A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

News Center: Short Takes Archive

March 31, 2011

People undoubtedly love their cell phones. Yet there are also undercurrents of concern. Today's New York Times devotes more than a half-page to an article on strategies to protect against possible health risks. In "Cell Phone Radiation May Alter Your Brain. Let's Talk," Kate Murphy outlines ways to reduce radiation exposures —from using a headset or speakerphone (a good idea) to pendants and shields (save your money). The story has been both the #1 most e-mailed and the #1 most viewed story on the Times Web site all day.

April 2
This story has legs. It's still the most e-mailed story at the Times.

March 3, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, the University of Manchester in England issued a press release on a new paper on brain cancer trends in the U.K., under the headline, "Mobile Phone Use Not Related to Increased Brain Cancer Risk." Clear and catchy — but wrong. Frank de Vocht and two collaborators actually saw a statistically significant increase in the number of tumors of the temporal lobe between 1998 and 2007.

Though they go to great lengths to make us believe that the finding is of no importance, it's clearly on their minds. The paper cites the increase no fewer than six times in five pages of text (in the journal Bioelectromagnetics). They call the increase "small but systematic" and also concede that, if there were a response to RF radiation, it would likely be in the temporal lobe, where the cell phone deposits the most radiation. Could it be a chance finding? That's unlikely, they say, because the trend was observed among both men and women. We should note that the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, home of John Cherrie, one de Vocht's coauthors, put out its own press release with the more appropriate title, "Is Brain Cancer Related to Mobile Phone Use?"

The bottom line, according to de Vocht and Cherie and their third coauthor, Igor Burstyn of Drexel University, is that there is nothing to worry about because, even if the association were valid, it would translate to only about 31 cases among the English population of 52 million. Could this be the beginning of a long-term trend? That's not likely, they believe —and here comes perhaps the strangest part of their argument— because the most likely average latency time between exposure and the manifestation of a brain tumor is 5-10 years. Most everyone else puts the latency at 20-30 years, or at the very least more than 10 years.

Their paper closes with a call to do nothing: There's no need to invoke the precautionary principle to reduce exposures, they say. The Daily Mail, a U.K. tabloid, dutifully reported the news with the headline "Using Mobile Phones 'Does Not Increase the Risk of Cancer'." 

February 17, 2011

Hans Selye (1907-1982) is widely credited as the first to study the biological and health effects of stress. It turns out that Selye, like so many others, was not adverse to downplaying the risks of smoking in exchange for some research money. In "The 'Father of Stress' Meets 'Big Tobacco': Hans Selye and the Tobacco Industry" —a paper published in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health— Mark Petticrew and Kelley Lee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine describe how Selye's research was used to "argue against a causal role for smoking in coronary heart disease and cancer." They cite a 1966 memo from William Shinn, an attorney with the law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon, in which Shinn argues that Selye could be useful to the industry in a number of ways —for instance he could "emphasize the 'stressful' effect" of anti-smoking messages. Fast forward 45 years: as the cell phone controversy took off, a convenient school of thinking emerged, led by Peter Wiedemann, a German researcher with ties to the mobile phone industry. It argues that warnings about RF health risks do more harm than good because people can get scared. All the while, Shook, Hardy continues to represent the tobacco industry and has added a number of cell phone companies to its client list, including Motorola and Sprint (see MWN, S/O02, p.9). Plus ça change…

February 11, 2011

One of the many disconnects in the EMF world is the difference in outlook between those concerned about hazards and those devising medical applications. Low-level effects, though routinely dismissed by those writing safety standards, are the bread and butter of biomedical innovators. A new paper from Japan provides a good example. Tsutomu Nishimura at the Kyoto University medical school reports in Hypertension Research that a 10-to-15-minute exposure to a 6-8 Hz magnetic field with a peak intensity of only 1 µT (10 mG) and a peak electric field of 10 V/m, once a week for four weeks, significantly lowered systolic blood pressure in human volunteers with mild-to-moderate hypertension. For comparison, the ICNIRP guidelines allow exposures that are more than a thousand times higher: up to 2500 µT (25,000 mG) and 20,000 V/m. To be sure, the Japanese results are preliminary and are based on a very small number of subjects, but the study had a randomized, double-blind design, the gold standard for these types of studies. Nishimura would like to see larger clinical trial to find out whether the effect holds up. If so, such EMF therapy could replace blood pressure-lowering drugs —and it would no doubt be safe because, as Nishimura points out, the field exposure "meets" the ICNIRP guidelines. 

February 4, 2011

Publication bias is a well-known problem —it's defined in a recent, widely read New Yorker article as "the tendency of scientists and scientific journals to prefer positive data over null results, which is what happens when no effect is found." This may be generally true, but once again, the usual rules don't apply to EMFs. Here researchers (and editors) are all too often more interested in publishing failures than successes. Actually, for EMFs, failure is success, promising financial rewards of one kind or another. This is an old story, but now Niels Kuster says enough is enough. In a broadside against the Bioelectromagnetics Society (BEMS), Kuster warns that the society is "threatened" by its "biased scientific culture." Kuster, a former president of the society and the head of IT'IS in Zurich, writes on the front page of its newsletter that "BEMS members allow their conditioned assumptions, prejudices, funding interests or lack of expertise to influence their ability to review or accept positive findings objectively." Kuster tells of how long it took Primo Schär of the University of Basel to publish a paper showing that power-frequency EMFs can lead to DNA breaks, a finding first shown by Henry Lai and N.P. Singh close to 15 years ago. Maria Scarfi in Naples, on the other hand, was able to get her failure to see a similar effect into print with, as Kuster puts it, "relative ease." Scarfi placed her paper in Radiation Research, which has long favored null results for EMFs. So much so that years ago it was nicknamed the journal of negative results. According to Kuster, BEMS is the society of negative results.

January 25, 2011

"[I]ndications of an increased risk in high- and long-term users [of cell phones] from Interphone and other studies are of concern." This is the conclusion of a commentary, published yesterday in Occupational Environmental Medicine by Elisabeth Cardis and Siegal Sadetzki. Cardis is the head of the Interphone project and Sadetzki is the leader of the Israeli Interphone group. As they have done in the past, Cardis and Sadetzki advise simple and inexpensive precautionary measures, particularly among young people, "until definitive scientific answers are available." (The commentary was open access but is no longer.) 

January 14, 2011
January 12, 2011

Smart meters are fast becoming the #1 RF health issue in the U.S., outstripping concerns over cell phones and towers —especially in California. Three new reports detail radiation exposures from the meters and the possible consequences. Yesterday, the California Council on Science and Technology issued Health Impacts of RF from Smart Meters (requested by two members of the state legislature). The CCST concludes that "there is no clear evidence" of a health risk. Sage Associates, a consulting firm based in Santa Barbara, sharply disagrees. Its report, Assessment of RF Microwave Radiation Emissions from Smart Meters, released on January 1, finds that, in some cases, people may be exposed in excess of the FCC's safety limits. And third is An Investigation of RF Fields Associated with the Itron Smart Meter by Richard Tell Associates and commissioned by EPRI, the industry research group. EPRI technical publications are usually quite pricey (rarely less than $5,000 a pop), but in this case, perhaps to reassure an anxious public, it is allowing open access to Tell's report. EPRI is also distributing an eight-page pamphlet, RF Exposure Levels from Smart Meters.

January 10, 2011

The French government has launched a new Web site to tell the public how to best use mobile phones and reduce possible health risks. The National Institute of Prevention and Health Education (known by its acronym, INPES) posted eight pieces of advice: Protect children... Use a hands-free kit... Favor text messages... Keep the phone away from electronic implants... Don't use the phone in areas with bad reception... Move the phone away right after dialing... Avoid using the phone when moving at high speeds... and... Learn about a phone's SAR. Beginning in April, SAR information must be available wherever phones are sold. Not everyone is satisfied. Robin des Toits (Robin of the Roofs), a wireless activist group, says that INPES did not go far enough. It bemoans the absence of warnings for pregnant women, teenagers and tweens

December 20, 2010

GIGO. Garbage in, garbage out. That's what Dariusz Leszczynski thinks of Hardell's new reanalysis (see December 17 below). The tumor risk seen by the Hardell group may now be similar to the one in Interphone, but that doesn't mean much, says Leszczynski, because Interphone is really a bunch of garbage too. "Let us agree that both data sets are biased," he wrote in his blog over the weekend, and whatever you might do to them, the results will never be "scientifically reliable." Shouldn't we work with what we have?, we asked him. Sure, Leszczynski replied, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that we'll ever end up with anything better than what we already have. That is, more garbage. We don't agree. Hardell and Interphone are two independent data sets that point to two different types of tumor risks (glioma and acoustic neuroma) among long-term cell phone users. Plus we have the Interphone Israeli study that implicates a third type of tumor (of the parotid gland). A major branch of statistics (Bayesian) teaches us how to make the best of what we have in hand, imperfect though it may be. Since the Hardell and Interphone data represent the bulk of what we know about long-term cell phone risks, we disregard those disquieting findings at our peril. We would turn the tables on Leszczynski: To conclude that we have no evidence of a cell phone tumor problem would be garbage. We bring all this up because Leszczynski (a molecular biologist, not an epidemiologist) has been selected by IARC to be a member of its RF cancer assessment panel that will meet in May.