A Precautionary Tale on EMF Research

Are we being properly advised over the potential dangers of EMF in our increasingly wireless world?

Popularly reported science appears to be split on the judgement of whether mobile phones, Wi-Fi and the underlying communications infrastructure present a health hazard. Many health and government authorities maintain that, based on current scientific research, there is no risk and the telecommunications industry, of course, agrees.

However, the world’s scientific community has sometimes been misused and society has been let down as a result. It’s a fact, however unpalatable, and seems to happen quite often when commercial interests lead to pressure being applied (or perhaps only perceived) in the name of “time to market” and/or pure commercial success.

Pharmaceutical Industry Naivety

For example, in 1957 Contergan (Thalidomid) came out to huge scientific acclaim. A “wonder drug” which went on to show how insufficient and inappropriate testing could lead to a major danger for the public who have to rely on trust in their assessment of such risks. And that’s the crux of the matter. Until recently, with the wave of whistleblowers in various industries, we, the largely uninformed public, have had to believe what we were told by whoever were considered to be our nearest, most trustable sources, be that scientists, doctors or government organisations. That there were people in the world who were, and still are, willing to somehow misinform those trusted sources or distort the facts on which they based their opinions, went largely unnoticed.

Petro-chemical Industry Slight of Hand

Although benzene as a fuel-additive has been known since the beginnings of the automotive industry, it was lead that came into common use in 1921 as it was a cheaper alternative. It remained an integral part of petrol up to the 1970s, when health concerns caused its use to be phased out. As we were told that lead is toxic and we need to get rid of it out of petrol, a natural assumption would be that whatever was replacing it would not be. Wrong! Now benzene (a known carcinogen) is in use again or perhaps toluene (which is slightly less toxic than benzene) or xylene or a mix of all three (BTEX). That benzene is toxic has been known since at least 1928 but both the IARC and EPA have asserted that neither toluene nor xylene are classifiable as to their carcinogenicity in humans, due to inadequate evidence in humans and animals. Fortunately, we now have ethanol as an additive, with such fuels as E10 and E25 having a significantly lower effect on health and the environment. Since about 2008, in fact, ethanol-based fuels have out sold the benzene equivalents, with the former reportedly holding over 90% of the market in recent years.

Tobacco Industry Side-Step

In the 1950s, smoking was increasingly recognised as for human health. As a result, the tobacco industry began to look for ways to protect its profits. One way in which it attempted this was to fund research into the newly developing area of genetics, with the goal of showing a genetic disposition to lung cancer and thus propagating uncertainty as to the true cause. This approach ran on into the late 1980s and it is estimated that the tobacco industry had funded research in excess of $350 million by the 1990s in this way. The ultimate aim of this endeavour was to show that a particular type of person contracted lung cancer, shifting the attention from the product, even though cigarette smoke contains more than 19 known carcinogens.

Sugar Industry Points the Finger

In the 1960s the sugar industry, in the guise of the Sugar Research Foundation, funded research into sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies at Harvard University were seemingly hand-picked by the Foundation and in such a way as to minimise any link between sugar and heart disease. They succeeded in deflecting attention from sugar for nearly five decades. Sadly, this practise continues to this day with other major sugar-related industries, like the soft-drink manufacturers, allegedly funding similar research to obscure any link between their products and obesity, for example.

Agra-Chemical Industry Denial

In 1974, Monsanto bought glyphosate onto the agricultural market under the name Roundup and by 2007, according to statistics, had become the world’s most used agricultural herbicide and the second most used herbicide for home, garden and other applications. In 2015, thirty-five years after its release, the IARC declared glyphosate to be a Class 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic in humans”. Following that announcement, the State of California defined glyphosate to be „known to the State of California to cause cancer“ and would have enforced labelling of such products had Monsanto not appealed the ruling. So why did it take thirty-five years for scientific research to convince the authorities that there could be problems? One aspect would be the long latency of developing cancer: often tens of years elapse before the condition is recognisable. A second and tragic reason is that protecting corporate profit has seemingly become more important than protecting the health of the people. At the time the IARC released its assessment of glyphosate in 2015, Monsanto allegedly ran a public relations campaign to discredit the IARC’s findings. Reports of industry-funded research “muddying the waters” of scientific opinion are common and, in light of such activities with regard to lobbying for the tobacco and sugar industries, why would it be surprising.

Whether glyphosate is sufficiently proven to be carcinogenic remains to be seen but in parallel, concerns of a link between glyphosate residues in food and the world-wide increase in the incidence of autism abound.

Cosmetic Industry Denial

A contemporary case is that of the asbestos content in cosmetic talcum powders and whether company executives and scientists involved in the testing of these products were complicit to a cover-up. Tremolite and other asbestiform minerals occur quite naturally alongside talc and are, therefore, mined in small quantities at the same time. Since the 1970s, debate has raged as to what constitutes a “safe level” of asbestos in cosmetic products and by default 0.5% has become the de facto standard, although the industry pushed for 1%. Once again, possible selective reporting and allegedly  inappropriate study/testing methodologies appear to have “muddied the waters” sufficiently until last year’s milestone verdict ruling that Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder had caused ovarian cancer in one or more plaintiffs.

And what of the telecommunications revolution?

By the time the first analogue mobile phones came onto the market in the 1980s, largely untested from a human health perspective, the health effects of high power microwave radiation were well known. The thermal effects, which were made most noticeable by the emergence of the microwave oven in the 1960s, had been documented and regulated. It was those heating effects which were identified as the only possible source of danger to humans and which, even today in the eyes of many engineers and scientists, are considered to be the only risk involved with the use of radio frequency technologies.

In the 90s, some concerns about the safety of these new “mobile” phones were beginning to emerge. This was later highlighted by a lawsuit in 1993 alleging that mobile phone radiation was responsible for a woman, Susan Reynard, developing brain cancer, which sent the telecommunications industry into a spin.

In 1990, the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a draft report on the evaluation of the carcinogenic potential of EMF. Amongst the comments on power frequency EMF, the authors strongly suggested that, having reviewed 15 years of data, there was evidence of a connection between magnetic fields and some forms of cancer. Furthermore, they suggested that that modulated radio frequency EMF may have the same capability and that EM fields in general probably contribute to the formation of cancer although the mechanism could not be indentified but likely involved other co-promoting factors. It also called for more research to be performed to enable the risk to human health from EMF to be fully assessed.

The report was reviewed by an EPA Scientific Advisory Board, with the recommendation in 1992 that the report be rewritten to accommodate certain structural, style and content changes before being published. A leading conclusion arising from this review was that, although there was data suggesting a link, there was insufficient data to make a firm judgement on the carcinogenicity of EMF, not that there was no carcinogenic effect. The review also acknowledged the existence of biological effects at non-thermal intensities and called for a distinction to be made between them and “health effects”. From the recommendations made, it is might be deduced that part of the motivation for changing the report came from a wish to avoid public unrest in the light of the “skewed and somewhat sensationalized picture” proffered in the media at the time.

The revised report was never published.

The original draft report (EPA Document no. 6006900005B) is openly available on the EPA’s website at: https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/risk/recordisplay.cfm?deid=31421

and the SAB review (EPA Document no. SABRAC92013) at: https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi/P1002U89.PDF?Dockey=P1002U89.PDF .

In 1993, the telecommunications industry initiated a study headed by Dr George Carlo, whose background suggests a man who was working in defence of the chemical and tobacco industries. The intention of the six year study was probably to illustrate that mobile phone technology was safe. However, the end result was that in 1999, Dr. Carlo wrote an open letter to key telecommunication CEOs warning them of potential health issues with their products. He found himself ostracised by the industry, which has subsequently been accused of down-playing the results from that and other studies. A lot has been said regarding Dr. Carlo’s ethics and activities and had it been an isolated incident, the criticism might have led us to dismiss his work. But it wasn’t. In 2001 Dr. Roger Santini published a study into health effects for residents living near to a mobile phone tower (Investigation on the health of people living near mobile telephone relay stations: I/Incidence according to distance and sex). It concluded that the minimum safe distance was 300m. He and other colleagues subsequently found themselves subject to pressure to desist with their work and expounding their findings publicly. Elsewhere, for some academics, funding for research into the health effects of mobile phone radiation simply dried up and research posts disappeared, for instance, in the case of Professor Dariusz Leszczynski at the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK).

In America in 1996, the FCC did adopt maximum exposure levels for EMF, based on NCRP recommendations. Similar standards were issued by ICNIRP in 1998. Both guidelines, largely unaltered, are still in use today……..twenty years and multiple generations of wireless technologies later!

Whether the communications industry is actively trying to protect its own interests in deference to public safety and/or governments are succumbing to industry lobbying, is open to discussion and we, the public, will probably never really know the answer. We can, however, draw parallels with what has happened in other industries over the last half century and make some qualitative assessment of the balance of current research results. In 2003 and 2007, Dr. Henry Lai and Martin Röösli, respectively, made public reviews showing that industry-funded studies into biological/health effects of mobile phone radiation were more likely to show no effect than those studies funded by other institutions. Lai stated that although the ratio of studies showing “effect” to “no effect” was approximately 50/50, 30% of industry funded studies found an effect compared to 70% of independently funded studies. There seemed to be clear bias. It is likely that this is still the case today.

In 2002, the IARC, declared ELF EMF as “possibly carcinogenic” and made the same statement against RF EMF in 2011. In the light of the recent National Toxicological Project showing an increase in particular cancer forms in rats exposed to mobile phone radiation (partly replicated by the Ramazzini Institute in Italy), the latter definition could soon change to a more severe classification.

The question “Does EMF, either low or radio frequency, cause health problems in humans?” is far from being comprehensively answered. What’s more, finding conclusive proof one way or the other is difficult, particularly for the lay-person. Outwardly, the scientific community is split. Digging a little deeper suggests that this outward appearance may be deceptive.

In conclusion, I would like to say that Science has a moral duty to protect mankind, be it as individual scientists or as scientific institutions. Man, however understandably, generally prioritises self-preservation over martyrdom and so we have a conflict of interests. Nowadays, when a scientific paper is published, the authors are compelled to declare any conflicts of interest they may have with regard to their research. We call this transparency. But what happens when the funding for research into the negative effects from a particular industry is indirectly choked by corporations from the very same branch? Imagine the telecommunications industry want to fund research into new technology to improve their mobile phones. It seems unlikely that they will also promote research into the possible negative health effects of mobile phones in the same scientific establishment. The result could be that valuable research is indirectly suppressed because that institute will benefit more by not rocking the corporate boat. It sounds a little cynical but in the cases of Santini and Leszczynski , above, eminently plausible: self-preservation.

The authors of The Bio-Initiative Report, a document summarising evidence of the biological and health effects of EMF compiled by 29 scientist from 10 countries (https://www.bioinitiative.org/),  have been accused of “cherry-picking” scientific studies to support a theory. Perhaps it would be better to accuse them of performing their moral duty by pursuing the use of the Precautionary Principle.

Outside of the realms of science and engineering, people are making their own judgements and I’ll talk more about that and how that might help us to read between the lines in my next posting.

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