You really are addicted to your cellphone

An expert explains why we're only beginning to understand the technology's myriad health risks

Topics: AlterNet, Finland, cellphones, World Health Organizations, National Book Award, ,

You really are addicted to your cellphone
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


In her 2011 book Disconnect, National Book Award finalist, former senior White House health advisor and internationally regarded epidemiologist Devra Davis revealed that the cellphone industry is knowingly exposing us to dangerous levels of electromagnetic radiation. No small problem when you consider that of the roughly 7 billion people on this planet, about 6 billion of us now use mobile phones.

In a recent analysis for the Huffington Post, Davis examined the cellphone industry’s long-term strategy, devised in the early ’90s, to deal with studies showing cellphone radiation damages DNA: “war-game the science.” Noted in a 1994 Motorola memo, this strategy, wrote Davis, “remains alive and well” today, the latest example occurring just last month. When the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published newly detailed documentation for its yearlong 2011 expert review—which declared cellphone radiation a “possible human carcinogen” (same as lead and DDT)—the multi-trillion-dollar cellular industry responded by citing a new dubious report out of Taiwan.

Davis, the founding director of the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the U.S. National Research Council, pointed out that the online abstract concludes “with some highly unscientific language that sounds as though it was crafted for the PR section of Foxconn, the Taiwanese producer of phones for Apple, Motorola, and Sony:

‘In conclusion, we do not detect any correlation between the morbidity/mortality of malignant brain tumors and cellphone use in Taiwan. We thus urge international agencies to publish only confirmatory reports with more applicable conclusions in public. This will help spare the public from unnecessary worries.’”

In a recent phone interview with AlterNet, Davis, founder and president of the Wyoming-based Environmental Health Trust, discussed the cellphone industry’s longstanding covert battle against inconvenient science, strategies it has learned from the tobacco industry, our chemical addiction to mobile devices, and simple ways we can limit our exposure without losing touch with civilization.

Brad Jacobson: You’ve written that the cellphone industry’s long-term strategy for responding to studies showing its products damage DNA is to “war-game the science.” What exactly does this strategy entail?

Devra Davis: The example in the 1990s, which is documented in my book, was that [University of Washington researchers] Henry Lai and Narendra N.P. Singh found significant evidence of DNA damage caused by cellphone light radiation comparable almost to the damage you would get from X-rays, which is ionizing. At the time, it was generally believed by some people that non-ionizing radiation, which comes from a cellphone, could not possibly be physically damaging because it was so weak.

Well, it’s true that non-ionizing radiation lacks the power to have damage. But its damage seems to come from its modulated signal. So every 900 milliseconds, if you have a cellphone in your pocket, it’s getting half of that radiation which is getting into you as it seeks the signal from the tower.

So the industry understood this could be of enormous consequences, so they did three things. First, they wrote to the university and tried to get the scientists fired for violating the rules of the contract that they were working under at the time. They then wrote to NIH [National Institutes of Health]—and all of this has been documented in my book and there’s been no lawsuits filed about any of the statements I’m making to you—and they accused the scientists of fraud for misusing funds to do the study. Then, when that didn’t work they actually had somebody meet with the journal editors to try to get the article accepted for publication unaccepted.

After those three things didn’t work, they also hired a scientist named Jerry Phillips to try to show they could not replicate their work. Fortunately for history, Phillips was an honest person. He replicated their work and when he insisted on publishing his work both he and Lai effectively stopped working in this field. They were no longer funded to do any more work in the field.

In case all of that wasn’t enough, as the coup de grace, a memo was written from Motorola to its PR firm saying we think we sufficiently “war-gamed” the science. [Direct quote from the 1994 memo: "I think we have sufficiently war-gamed the Lai-Singh issue…"]

Where it gets really interesting now is that President Obama just nominated the guy who ran the CTIA [Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association] at the time this was going on to become the head of the Federal Communications Commission. His name is Tom Wheeler. He’s been a huge fundraiser for Democrats and Republicans, more Democrats than Republicans. And under his leadership at the CTIA (which has been written about by [research scientist] George Carlo in his book about this industry) a $27 million joint program was run to study health effects of cellphones. And that study, according George Carlo, was shut down when they started to produce positive results.

And that’s all in Carlo’s book, written with Marty Schram, who’s an investigative journalist.

BJ: What ever happened to Lai?

DD: He’s still a scientist [at the same university], just no longer working in that field. And if you Google his name and Seattle magazine, there’s a 2011 expose article that he gave them. He’s still courageous enough to speak about it.

BJ: What are the typical flaws you’ve found in examining industry-touted studies, many of which are also industry-funded?

DD: Well, first of all, you have to separate epidemiologic studies from experimental studies. Epidemiologic studies tend to be studying people for a short period of time who have not used phones a lot. So of course they don’t find anything.

So, for example, 700,000 people started to use cellphones in 1993 to 1995 in Denmark. And you throw out from your study 250,000 of them because they were business users and your study can’t be sure whether the business users might have shared their phone with somebody. So you throw them all out. Then you basically leave in your study all the people who use phones very little back in 1993, when phones and the use of phones cost more than $1000 a year. And you look at all of those people who use phones and you compare them to people who started to use phones later on and you don’t see any difference in their brain cancer rate. And you conclude their phones are safe? That’s an example of a study that’s been widely cited as showing that cellphones are safe.

The average studies of cellphones and brain cancer have studied people who have used cellphones for five years or less. Sometimes eight years. Every study that has actually examined people who have used phones for 10 years or more, and is well designed, finds a 50 percent to an 800 percent increased risk. So that is why the Israelis, the Finnish, the French governments have all issued warnings.

But in fact focusing on cancer has been a brilliant part of the strategy for industry. Because it’s not [just] about cancer that we have to be concerned. Cancer is one of the issues. But a much more important issue than cancer is reproductive damage, on the nervous system, on the brain and on sleep. Many of the negative studies that have studied people are only looking at cancer and not looking at these other things.

Studies done by the Cleveland Clinic and other organizations around the world have found clear evidence of human sperm damage, taking sperm from one man and putting it into two different test tubes and exposing one test tube to cellphone radiation and the other not. And guess what? The cellphone exposed test tube—those sperm died three times faster with three times more damage to their mitochondrial DNA.

With respect to experimental studies, it’s much easier to get negative results because all you have to do is study the wrong cell type. Younger cells are more vulnerable than older cells. So if you study adult cells—and really, effects are mostly in neural stem cells, very young baby cells—then you’re not going to see an effect. Because older cells, more mature cells, are more resistant to damage. The younger a cell, the faster it grows, the more vulnerable it is to damage.

I’m releasing a study next week in Thessaloniki, Greece, done with researchers in Brazil, where we have modeled exposure, and we show that the exposure of a cellphone gets all the way through the brain of a 2-year-old or 3-year-old. And yet people are giving cellphones to toddlers for educational devices and not turning off their connection to the Internet. So we are very concerned about children’s exposure and the greater exposure as well.

BJ: What are the current U.S. safety standards for cellphone radiation exposure based on?

DD: They’re based on the assumption that cellphones can only do one thing, which is produce heat. That’s number one. They’re based on an 11-pound head of a 220-pound man talking for six minutes [a day]. They do not take into account the possibility of any biological impact that has nothing to do with heat. And yet there’s growing evidence that that is the case. There’s damage to sperm, there’s damage to embryos that are growing, there’s a whole bunch of things that go on that are not taken into account.

So current standards are outdated, outmoded, and one thing that the FCC has in common with the cicadas is that they take 17 years to change themselves. [The Federal Communications Commission announced in March that it would reevaluate radiofrequency radiation standards for cellphones for the first time since they were originally established in 1996.]

And of course with this new person designated to take over the FCC, I think what it will probably mean—I hope what it will mean—is that the FCC cannot be allowed to set standards for cellphones. How could you have someone who for 10 years masterminded showing there was nothing wrong with cellphones be in charge with setting up the new standards?

BJ: Why has the cellphone industry moved glacially to produce phones with lower radiation emissions while simultaneously generating a never-ending stream of new technological bells and whistles?

DD: Because they can. Because people are ignorant about these things. And because—here’s one of the dirty secrets about cellphones—we know that drugs, sex and rock and roll stimulates something called dopamine in the brain. So do videogames. Dopamine is something that we crave. We get dopamine in the brain when we like something a lot. Well, cellphones stimulate dopamine, too. So it really is the case that there are some people who are pretty addicted to these devices.

But once you understand it, you can do something really radical, which is turn your phone off and reclaim your private life.

BJ: But with such a ubiquitous product, so ingrained in our lives it’s difficult now to imagine living without them, what are some basic recommendations for how people can limit their risks when using cellphones?

DD: First of all, get in a habit of putting it on airplane mode, except when you want to be interrupted. Get your life back. Get your private time back. Say no to being on-call 24/7 unless you are an emergency responder. Use a speakerphone, use a headset. Get in the habit of never putting the phone next to your brain or body unless it’s a true emergency. When the signal is weak, the phone is working more, you drain the battery faster, so only use a phone when the signal is weak in a true emergency.

People have got to get to realize that. If it’s a true emergency, then you can use it with a weak signal. But otherwise the weaker the signal, the more radiation it’s putting into you. And that’s one of the reasons why in Sweden and Israel researchers found that where people are using phones in rural areas their risk of brain cancer is higher than in urban areas. We think because the radiation is being dumped into their bodies more.

On our website, people can go to Resources and see the Doctor’s Advice—we have 250 million copies of this that have been given out. It’s two sides, one piece of paper, and explains why you need to be concerned, what the science shows you and how you can protect yourself.

BJ: In your book Disconnect, you wrote: “The need for research in this field is one fact upon which all have usually agreed. The absence of research has become part of the rationale for making no changes in the meantime. The history of what little research has been conducted in the United States on radio frequency radiation shows a remarkable pattern of science lost and found repeatedly.”

Can you elaborate on this passage?

DD: Well, Allen Frey, when he was a young investigator for the Office of Naval Research, first did studies showing that cellphone-like radiation weakened the blood-brain barrier. Now remember, when he was doing his research there were no cellphones. This was back in the 1970s. And he was doing research on something called radar. Radar, of course, is what cellphone radiation is exactly like. It can be a similar frequency, it’s just much weaker power.

He tells a story, which I quote in my book, that when he produced his findings showing that just a little bit of exposure to this pulsed digital signal, which is now a cellphone signal, could weaken membranes of the brain. But he was visited by a team of researchers who said this is really fascinating work and if you want to get funded, you’ll stop doing it. So there are old examples of that.

There’s the example of [German EMF scientist] Franz Adlkofer, the chapter in my book called “The Doctor Who Danced With the Devil,” which talks about how they went after this guy [after he produced research showing cellphone radiation unravels DNA], who fortunately for all of us wasn’t easy for them to do in. But for everybody like Adlkofer who can stand up to these guys, unfortunately there are many more who never survive. Larry Lessig, Professor Lawrence Lessig at Harvard Law School, held a seminar on ethics last year about what happened with Adlkofer [beginning in 2008]. [View it here.] And he had me and Adlkofer there talking about the history of how the industry had gone after him, tried to discredit him, because they could not afford to have those results go unchallenged. So recently that’s what’s gone on.

I myself have been producing work on analyses of brain cancer in the United States, which shows an increasing incidence of brain cancer in young people. And we’ve had a great deal of difficulty in getting that work published.

The fact is, this industry has set up—and you may quote me on this—a quarter of a billion dollar fund for the sole intention of war-gaming the science, of creating media responses. So the moment an article comes out saying there’s a problem, they have scientists ready to come up with another one saying, “Well, we’re not really sure.” And the manufacture of doubt and the magnification and exaggeration of uncertainty is a huge business.

David Michaels had a wonderful book called Doubt Is Their Product. [The title] is based on a memo from the tobacco industry. ["Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy," wrote a cigarette executive.] As long as they can raise doubt in the public mind about the science, which is how most people think of cellphones today—”well, I’m not really sure, I’ve heard things, maybe there’s something wrong, but, you know, it’s probably okay because if there was something wrong they would tell us”—as long as you can maintain doubt, people will keep doing what they’re doing because these things do have a lot of attraction.

BJ: What’s the source for the quarter of a billion dollar figure?

DD: This admission was made at a London briefing that included members of the [international] Mobile Manufacturers Forum, and the Association of Telecommunications and Value-Added Service Providers, which represents most of the German providers in this field. I do not know whether CTIA was involved directly, but I know that these groups work closely together on such matters. [According to Davis, someone living in England who attended the briefing revealed this admission to her off-the-record.]

I thought to myself, “If this industry is spending a quarter of a billion dollars, then this is really validation for what we’ve been doing.”

BJ: Similar to the decades-long struggle to get U.S. regulatory agencies to definitively link smoking with cancer and declare them a dangerous carcinogen, how does cancer’s long-term characteristic manifestation and prevalence work in the cellphone industry’s favor and pose another future public health nightmare?

DD: Because cancer can take a long time to develop and necessarily has multiple causes. If you focus only on cancer, you don’t bring attention to things that can take nine months or less to develop. For example, birth defects or learning disabilities or possibly autism. And keeping the debate focused on long-term issues, for which there are legitimate questions, you take the public focus away from the more serious short-term issues.

For example, there is apparently an epidemic of tinnitus in younger people. Tinnitus is ringing in the ears and it can be disabling. Tinnitus is associated with cellphone use. There’s an increase in serious weight disorders from cellphone use. And people who don’t sleep have serious other consequences for their health that can be associated with it. There may be as well increases in problems with their memory. And all of those things are not as sexy and don’t demand as much attention as cancer, but they can be very, very important from a public health point of view.

BJ: To prove causality regarding cancer in a court of law is very difficult. One of the industry’s main arguments for why cellphones are safe is to point out that people have been using them for years now but there’s been no proven correlating epidemic of brain cancer. Is that a legitimate argument?

DD: That’s absolute nonsense. Because the reality is, the way we’ve used phones and the amount that we’ve used phones has changed radically in the past five years. When phones were first marketed in the 1990s, it cost, for car phones, $3000 to buy a phone and the average person did not use it that much. They were very, very expensive. The data that we have on cellphone use and brain cancer comes from that long ago period of time. And by the way, that’s only 20 years ago. Brain cancer has a latency in the population of 40 years. We know that because when we studied the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was no increase in brain cancer to those who were exposed to the ionizing radiation from the bomb until 40 years after that exposure took place. So are we really going to say we should wait 40 years, see how much cancer happens and then try to protect others from getting as much?

In my book The Secret History of the War on Cancer, I discuss at some length how the whole idea of what is evidence for causation in epidemiology cannot be separated from the whole debate on tobacco. Simply cannot be separated. It was because the tobacco industry understood that if they could raise doubt about how you could conclude something caused cancer, that they put so much effort into getting so many receptive public health authorities to say, “Well, causation requires that these five things be met.” So that is, in fact, nonsense. If you are a physician and someone comes to see you with an absolutely incapacitating headache or a swollen arm, you don’t tell them, “Come back in 10 years when I’ve completed my study and I’ll see what I can do for you.”

And we have lots of things right now for which we do not have explanations and we have good reasons for concern, concerning behavioral changes in our children, serious problems with hearing difficulties, increases in thyroid disease. Where there’s a lot of reason for concern and we need to start to take precautions to reduce exposure. That is what the governments of France and Israel and Finland and India are doing now. Even Canada.

BJ: How did the FDA come to approve cellphones for widespread public use without any safety testing?

DD: That’s an interesting story that’s also in my book Disconnect. The fellow who oversaw the approval of the cellphone with no safety testing at all—as soon as that was done at the FDA—went on to a very lucrative career at Motorola for 20 years afterwards. He argued that the only health effect from a cellphone was heat. Since cellphones don’t produce a measurable change in heat within six minutes, which at the time was the only standard, they said, “OK, they’re safe.”

BJ: The cellphone industry appears to have learned many lessons from the tobacco industry. To get the industry off the ground, the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 essentially prevented local authorities from weighing any health concerns when deciding where to install cellphone towers.

Apart from the often-overlooked safety warnings accompanying new cellphones, are there other actions the industry has taken to indemnify itself from potential future liability. Does any legislation, for example, exist or is there any in the works you’re aware of that would indemnify them from future mass lawsuits? 

DD: I know that the strategy is to argue, “If the phone was in compliance with existing law, then we should not be faulted.”

Do you have an iPhone? [She emails me a screenshot of iPhone's safety warnings, which are located in the phone.] This is a screenshot of the safety warnings that are buried six levels in within the iPhone. And because of the screenshot, you can make it bigger and you can do things with it. But in the iPhone itself, it’s the only thing that cannot be magnified or copied. But I outsmarted it by making a screenshot of it.

BJ: Another tactic the cellphone industry appears to have learned from the tobacco industry is to target young users as early and often as possible. We even see plenty of commercials here in the States that depict a tween or teen schooling their parents on the necessity of purchasing the latest cellphone model. Why is cellphone radiation more dangerous to children and teenagers?

DD: A young child’s brain has a thinner skull and the brain contains more fluid. The more fluid or fat in any material, the more it absorbs microwave radiation. In addition, the earlier in life you can get children hooked into needing this stimulation, the stronger the tie they will have to these devices.

BJ: What types of legislation in other countries have already either passed or have been introduced to outlaw advertising or selling cellphones to children and teenagers?

DD: In particular, recently Belgium has banned the sale of a cellphone to a 7-year-old. Turkey has banned ads and advertising to children. So has France for children under 12. India has bans in certain areas. In Bangalore, you cannot sell a cellphone to someone younger than 16. So in different parts of the world, they’ve taken different steps. You can go to our website and click on Worldwide Advisories to see what other countries have done.

But the reality is, cellphones have to be used safely. They are today like cars and trucks—we can’t live without them, but we certainly wouldn’t give a car or truck to a toddler to drive. Why are we thinking it’s perfectly okay to give a device that the World Health Organization has said is a “possible human carcinogen” to infants and toddlers, and for that matter, schoolchildren?

My colleagues and I just published a paper where we conclude, based on new evidence published since the WHO did its assessment in 2011, that cellphone and other wireless radiation should be classified as a “probable human carcinogen.” Now, engine exhaust and lead and DDT are classified as “possible” human carcinogens and based on that, governments have policies all over the world to restrict exposure, particularly for children, but for everybody.

BJ: What is the most difficult obstacle you’ve found in trying to bring more public awareness to this issue?

DD: The close-mindedness of my scientific colleagues has sometimes been utterly astonishing. That the most prominent scientists, very respected people, are so close-minded because they are also human and addicted to these devices. That’s been the most difficult thing to deal with. But we’re winning on the science because we’re not making this stuff up.

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