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Is Her Cellphone Safe ?
Toronto Star, July 10, 2005
by Tyler Hamilton and
scientists trying to find the answer say they've been pressured to
soften controversial findings.
you know about the potential health risks of your cellphone may be
clouded by powerful corporate interests anxious to protect the image of
the world's most successful gadget.
In the high-stakes world of cellphone research, where a $120 billion
North American industry's fortunes could rest on the latest findings,
scientific interests often collide with corporate bottom lines. Some
scientists say they have been pressured to produce the right answers.
so much money involved, that the only thing industry sees is the
money," says Dr. Jerry Phillips, a well-known cellphone researcher in
the U.S. with dozens of peer-reviewed papers published under his name.
couldn't give a damn about basic science."
by several U.S. scientists interviewed by the Toronto Star include
corporate intimidation and having their work altered to soften concerns
about potential risks. And they say manipulation of scientific studies
is slanting public debate around a legitimate health concern as the
cellphone industry, using popular images such as Barbie and Hilary
Duff, shifts its marketing efforts to pre-teens.
U.S. industry vigorously denies the allegations.
Farren, a spokesperson for the U.S.-based Cellular Telecommunications
and Internet Association, says his members have a strictly hands-off
relationship with scientists.
have nothing to do with them. We write the cheque and they do the
Louis Slesin, founder and publisher of New York-based scientific
newsletter Microwave News, has spent more than 20 years watching the
science around cellphones unfold. He says the public is getting a
people had any understanding of what goes on in the trenches, people
would change their view. ... If you really go in there and dig into it,
you see this is really a sordid business."
analysis of 252 published studies worldwide on cellular radio
frequencies out of the University of Washington, obtained by the
Toronto Star, shows a clear difference in results between independent
research and studies directly funded by industry.
to the analysis, research is considered independent when funded by
governments, government agencies or academic institutions.
the peer-reviewed, published studies with no direct industry funding,
biological effects from cellphone frequencies were noted 81 per cent of
the time, according to researcher Dr. Henry Lai. When corporate money
is directly funding the science, effects are noted only 19 per cent of
everyone agrees scientists are pushed to come up with favourable
not with the research I've been involved in and with the research my
Canadian colleagues have been involved in," says Dr. Mary McBride,
senior scientist in cancer control research at the B.C. Cancer Agency.
"There are ways to arrange (industry) support that puts the researcher
at arm's length and in an independent position. The studies I've seen
have been designed in that way."
some scientists who have conducted industry-funded studies say that,
far from being the model of pure, objective research, they've seen
their results misrepresented or discredited.
recalls the sudden concern washing over the faces of Motorola
executives in 1995 when he began detailing his findings on the impact
of cellphone signals on rat cells.
began as a friendly chat between Phillips and officials with the
cellphone giant took an unpleasant turn when he explained that his
Motorola-funded experiments revealed biological effects from cellular
radio frequency signals, he says.
was a lot of agitation, frowning and long faces," Phillips recalls.
"Rather than talking about the implications of the work, the (Motorola)
attorney and the (public relations) guy immediately asked, `What are
you going to do if people call and ask for this?' It was at that point
our relationship with Motorola changed."
their research, Phillips and his colleagues found changes in the
expression of rat genes exposed to cellphone signals. They didn't know
what it meant, but they knew it was noteworthy. Phillips authored a
paper describing the results and submitted a draft to Motorola.
says he soon received a call from Dr. Mays Swicord, director of
electromagnetic research at Motorola.
"He said, `You need to include a statement in here that, even
though you see a change in this one gene, that it's of no physiological
importance.' I said, `I can't say that. I don't know whether it is or
not. Whether or not we have consequences, I don't know.' He said, `No,
it has to say it has no physiological consequences.' I said, `No, I
won't do it.' "
the study was published in 1997, it contained a sentence at the end
Phillips says he never wrote. It states that changes he discovered are
"probably of no physiologic consequence."
origins of that sentence remain a mystery to the now semi-retired
have no idea how that statement got in there."
Phillips privately disputed the change, he says he decided at the time
that any outspoken challenge would risk a loss of funding that would
undermine his livelihood. "We were all dependent on money coming in. I
was in no position to do anything else."
an interview, Swicord dismisses the allegations as "pure nonsense,"
saying there was no company interference.
thought the results were incomplete and there was a lot of statistical
variation," said Swicord, who joined Motorola in 1995 after 26 years
with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
was a point of difference of opinion. ... We did not tell him what to
publish or how to publish."
Swicord says he was concerned about the public reaction to the
research, his concerns about the study were based in science. "I just
didn't think it was properly done."
review of the science on the biological impacts reveals what he calls a
Canadian-trained scientist concludes that nearly 60 per cent of
published studies on cell radio frequencies have reported some
biological effects, including altered gene expression, DNA breaks and
even death of animal brain cells.
some cases, the differences are dramatic.
In 36 studies focused on genetic effects, such as DNA damage, 53 per
cent showed some kind of biological effect that might indicate concern.
Of those studies, a vast majority — 79 per cent — were independent.
Conversely, studies showing no effects had direct industry funding 82
per cent of the time.
research on other potential effects including behaviour, molecular,
brainwave and other effects show a similar pattern of funding biases,
according to Lai.
challenges Lai's analysis, saying the quality of each study must be
considered in weighing its value. And industry funded studies, he says,
have strong scientific credibility.
have tried in the industry to fund quality work, and I know there are
some sloppy studies out there."
says industry has unfairly painted his work as sloppy.
data for a study he conducted with colleague Narendrah Singh in the
early 1990s found DNA damage in rat brain cells exposed to microwave
signals considered safe by government standards. In an internal memo
that has since been made public, a Motorola executive strategized on
how to put a "damper on speculation arising from this research."
think we have sufficiently war-gamed the Lai-Singh issue," the memo
Sandler, a senior Motorola communications executive and author of the
memo, said it was written to prepare company executives for public
reaction to the study.
think we were doing what we needed to do in terms of due diligence,
informing our people the research was coming out and our take on it,"
he said in an interview.
studies showing biological effects, or hinting at possible health
effects, have faced a similar barrage of industry criticism. Such
studies are typically dismissed as anomalies among an "overwhelming"
body of evidence showing no health risks.
of the most irrational approaches I see industry taking is trying to
use studies on both sides to cancel one another out," says Phillips.
"You don't cancel, you don't weigh. What you do is evaluate carefully."
says industry arguments may be simple, but they're effective when
talking to a public ill-equipped to challenge the information.
of research is another problem. A study that comes out with a new
finding generally does not have much credibility in the scientific
community unless another research lab has been able to replicate the
work and the findings.
Dr. Leif Salford, a neurosurgeon in Sweden, published a study in 2003
showing that rat brain neurons were dying from exposure to cellphone radiation, he warned there might be
similar effects in humans that over time could lead to degenerative
diseases of the brain. His study was written off by the industry as a
"novel" finding that needed to be replicated.
achieving the scientific standard of replication can be complicated.
Salford says if studies aren't absolutely replicated, providing an
apples-to-apples comparison, there's wiggle room to dispute follow-up
are very, very convinced that what we see is true. But the other guys
who have tried to do the same thing have not got their papers
published," said Salford.
long as people have major problems in doing these studies, it's a
situation where the industry can continue to say there's no scientific
dismissal of controversial findings strikes at the heart of scientific
credibility, says Dr. Martin Blank, associate professor of cellular
biophysics at Columbia University. He's also the former president of
the Bioelectromagnetics Society, a highly regarded organization of
scientists devoted to the "independent" study of electromagnetic
guys are naysayers from the word go," says Blank, who last year called
for an investigation into "conflicts of interest" within the society
that is now under way.
tries to influence everybody else. This is reasonable. But there are
certain things that go beyond the pale."
says the society's own newsletter, now funded by Motorola and edited by
Swicord, is showing "clear instances of bias" against
research that shows effects from radio frequencies.
responded publicly to Blank's accusation in the society's newsletter,
saying that while perceptions of bias need to be taken seriously,
there's no "credible evidence" that cellphone signals cause adverse
of the results in the literature show no effects," wrote Swicord. "From
a public health perspective when do we say enough is enough?"
Om Gandhi, a Utah-based scientist who has been studying cellphone
frequencies since 1973, says there remain plenty of unanswered
questions. In his own attempts, he says he's felt the sting of industry
research, showing that cellphone frequencies penetrate much deeper into
the heads of children, triggered a backlash that he says has left him
without research funding and the subject of mudslinging at
have been marginalized for the last three years because I would not
back down from what I was publishing," he says. "It's very nasty."
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