Slesin is not a scientist. He has a doctorate in environmental policy from MIT and has been publishing Microwave News since 1980. He has rejected all the science done in the past 30 years that has found no support for the hypothesis that cell phone use or Wi-Fi are hazardous to our health. He makes a living out of warning people of the dangers of microwaves. As scientific studies got larger and better designed, the EMF-cancer connection grew weaker. As the evidence has continued to pile up against the EMF-cancer connection, Slesin has dug in deeper, rather than admit that he was wrong. Physicist Bob Park wrote about Slesin in Voodoo Science. Park notes that in 1996 "the National Academy of Sciences released the results of an exhaustive three-year review of possible health effects from exposure to residential electromagnetic fields."

The large conference room in the Academy building on Constitution Avenue in Washington was crowded with reporters, TV cameras, and a few scientists. The head of the review panel, Charles Stevens, a distinguished neurobiologist with the Salk Institute, summed up the results: "Our committee evaluated over 500 studies, and in the end all we can say is that the evidence doesn't point to these fields as being a health risk."

There were reporters in the room who had been writing stories about the dangers of power-line fields for years. For Louis Slesin, the editor of Microwave News, an influential newsletter devoted entirely to the EMF health issue, the controversy was his livelihood. For these reporters to now write that it had all been a false alarm would have been miraculous. They would scour the report looking for soft spots. But the evidence against a connection between electricity and cancer was getting harder to ignore.

Rather than admit he's wrong, Slesin told Ketcham: "We love our cell phones. The paradigm that there's no danger here is part of a worldview that had to be put into place. Americans are not asking the questions, maybe because they don't want the answers. So what will it take?" According to Ketcham, Frey has the answer to Ketcham's question: "Until there are bodies in the streets," he said, "I don't think anything is going to change." That's how Ketcham ends his article. To call this shoddy journalism is an insult to shoddy journalism.

Ketcham did make some effort to find some scientists who believe the data support being very cautious about cell phone use. One of those scientists is Henry Lai, whose own work has found "that modulated EM radiation could cause breaks in DNA strands—breaks that could then lead to genetic damage and mutations that would be passed on for generations" in rats. Lai admits that the science doesn't prove cell phones cause cancer but, like the EEA, he follows the precautionary principle.

Regarding the danger of Wi-Fi, Ketcham scares the reader by noting that Wi-Fi operates at the same frequency as microwave ovens (about 2.4 gigahertz), but he doesn't mention that Wi-Fi uses very low intensity radio waves and "Wi-Fi radiation is 100,000 times less than that of a domestic microwave oven."* Ketcham mentions a rural town in Sweden where residents claimed they were getting sick because of Wi-Fi towers, but he doesn't mention a similar case in South Africa. Protestors handed out flyers warning residents of Craigavon, outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, that microwaves from a newly erected cellphone tower would cause health problems. Soon, residents complained of rashes, headaches, nausea, tinnitus, dry burning itchy skins, gastric imbalances, and totally disrupted sleep patterns. The only problem was that even when the tower was turned off for six weeks (unbeknownst to the residents), the residents still complained of their many ailments.

Olle Johansson

Ketcham also lionizes the work of Olle Johansson, Ph.D., a Swedish neuroscientist and ardent anti-EMF crusader who was awarded the not-so-prestigious Misleader of the Year award in 2004 by the Swedish Sceptics (Vetenskap och Folkbildning, VoF). He was given his title "Following many years of public assertions and cocksure, blatant warnings of numerous negative health effects allegedly caused by electromagnetic fields." Despite growing evidence against his position, Johansson continues to publish reports alleging a variety of unpleasant health conditions, diseases, and disorders are due to electromagnetic radiation. He has staked his career on this position, despite its conflicting with the consensus of the scientific evidence and community.

Olle Johansson receives the award as one of the most prominent representatives of the far too many scientists who, to draw attention to themselves and funding for their own activities, disseminate worry among the public in mass media by presenting unsubstantiated hypotheses as established facts.

VoF described Johansson's research pertaining to electromagnetic fields as being of "low quality." Why? What makes his work "low quality"?

In controversial risk issues, nine criteria are often used (A. B. Hill, Proc R Soc Med 58, pp. 295-300, 1965) as the basis for claiming, for instance, that a specific environmental factor indeed causes a disease. The components of Olle Johansson's activities which concern electromagnetic fields, mobile phones and radiofrequency waves do not fulfill these criteria. This conclusion is also shared by the Swedish Research Council in the report "Research on health effects due to electromagnetic fields" (November 1, 2004, in Swedish), where it is emphasized that the research by Olle Johansson has a weak basis both theoretically and methodologically. In addition the Nordic radiation protection authorities have in a consensus communication noted that scientific evidence for dangers from mobile phones is lacking.

A number of rigorous studies have been done on the health dangers of EMFs and Johansson wasn't involved in any of them.

Johansson is not a physicist, but a neuroscientist, yet he makes claims as if he were an expert in physics:

....when Johansson talks about microwaves, he indicates that they are comparable with X-rays and gamma radiation, in spite of the fact that these different sorts of electromagnetic waves relate to entirely different physical phenomena. The important variables relating to electromagnetic fields are frequency and intensity. Unless these are given, deliberations about dangers are meaningless.

In addition, Olle Johansson's discussions of DNA strand breaks manifest grave lack of basic knowledge. As an example, Johansson recently (Stockholms Fria Tidning, December 24, 2004, in Swedish) gave an underestimate of the natural occurrence of such DNA breaks by a factor of 100,000. If one wants to be taken seriously a minimum requirement is to be correct at least with regard to orders of magnitude.

Finally, it has been noted that Olle Johansson insinuates that a large number of diseases such as cancer, blood pressure problems, asthma, allergies and sleep disorders, may be caused by electromagnetic fields. He has also come to the conclusion that malignant melanomas may be caused by TV- and FM-transmissions. A few years ago Johansson received particular attention after he claimed that brain damage, and specifically mad cow disease could be caused by the use of mobile phones (Aftonbladet, March 12, 2001).

In short, Ketcham might have found a better source than Johansson — if he were interested in truth rather than scaring people. It is true that Johansson is affiliated with a venerable institution, the Karolinska Institute. However, his main claim to fame is outside his field of expertise. After repeating a number of correlations that Johansson has been repeating for years to instill fears — with use of digital PCs and decline in general health, with use of microwave PCs and days of sick leave, sales of antidepressant drugs, and death from Alzheimer's  — Ketcham admits that correlation doesn't prove causality. Still, it makes you wonder, doesn't it? Plus, Ketcham talked to some unnamed epidemiologists who told him "the data are strongly suggestive and need to be followed up."

Most enigmatic, however, is Ketcham's final comment on Johansson, which Ketcham puts in parentheses for some unknown reason: "In other studies at the Karolinska Institute, Johansson has posited that adverse reactions to cell-phone radiation may develop only after long periods of exposure, as the immune system fails, much in the way that allergies develop." Well, just as correlation doesn't prove causality, so positing doesn't prove it's so, especially when the positing involves making a claim about the development of allergies as due to immune system failure. (See Immune System Quackery.)

It's not surprising, then, to find a website selling EMF protective jewelry quoting Johansson for support: "The human brain has an electric field, so if you put sources of EMFs nearby, it is not surprising that you get interference and damage to cells and molecules." Doesn't dose matter?

Finally, Ketcham also failed to mention that a recent study has found that cell phone radiation boosts memory and reverses Alzheimer's....in rats.

update: 9/11/2010. More results from the Interphone study have been published. The latest data can be found in the International Journal of Epidemiology. "CONCLUSIONS: Overall, no increase in risk of glioma [malignant brain tumor] or meningioma [benign brain tumor] was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation."

further reading

Cellphones, brain cancer, and other cheery thoughts by R. T. Carroll

electrosensitives by R. T. Carroll

The Paralyzing Precautionary Principle by R. T. Carroll

GQ's Sketchy Article on Dangers of EMF by Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Net News "It's a piece of crap. The article spends the vast majority of its time looking into corporate conspiracy to keep news about cell-radiation issues silent, and giving a forum to anecdote and studies that have since been shredded to pieces for lack of rigor."

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