Is Her Cellphone Safe ?
Toronto Star, July 10, 2005
by Tyler Hamilton and Robert Cribb
Some scientists trying to find the answer say they've been pressured to soften controversial findings.
What you know about the potential health risks of your cell phone 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 cell phone 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.
"There's so much money involved, that the only thing industry sees is the money," says Dr. Jerry Phillips, a well-known cell phone researcher in the U.S. with dozens of peer-reviewed papers published under his name.
"They couldn't give a damn about basic science."
Allegations 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 cell phone industry, using popular images such as Barbie and Hilary Duff, shifts its marketing efforts to pre-teens.
The U.S. industry vigorously denies the allegations.
Joe Farren, a spokesperson for the U.S.-based Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, says his members have a strictly hands-off relationship with scientists.
"We have nothing to do with them. We write the cheque and they do the studies."
Dr. Louis Slesin, founder and publisher of New York-based scientific newsletter Microwave News, has spent more than 20 years watching the science around cell phones unfold. He says the public is getting a sanitized version.
"If 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."
An 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.
According to the analysis, research is considered independent when funded by governments, government agencies or academic institutions.
Among the peer-reviewed, published studies with no direct industry funding, biological effects from cell phone 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 the time.
Not everyone agrees scientists are pushed to come up with favorable conclusions.
"Certainly 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."
But 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.
Phillips recalls the sudden concern washing over the faces of Motorola executives in 1995 when he began detailing his findings on the impact of cell phone signals on rat cells.
What began as a friendly chat between Phillips and officials with the cell phone giant took an unpleasant turn when he explained that his Motorola-funded experiments revealed biological effects from cellular radio frequency signals, he says.
"There 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."
In their research, Phillips and his colleagues found changes in the expression of rat genes exposed to cell phone 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.
He 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.' "
When 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."
The origins of that sentence remain a mystery to the now semi-retired Phillips.
"I have no idea how that statement got in there."
While 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."
In an interview, Swicord dismisses the allegations as "pure nonsense," saying there was no company interference.
"I 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.
"This was a point of difference of opinion. ... We did not tell him what to publish or how to publish."
While 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."
Lai's review of the science on the biological impacts reveals what he calls a telling pattern.
The 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.
In 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.
Published research on other potential effects including behavior, molecular, brainwave and other effects show a similar pattern of funding biases, according to Lai.
Swicord 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.
"We have tried in the industry to fund quality work, and I know there are some sloppy studies out there."
Lai says industry has unfairly painted his work as sloppy.
Early 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."
"I think we have sufficiently war-gamed the Lai-Singh issue," the memo reads.
Norm 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.
"I 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.
Independent 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.
"One 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."
He says industry arguments may be simple, but they're effective when talking to a public ill-equipped to challenge the information.
Replication 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.
When Dr. Leif Salford, a neurosurgeon in Sweden, published a study in 2003 showing that rat brain neurons were dying from exposure to cell phone 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.
But 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 findings.
"We 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.
"As 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 evidence."
Industry's 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 fields.
"These 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.
"Everybody tries to influence everybody else. This is reasonable. But there are certain things that go beyond the pale."
Blank 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.
Swicord 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 cell phone signals cause adverse health effects.
"Most of the results in the literature show no effects," wrote Swicord. "From a public health perspective when do we say enough is enough?"
Dr. Om Gandhi, a Utah-based scientist who has been studying cell phone frequencies since 1973, says there remain plenty of unanswered questions. In his own attempts, he says he's felt the sting of industry retribution.
His research, showing that cell phone 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 industry-dominated meetings.
"I 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."