Far more frequently than I’d like it to be necessary, we here at Science-Based Medicine (SBM) find ourselves writing about various health fear mongering about cell phones and wifi. The idea that the radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation used by cell phones and wireless networks is somehow causing horrendous health effects in humans, be it cancer (brain, breast, or other), behavioral problems, mental illness, or whatever is, like antivaccine pseudoscience, a claim not supported by evidence that just will not go away. Indeed, some take it a step further, inventing a syndrome called “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” in which certain people are especially sensitive to the claimed adverse health effects due to radio waves. It doesn’t help, either, that organizations like the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) erroneously categorized cell phone radiation as a “possible carcinogen” or that the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) wasted $25 million on a study of cell phone radiation in rats that, at the time of a partial report of its results for gliomas and cardiac schwannomas, had produced singularly unconvincing results for a link between cell phones and cancer, but it produced sensationalistic headlines claiming a link. As of last month, the full study has shown no more convincing evidence. As Dr. Christopher Labos, our latest guest contributor explained in his post earlier today, the results are most consistent with random noise.

The latest magazine to publish a sensationalistic story about cell phones is The Nation. Amusingly, someone in The Nation‘s PR department thought it would be a good idea to send me a link, as though we would blog about it. Of course, I’m happy to oblige, because this story is an example of much of what is wrong with reporting on the issue of cell phones and health effects due to cell phone radiation. Written by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie and entitled “How Big Wireless Made Us Think That Cell Phones Are Safe: A Special Investigation.” Its tagline? The disinformation campaign—and massive radiation increase—behind the 5G rollout. The basic thesis of the article is that “big wireless” is a lot like “big tobacco” in hiding the science or preventing definitive science from being done because, presumably, it has something to hide. It’s the very same sort of argument that antivaxers like to make about big pharma and vaccines, likening vaccine manufacturers to big tobacco and claiming the same sort of disinformation campaign that big tobacco waged for decades to hide, minimize, and obfuscate the emerging scientific evidence of the harm cigarette smoking was causing through causing lung cancer, heart disease, and a variety of other diseases.

No one, least of all I, is claiming that big telecom and big pharma are pristine, as clean as the driven snow. We do know from science, however, that vaccines do not cause autism and that cell phone radiation not only does not cause the health effects attributed to it but almost certainly cannot cause those health effects because the energy carried by radio waves is too low to do what is claimed. It’s basic physics. For instance, I like to say that, although a link between cell phone radiation and cancer is not homeopathy-level implausible, it is incredibly implausible, simply because most of mechanisms of carcinogenesis we know involve as an inciting event the breaking of chemical bonds in DNA to cause mutations, and even the mechanisms we’re coming to understand that might require chemical bond breakage as an inciting event are incredibly unlikely to be impacted by such low energy waves.

Enter The Nation.

A disingenuous disclaimer

In discussing The Nation‘s fear mongering story, I can’t help but start part way through the article, with its disclaimer:

This article does not argue that cell phones and other wireless technologies are necessarily dangerous; that is a matter for scientists to decide. Rather, the focus here is on the global industry behind cell phones—and the industry’s long campaign to make people believe that cell phones are safe.

That campaign has plainly been a success: 95 out of every 100 adult Americans now own a cell phone; globally, three out of four adults have cell-phone access, with sales increasing every year. The wireless industry is now one of the fastest-growing on Earth and one of the biggest, boasting annual sales of $440 billion in 2016.

This disclaimer is disingenuous in the extreme, given that the central theme of the article is that, as big tobacco and big oil worked to hinder research examining the deleterious health effects of smoking or the effects of the burning of fossil fuels and climate change, respectively, and spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about scientific results that cast their products in a bad light, big telecom has engaged in a multidecade campaign to do the same with results that allegedly show adverse health effects from cell phone radiation. The reason? As the passage above claims, it was all about profits, just as it was for the tobacco and fossil fuels industries. The way the authors cherry pick studies to cite and how they portray the telecom industry leads one to picture its executives twirling their moustaches as people die of brain cancer from their products, I call BS on the disclaimer above. This article has a point of view, and that point of view boils down to: (1) cell phones are harmful and (2) the telecom industry has been covering up science supposedly showing those harms.

Indeed, the article starts off with a description of how George Carlo was led off the premises of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) grounds:

Things didn’t end well between George Carlo and Tom Wheeler; the last time the two met face-to-face, Wheeler had security guards escort Carlo off the premises. As president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), Wheeler was the wireless industry’s point man in Washington. Carlo was the scientist handpicked by Wheeler to defuse a public-relations crisis that threatened to strangle his infant industry in its crib. This was back in 1993, when there were only six cell-phone subscriptions for every 100 adults in the United States. But industry executives were looking forward to a booming future.

Remarkably, cell phones had been allowed onto the US consumer market a decade earlier without any government safety testing. Now, some customers and industry workers were being diagnosed with cancer. In January 1993, David Reynard sued the NEC America Company, claiming that his wife’s NEC phone caused her lethal brain tumor. After Reynard appeared on national TV, the story went viral. A congressional subcommittee announced an investigation; investors began dumping their cell-phone stocks; and Wheeler and the CTIA swung into action.

Lorne Trottier has called Carlo an “industry gadfly,” and he’s correct. My reading of his activities and publications since the 1990s suggest to me that he’s also become a bit of a crank. Let’s just put it this way. If you’re featured on Whale.to with a glowing profile, the chances that you’re championing good science are slim and none. Indeed, Carlo’s work is widely cited by the usual assortment of cranks and quacks promoting “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” diagnoses and selling “shielding” and blankets that are claimed to protect you from the dreaded electrosmog. Also, one can’t help but note that Carlo’s publication record dropped off precipitously to near zero after around 2000, with only three publications between 2013 and 2015 since then. I also can’t help but note that I could find around the time of the events described in this article (the 1990s) only one paper co-authored by Carlo and published in the New England Journal of Medicine that looked at the effect of cell phone radiation on implantable pacemakers. His relative dearth of publications even before he took over the WTR project makes me wonder whether he was actually competent to oversee the studies tasked to him.

Indeed, Carlo published a paper claiming to have found a link between cell phone radiation and autism. It was unimpressive, so much so that Steve Novella blogged about it. Let’s just say that he didn’t think it was an example of good science. (Actually, he described it as “a mishmash of pseudoscientific nonsense.”) I note, however, that, while Dr. Novella was unimpressed, Whale.to was quite impressed, so much so that it’s hosting a copy of the study.

Things left unsaid

In fairness, The Nation‘s reporting does make a reasonable case that the wireless industry prevented the publication of the full findings of the WTR project, although a summary of its results was published in Medscape General Medicine in 2000, and the industry’s treatment of Carlo, complete with guards escorting him from campus and the like, was rather suspicious:

Whatever Carlo’s motives might have been, the documented fact is that he and Wheeler would eventually clash bitterly over the WTR’s findings, which Carlo presented to wireless-industry leaders on February 9, 1999. By that date, the WTR had commissioned more than 50 original studies and reviewed many more. Those studies raised “serious questions” about cell-phone safety, Carlo told a closed-door meeting of the CTIA’s board of directors, whose members included the CEOs or top officials of the industry’s 32 leading companies, including Apple, AT&T, and Motorola.

Carlo sent letters to each of the industry’s chieftains on October 7, 1999, reiterating that the WTR’s research had found the following: “The risk of rare neuro-epithelial tumors on the outside of the brain was more than doubled…in cell phone users”; there was an apparent “correlation between brain tumors occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head”; and “the ability of radiation from a phone’s antenna to cause functional genetic damage [was] definitely positive….”

I also suspect that we’re reading only one side of the story, Carlo’s, spoon fed to Hertsgaard and Dowie. Indeed, the choice that the authors made to mention the lawsuit by David Reynard very early in their article tells you all you need to know about the level bias in the story. That was one of the more ludicrous lawsuits ever brought over cell phones and cancer. The reason? Reynard’s major claim was that his wife’s brain tumor looked like a cell phone antenna and that’s what convinced him that the cell phone must have caused her brain tumor. Don’t believe me? Read the transcript of an interview with Reynard on Larry King Live in 2000 and an article in the New York Times from 2011. Funny how that was left out.

The story left out a lot, actually. Again in fairness, it is true, as the Nation article points out, that Carlo got his start as an industry flack, although it was even worse than described, as he actually worked for the “Association for the Advancement of Sound Science”, which was funded by Philip Morris to undermine any research showing any adverse effects of secondhand tobacco smoke. Perhaps that explains his sparse publication record, even before he was hired by the wireless industry. I also wonder if mentioning that Carlo was formerly a tobacco company shill before being hired by the CTIA would have made him look so bad that his “conversion” to a gadfly tormenting the wireless industry would have been less convincing. Whatever the case, in fairness, one has to concede that the wireless industry’s original hire of Carlo does indeed have the stench of the tobacco industry about it. However, it’s not just that. It’s that there’s a lot more to the story of Carlo’s breakup with the wireless industry than Hertsgaard and Dowie report, and a lot of what is left out is information that would cast doubt on Carlo’s motives and competence.

For instance, Sourcewatch (no friend of industry, much less the wireless industry) has a very interesting entry on George L. Carlo, which does not paint him in a very good light at all. It cites an article from the May/June 2003 issue of Microwave News, reviewed the progress of the WTR project:

George Carlo’s Wireless Technology Research (WTR) had run a confidence game on behalf of the mobile phone companies… Carlo and the industry he represented never wanted to do any actual research… WTR’s $25-million research budget was by far the largest pot of money ever earmarked for RF research. It was squandered. The public is a loser because Carlo brought us no closer to understanding the health risks from cell phone radiation… For close to a decade, its members were denied the chance to do the promised research. Carlo’s strategy was clever and effective. By dangling a huge amount of money in front of the cash-starved RF community, Carlo guaranteed silent obedience. Anyone who dared complain risked being cut off from his millions. There was the added benefit that scientists were discouraged from helping lawyers who were thinking about suing cell phone companies. WTR’s bank account is now empty.

SourceWatch also notes:

Carlo broke with the Cellular Telephone Industry Association after the money finally ran out (they eventually funded him to the tune of $27.5 million). His demand for further funding fell on deaf ears, and the dispute also led to an acrimonious exchange as a consequence of Carlo’s disputed divorce settlement when the CTIA refused to make WTR accounts available to his lawyers. They became implacable enemies.

At this late stage Carlo had a Damascian conversion, and overnight he became an enemy of the cellphone industry, charging that the CTIA was responsible for covering up some of the scientific findings uncovered by WTR funding, which he says had showed cellphones were dangerous. He never specified exactly what research funded by WTR and shown these dangers, but he was effective with the media and got his message across.

Further oddities included the following:

  • Carlo teamed up with a product liability lawyer who wanted to sue the mobile phone companies on behalf of clients who had brain cancer. However, that project collapsed because the scientific links could never be convincingly demonstrated. It is tempting to liken Carlo to Andrew Wakefield here, who got his start studying vaccines and autism doing research for a trial lawyer.
  • Carlo also wrote a book with Martin Schram that was noticeable more for what it avoided discussing than what it revealed. (Cellphones: invisible Hazard in the Wireless Age).
  • Carlo joined forces with a “bio-shield” company {BioPro]] to promote a stick-on device to protect against “harmful cellphone radiation.” (These devices are worthless and do not work. They’re basically scams.) This arrangement also collapsed in acrimony. (This seems to be a recurring theme with Carlo, acrimonious breakups with former employers or partners.)

I found this all out with just a little bit of Googling, plus an article that’s still available on Archive.org about Carlo. One wonders if Hertsgaard and Dowie bothered to Google a bit about George Carlo and, if they did, why they only told one side of his story, the side that paints him as a brave whistleblowing warrior for scientific truth. I mean, seriously. The SourceWatch entry was incredibly easy to find.

Conspiracies everywhere!

I started with the disingenuous disclaimer above because it strains credibility beyond breaking to believe that the authors are not arguing that cell phone radiation is harmful and that it should be “left up to the scientists,” given that the scientific consensus is currently strongly in favor of the conclusion that there is no detectable increased risk of brain cancer or other adverse health outcomes associated with cell phone radiation, particularly given that the article states bluntly, “Billions of cell-phone users have been subjected to a public-health experiment without informed consent.” Let’s just put it this way. You don’t use language like that if you think that the product you’re discussing is benign. Indeed, it’s exactly the same sort of language antivaxers use when they describe vaccines. You could substitute the words “vaccinated children” for “cell phone users” and the sentence would not be out of place on any antivaccine website or blog.

More interesting, however, is how the authors consistently want it both ways. For example:

This Nation investigation reveals that the wireless industry not only made the same moral choices that the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries did; it also borrowed from the same public-relations playbook those industries pioneered. The playbook’s key insight is that an industry doesn’t have to win the scientific argument about safety; it only has to keep the argument going. That amounts to a win for the industry, because the apparent lack of certainty helps to reassure customers, even as it fends off government regulations and lawsuits that might pinch profits.

Central to keeping the scientific argument going is making it appear that not all scientists agree. Again like the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries, the wireless industry has “war gamed” science, as a Motorola internal memo in 1994 phrased it. War-gaming science involves playing offense as well as defense: funding studies friendly to the industry while attacking studies that raise questions; placing industry-friendly experts on advisory bodies like the World Health Organization; and seeking to discredit scientists whose views depart from the industry’s.

Funding friendly research has perhaps been the most important component of this strategy, because it conveys the impression that the scientific community truly is divided. Thus, when studies have linked wireless radiation to cancer or genetic damage—as Carlo’s WTR did in 1999; as the WHO’s Interphone study did in 2010; and as the US National Toxicology Program did in 2016—industry spokespeople can point out, accurately, that other studies disagree. “[T]he overall balance of the evidence” gives no cause for alarm, asserted Jack Rowley, research and sustainability director for the Groupe Special Mobile Association (GSMA), Europe’s wireless trade association, speaking to reporters about the WHO’s findings.

Notice the sleight of hand here. The implication behind the entire argument and claim made above is that the scientific community agrees that cell phone radiation causes adverse health effects and that only industry-sponsored studies find otherwise. This is a gross misrepresentation of the state of the science, when in reality the scientific consensus is on the side of the lack of a correlation between radio wave exposure due to cell phone use and cancer, making the scientists who believe that cell phone radiation is dangerous the ones who are in a clear minority. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this list of consensus statements from governments and expert panels regarding the heath effects and safe exposure levels of radiofrequency energy. There are a whole lot of statements like:

The balance of evidence to date suggests that exposures to RF radiation below NRPB and ICNIRP guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the general population…
[and]
The balance of current research evidence suggests that exposures to the radiofrequency energy produced by cellphones do not cause health problems provided they comply with international guidelines. Reviews of all the research have not found clear, consistent evidence of any adverse effects.

There are many more such consensus statements.

The National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the CDC, and the FDA all conclude that there does not appear to be a risk of adverse health outcomes, including cancer, attributable to cell phone use.

It’s also rather telling which studies Hertsgaard and Dowie use as proof of the all-powerful telecom industry’s power. For instance, there was the Interphone study:

To be sure, the industry could not have been pleased with some of the Interphone study’s conclusions. The study found that the heaviest cell-phone users were 80 percent more likely to develop glioma. (The initial finding of 40 percent was increased to 80 to correct for selection bias.) The Interphone study also concluded that individuals who had owned a cell phone for 10 years or longer saw their risk of glioma increase by nearly 120 percent. However, the study did not find any increased risk for individuals who used their cell phones less frequently; nor was there evidence of any connection with meningioma.

When the Interphone conclusions were released in 2010, industry spokespeople blunted their impact by deploying what experts on lying call “creative truth-telling.” “Interphone’s conclusion of no overall increased risk of brain cancer is consistent with conclusions reached in an already large body of scientific research on this subject,” John Walls, the vice president for public affairs at the CTIA, told reporters. The wiggle word here is “overall”: Since some of the Interphone studies did not find increased brain-cancer rates, stipulating “overall” allowed Walls to ignore those that did.

We’ve discussed the Interphone study before. It was actually a negative study and provided nothing even resembling compelling evidence that cell phones might be linked to cancer, the efforts of people like George Carlo and journalists like Hertsgaard and Dowie to paint it as a positive study notwithstanding. In this article, the Interphone study is portrayed as being a disappointment to the study scientists’ telecom paymasters for supposedly having a positive result, while real scientists explaining the nuance of the study and why it is not a positive study are evidence of the telecom industry “spinning” an “inconvenient result.” Elsewhere, supposedly a $4.7 million contribution to the World Health Organization led to the inclusion of industry representatives on the IARC, which only classified cell phone radiation as a “possible carcinogen.” Of course, as we’ve pointed out before, based on the existing evidence, even that’s a stretch, but Hertsgaard and Dowie represent it as the outcome of nefarious activity by the telecom industry, rather than science.

When Lorne Trottier last discussed the IARC classification of cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen on SBM, he quoted Ken Foster, who pointed out, “Their conclusion is easy to misinterpret…Saying that something is a ‘possible carcinogen’ is a bit like saying that someone is a ‘possible shoplifter’ because he was in the store when the watch was stolen. The real question is what is the evidence that cell phones actually cause cancer, and the answer is — none that would persuade a health agency.”

He also noted that the IARC relied too heavily on some seemingly positive studies by Lennart Hardell’s group in Sweden. His group is viewed by most epidemiologists studying links between cell phone radiation and cancer as an outlier, and Trottier pointed out that his studies appear to rehash the same data set using highly flawed methodology. Guess which scientist Hertsgaard and Dowie like besides George Carlo? You guessed it. Lennart Hardell. Of course, they paint all the scientific criticism of Hardell’s studies as nothing more than the telecom industry striking back. Even more than that, they provide a link to a petition by Hardell that very much resembles (to me at least) the “dissent from Darwin” petition pointed to by creationists. Here’s a taste of the rhetoric:

The Nuremberg code (1949) applies to all experiments on humans, thus including the roll-out of 5G with new, higher RF-EMF exposure. All such experiments: “should be based on previous knowledge (e.g., an expectation derived from animal experiments) that justifies the experiment. No experiment should be conducted, where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.” (Nuremberg code pts 3-5). Already published scientific studies show that there is “a priori reason to believe” in real health hazards.

Again, this sounds very much like the sort of argument made by antivaxers, who regularly like to invoke the Nuremberg code in claiming that the current vaccination program is actually medical experimentation causing harm. Hint to Professor Hardell (and to Hertsgaard and Dowie): If you want to convince someone that you’re arguing good science, don’t sound like an antivaxer.

What, you might ask, is the goal of the nefarious machinations of the telecom industry as reported by Hartsgaard and Dowie? To prevent any resistance to the development of the “Internet of things” and products using 5G wireless, which, Hertsgaard and Dowie direly warn us, will “will require augmenting today’s 4G technology with 5G, thus massively increasing the general population’s exposure to radiation.” Of course.

The narrative

The most striking thing about this Nation article was, as far as I’m concerned, the disingenuousness of it all. The authors argue with a straight face that they are not taking a position one way or the other regarding whether cell phone radiation causes cancer or other health problems and that they believe that “scientists should decide” if cell phone radiation is dangerous. Yet, tellingly, they don’t quote a single scientist of any standing on the issue and appear to have constructed their story largely around the narrative promoted over nearly two decades by George Carlo, hardly a reliable source and someone who appears to me to be a science denialist who switched sides after a falling out with his last industry paymasters that occurred when the money ran out. Carlo’s narrative is presented as fact, with no mention of the various other troublesome aspects of his history, such as his history of having hawked bogus products to “protect” against cell phone radiation. Such facts would, of course, have painted Carlo in a less flattering picture and diluted the intended message of the story. It’s also ancient history at this point. There’s been a lot of science done since then, and it doesn’t support the fear mongering.

Of course, any attempt by corporate interests to cover up inconvenient science would be rather pointless if there weren’t actual evidence of harm. After all, if tobacco weren’t highly carcinogenic, there would have been no point in tobacco companies going to such lengths to cover up the emerging science supporting links between tobacco and cancer and various diseases. Similarly, framing an article in a way that compares the tactics of telecom companies with respect to the biology of cell phone radiation is kind of pointless if that radiation doesn’t cause harm. So, their claims that they take no position on whether cell phone radiation causes health problems notwithstanding, Hertsgaard and Dowie do their damnedest, if not to prove such a link, to cite all sorts of studies that they consider suggestive of such a link, ignoring biological plausibility, and ignoring the studies making up the scientific consensus that cell phone radiation hasn’t been linked with cancer or health problems. Basically, they cherry pick. For instance, they cite a study in plants (Vicia faba seedlings) purporting to show that radiofrequency energy can interfere with DNA replication as though it has any relevance to humans. They misrepresent the Interphone study as an actual positive study. The list goes on. They also represent the view of someone like George Carlo as the scientific consensus, with those arguing that existing scientific evidence shows no detectable health effects from cell phone radiation as industry shills. It’s really that blatant.

Of course, the story had to be this way once the authors decided that the narrative was going to be that telecom companies are like tobacco companies. Even if the telecom industry did indeed try to prevent studies examining the health effects of cell phone radiation or to co-opt science through the WTR project, there wouldn’t be nearly as much reason for outrage if the actual science doesn’t show any harm, and this story is clearly meant to outrage readers. In the end, all I can say is this: For people who claim to be agnostic about whether cell phone radiation causes cancer and other bad things, Hertsgaard and Dowie sure have a strange way of showing it. This was irresponsible journalism at its most irresponsible.

Posted by David Gorski

Dr. Gorski's full information can be found here, along with information for patients. David H. Gorski, MD, PhD, FACS is a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute specializing in breast cancer surgery, where he also serves as the American College of Surgeons Committee on Cancer Liaison Physician as well as an Associate Professor of Surgery and member of the faculty of the Graduate Program in Cancer Biology at Wayne State University. If you are a potential patient and found this page through a Google search, please check out Dr. Gorski's biographical information, disclaimers regarding his writings, and notice to patients here.