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News Center: Short Takes Archive
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Based on More Than 500 Pages of Internal Documents
[Update: CDC E-Mails Made Public]
In August 2014, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued and then rescinded precautionary advice on the use of cell phones. See our story, “CDC Calls for Caution on Cell Phones, Then Gets Cold Feet.”
Today,* Danny Hakim, an investigative reporter at the New York Times, has published a behind-the-scenes look at what was going on at the time, based on more than 500 pages of CDC internal documents, including e-mails, together with follow-up interviews. His story, “At CDC, a Debate Behind Recommendations on Cell Phone Risk,” states that Chris Portier —the official who originally endorsed precaution after he returned from the IARC meeting in 2011 where RF was classified as a possible cancer agent— was an isolated voice. “Mr. Portier’s view is not shared by many other experts,” according to Hakim.
“CDC officials began debating how to back away from their recommendation of caution, internal emails show. One official proposed saying instead that other countries — ‘specifically the United Kingdom and Canadian governments’ — recommended caution. Others suggested pointing to determinations by agencies in Finland, Israel and Austria. Ultimately, though, no other country was mentioned.”
“‘Some organizations recommend caution in cellphone use,’ the agency’s guidelines now say. But the CDC is not one of them.”
Unfortunately, Hakim does not resolve the difference in outlook between CDC officials in the U.S. and their counterparts in many other countries. If, as Hakim argues, “Mainstream scientific consensus holds that there is little to no evidence that cell phone signals raise the risk of brain cancer or any other health problems,” why do the others —including those in France and Russia, which go unmentioned— recommend caution? Is the science interpreted differently in the U.S. than elsewhere, or is it really about politics and economics?
Other items are left hanging. For instance, he writes that internal e-mails reveal that a CDC draft was criticized by an outside expert for including “statements that are scientifically incorrect.” That expert appears to have been James Smith, a former chief of the CDC’s radiation branch, according to the Times. What is not clear is what the errors were.
Another loose end is a quote from an e-mail written by a CDC official in which she expresses “an incredible guilt complex” for her role in the precautionary guidelines published in June 2014. Her name is not given, nor is the reason for her guilt (because it was a false warning?).
Hakim quotes John Boice, the president of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), stating that his own research has found “no evidence for associations with brain tumors or any other cancers.” What is left out is that Boice is a coauthor of the Danish cohort study, which many observers discount due to its many methodological shortcomings. (See our “The Danish Cohort Study: The Politics and Economics of Bias.”)
An internal CDC e-mail obtained by the Times shows that there was concern in Vermont over the state’s legal liability for allowing wireless technology in public schools and libraries.
The Environmental Health Trust has posted 518 pages of CDC e-mails —presumably the same documents released to the New York Times. See the EHT story here. The CDC e-mails are here. (The pdf is not searchable.)
Be sure to see our detailed story on what happened at CDC, based on those internal e-mails.
* Hakim’s story appeared in the January 2 print edition under the headline, “At CDC, Evolution of Advice on Phones” on the front page of the business section.
Kuster’s Work for Industry Detailed
Lancet Oncology, the journal which published the official announcement of IARC’s decision to designate RF radiation as a possible human carcinogen, has issued a correction to the conflict of interest (COI) statement it had included for Niels Kuster, the Swiss researcher and entrepreneur based in Zurich. Kuster attended IARC’s evaluation of RF radiation in May 2011 as an “invited specialist.”
Kuster is the founder and director of IT’IS, a non-profit group that was created with the financial support of the mobile phone industry, notably Motorola, as well as of Speag and its parent company, Near Field Technology, that markets measurement instrumentation and simulation software.
In a “correction” posted today, Lancet Oncology added the following to Kuster’s COI:
“IT’IS has received funding for specific projects from most mobile phone manufacturers and many service providers, including the Mobile Manufacturers Forum, Motorola, Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Sony, GSM Association, ARIB Japan, Swisscom, Deutsche Telekom, and TDC Sunrise.”
This statement appeared in the COI statement that Kuster filed with IARC on May 24, 2011, the first day of the RF meeting.
An individual, who uses the pseudonym “Don Smith,” brought this omission, as well as a number of others, to the attention of both IARC and Lancet Oncology. Kuster’s COI is the only one that has been corrected.
News of the correction comes from Retraction Watch. Soon afterwards, Alex Lerchl added a comment to its site, which stated, in part: “To find a researcher with such a long list of collaborators from industry, on one hand, and a profound interest in exposure research, on the other, as member of the group of experts is irritating, to say the least.” Lerchl, a professor at Jacobs University in Germany, had wanted to be a member of the IARC RF review panel, but his request was rebuffed.
Are Rates Actually Increasing?
Some leading epidemiologists have been saying that cell phones don’t pose a brain tumor risk because cancer rates are not going up. Now comes word that Swedish cancer registry data are in disarray and official statistics may be masking a disquieting trend.
Since 2008, there has been a close to 30% increase in patients with a brain tumor of an “unknown nature” and that increase is not reflected in the national cancer registry, according to a new analysis by Mona Nilsson, a Swedish journalist and the chairman of the Swedish Radiation Protection Foundation.
Nilsson reports that the number of Swedes who died of a brain tumor of an unknown nature rose by 157% between 2008 and 2013. And among those younger than 70, the increase was even “more pronounced” — there were 82 such deaths in 2013, compared to only 7 in 2008. Yet, Nilsson adds, “the number of patients reported dead of brain tumors with a confirmed diagnosis declined” during that same period.
To further support her suspicion that the official brain cancer rates are not to be trusted, Nilsson points to “huge disparities” in brain tumor rates between different regions in Sweden. For instance, the rate among men in Stockholm was 8.99 per 100,000 while in Gothenburg the rate was 15.19 per 100,000. Nilsson points out that there has been a parallel “steep increase” in the number of people treated for brain tumors of an unknown nature in the Stockholm region.
“The Gothenburg region discovered underreporting problems some six or seven years ago and took measures to improve the reporting. That’s why the incidence in Gothenburg is much higher, nearly double, that in the Swedish capital region and probably better reflects the real situation,” Nilsson said in an interview.
The news from Sweden comes as rumors are swirling that the cell phone industry is pressuring IARC to revisit its 2011 decision to classify RF radiation as a possible human carcinogen. In response to a query, Nicolas Gaudin, IARC’s head of communications, told Microwave News that he is “not aware of any such plans.”
Joachim Schüz, a senior manager at IARC, is one of those who points to stable cancer rates as an indicator that cell phones are safe (see “IARC Tries To Play Down Cell Phone Tumor Risks”). Schüz was previously with the Danish Cancer Society and is a coauthor of the Danish cohort study that shows no increased cell phone–tumor risks.
Nilsson’s analysis follows last year’s still unexplained report of what has been called a “frightening” spike in aggressive brain tumors among Danish men. (See our report: “Something Is Rotten in Denmark.”)
Last spring, a French study found a higher rate of brain tumors among heavy users of cell phones, supporting similar indications from IARC’s Interphone study and the work of the Hardell group in Sweden.
April 16, 2015
Lennart Hardell and Michael Carlberg have written up many of Nilsson’s concerns in a paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (open access). They conclude that, “a large part of brain tumors of unknown type are never reported to the Cancer Register,” and that the Registry is therefore “is not reliable to be used to dismiss results in epidemiological studies on the use of wireless phones and brain tumors.”
The New York Times Looks Back… And Then Gets Slammed
Both now and then the Times quoted David Carpenter. Here’s what he said in 1989: “The whole thing is very worrisome. We see the tips of the iceberg, but we have no idea how big the iceberg is. It ought to concern us all.”
This is what Carpenter told Chang for the update: “Almost nothing has changed in 25 years in terms of the controversy, although the evidence for biological effects of electromagnetic fields continues to grow stronger.”
The only other person interviewed for the new story was Emilie van Deventer of the WHO EMF Project in Geneva, who said, in part: “I am calling you, talking to you using my cell phone. I have a microwave. I have everything. It doesn’t change anything for me. But from a professional point of view, it’s important that we stay on top of it.”
July 18, 2014
There is a disheartening postscript to this story.
Soon after the Times story appeared Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist, who claims to be able to detect pathological science when he sees it, posted a comment on the Forbes magazine Web site slamming the Times for “reviving baseless fears.” Here’s part of what he wrote:
“The New York Times does its readers a disservice when, in the guise of updating a highly-charged issue, it features someone whose alarmist mantra has not changed in 25 years, but who ignores a mountain of accumulated evidence amassed over that time period.”
“The new story revisits Carpenter, who hasn’t changed his mind. He’s still concerned about the threat of electromagnetic fields. People with fringe ideas rarely recant, whether their belief involves cold fusion, alien abductions or ESP.”
Parallels Between INTEROCC and INTERPHONE
INTEROCC and INTERPHONE have a lot in common —more than their first five letters. So much in common that it’s a bit freaky. Or, maybe it just shows, once again, how small, insulated and polarized the EMF community is.
The most obvious parallels are that Elisabeth Cardis is the principal investigator of both the INTERPHONE and the INTEROCC projects, and that much of the data used in INTEROCC was collected by INTERPHONE in its original questionnaires. Some, but not all, of those who are working on INTEROCC were also part of INTERPHONE. Among them are Martine Hours and Siegal Sadetzki, who have stated publicly that the INTERPHONE results justify precautionary policies, as has Cardis.
The conflicts that brought INTERPHONE to a standstill for years, might have caused similar delays for INTEROCC. Sweden’s Maria Feychting, an INTERPHONE skeptic who doubts the observed links between cell phones and tumors, was slated to work on INTEROCC when the project was first announced in 2007. But she later dropped out. Similarly, Italy’s Suzanna Lagoria, who sides with Feychting on INTERPHONE, was also part of the original INTEROCC project and she quit too. One notable exception is IARC’s Joachim Schüz, another INTERPHONE skeptic, who is a coauthor of the new INTEROCC paper.
Strikingly, a number of those who doubt the link between cell phones and brain tumors seen in INTERPHONE, have also lined up against a link between power-frequency EMFs and brain tumors.
The most widely cited work used to rebut a cell phone-brain tumor association is the Danish Cohort Study, led by Christoffer Johansen at the Danish Cancer Society (see our appraisal). There’s also a Danish cohort study of electric utility workers, and Johansen is in charge of that too. As with cell phones, Johansen’s utility cohort shows no excess of brain tumors (see our INTEROCC story).
Another leading doubter of cell phone tumor risks is Peter Inskip of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). (Inskip famously stormed out of the IARC RF cancer review in 2011, just before the panel designated RF as a possible human carcinogen, see our report.) Here again, the parallels are eye-opening. Inskip is a senior author of NCI’s 2009 paper exonerating ELF EMFs of any association with brain tumors.
And then there’s David Savitz, who wanted to share the “good news” that workers in the electric utility industry face no brain tumor risk, even though his own study shows otherwise. In a commentary on INTERPHONE, Savitz joined Feychting and U.K’s Tony Swerdlow, another leading Interphone naysayer, to downplay —if not dismiss— the idea that INTERPHONE points to a brain tumor risk: “The trend in the accumulating evidence is increasingly against the hypothesis that mobile phones can cause brain tumors in adults,” they wrote after the INTERPHONE paper appeared (this was an official ICNIRP opinion). The following year (2012), Savitz left no doubt that he fully agreed with his ICNIRP colleagues, stating under oath, “My interpretation is that … [INTERPHONE] really provided to me fairly clear evidence against the likelihood of [any major health effects].”
Freaky or not, it’s time for some fresh blood in EMF/RF research.
Maybe It Was Never RF, But ELF
The new INTEROCC paper raises an intriguing question: Might the ELF component of GSM phone radiation present a brain tumor risk?
To date, all the attention on the cancer risk from mobile phones has been on RF radiation. Now that INTEROCC points to a credible association between exposure to ELF EMFs and brain tumors (see main story), is it possible, we have been focusing on the wrong type of phone radiation all along?
GSM phones expose the user to ELF EMFs because the RF transmitter in the phone turns on-and-off 217 times a second.1 The radiation from old analog and the newer 3G or 4G phones have much less ELF, if any at all.
Since the INTEROCC data was collected in the INTERPHONE study (see “Freaky or What?”), phone use data would have been available. Yet, phones are not discussed in the INTEROCC paper. “At the very least, they should have mentioned the ELF from phones,” Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch told us from his home in Scotland. Philips points out that, at the time the INTERPHONE data was collected, most people were using GSM phones.
Joe Bowman of NIOSH told us that phone use was not included in the INTEROCC exposure assessment. We then turned to Elisabeth Cardis who was in charge of the project. Here’s what she said: “There appears to be little association between mobile phone use and occupation history in the study thus the potential for confounding is small.” She added that, “The study included patients from a substantially increased age range for whom the detailed phone indices have not been derived.”
1. See, for instance, Figure 4 in this 1997 Danish paper.
Arthur W. Guy, known to all as Bill, died on April 20th at the age of 85. Guy will be best remembered as the leading proponent of the use of specific absorption rates (SARs) as a way of measuring the radiation dose associated with RF/MW exposure.
Guy received a doctorate in electrical engineering in 1966 from the University of Washington, Seattle, and then joined the UW faculty where he remained until his retirement in 1991. He stayed active as a consultant over the next 15 years. He served as a prominent science advisor to the cell phone industry’s research program, known as WTR, run by George Carlo in the mid-1990s.
Guy founded the Bioelectromagnetics Research Lab at UW in 1974, with the assistance of Jim Lin. (Today, Lin serves as the editor-in-chief of the journal Bioelectromagnetics.) During the early 1980’s, Guy ran one of the first studies to investigate the effects of lifetime microwave exposures on rats. The Guy study, as it became known, was prompted by public concerns over a powerful radar —called PAVE PAWS— being built by the U.S. Air Force on Cape Cod. The study was controversial from the start, and became even more so when, to many people’s surprise, it showed that microwaves could promote cancer (see our report from 1984).
Guy played a decisive role in the development of RF exposure standards. He was the chair of the panel that wrote the 1982 ANSI standard, the first for which numerical limits were set as a function of the SAR and thereby changed with frequency. (This is the origin of the well shape in the graphic of RF exposure limits.) He served on a number of panels of the NCRP, including its first to recognize SARs (Report No.67). He later chaired the NCRP committee that wrote the influential report on RF effects and exposure limits. An effort to revise it a decade later, under the direction of Lin, was sidelined by lack of funding.
Henry Lai, who had joined the lab in the early 1980s, kept it going for a time after Guy retired, but it faded away as research money dried up.
C-K. Chou, one of Guy’s doctoral students at UW and later a post-doc in his lab, became the director of Motorola’s RF Dosimetry Lab in Plantation, FL and was later named Chief EME Scientist at Motorola Solutions. (Chou retired from the company last year.) “He taught me to speak the way it is, because that was what he did,” Chou told Microwave News. “I learned from him ‘experiments must be repeatable and explainable’.”
A memorial service will be held in Seattle on May 9th.
EirGrid, the Irish state-owned power line company, is planning to build three new 400 kV lines and to upgrade 2,000 km of existing power lines at a cost of €3.2 billion to help provide reliable service in the years to come. But there's nothing new about its approach to addressing the public's concerns about EMFs.
Take a look at this new 35-minute “Prime Time” video from RTÉ, a local TV station. It illustrates, once again, the double talk endemic to the EMF–health debate as well as the corrosive effect that Mike Repacholi's EMF Project at the World Health Organization (WHO) has had on public discourse of these risks.
Fintan Slye, the CEO of EirGrid, sought to reassure those concerned about ill effects: “There is no way if there were any risks to health associated with what we are doing, that we would proceed with it.” He added, “It is simply not possible” for power line EMFs to lead to cancer. Bill Bailey of Exponent, a consultant to EirGrid, was flown in from the U.S. to sit in the studio audience and support Slye. The scientific evidence, he said, does not demonstrate a health risk from exposure to EMFs encountered in daily life.
Both Slye and Bailey specifically cited the conclusions of the WHO to support their claims. They must have been referring to Repacholi's EMF Project at WHO in Geneva, not the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the WHO based in Lyon. Back in 2001, IARC designated ELF EMFs as a 2B human carcinogen, that is, exposure to EMFs presents a possible cancer risk. That decision was based on epidemiological studies of children living near power lines (see our coverage).
Bailey knows all about this because he was a member of the IARC panel that reviewed all the scientific evidence in Lyon. The IARC decision was unanimous. There is no record that Bailey dissented. Bailey was then and is now an industry consultant. He would be disqualified from sitting on an IARC panel today. (If you doubt us, just ask Anders Ahlbom.)
Repacholi was also at the Lyon meeting, as an observer. He then spent years trying to undermine that decision for his many industry supporters. As soon as he left the WHO, Repacholi abandoned all pretense and hung out a shingle as a corporate consultant.
Luckily, the TV audience in the studio was well informed and knew that Slye and Bailey were fudging. The jeers tell the story.
Even EirGrid must have gotten the message. A couple of days after the show aired, the company announced that it would now consider placing the power lines underground, according to the Sunday Independent, Ireland's most widely read newspaper. The fact that people have started pelting politicians with eggs must have helped too.
For a copy of the IARC panel's report on the cancer risks from ELF EMFs, click here.
After Data from 2009-11 Added
The research group at the University of Oxford that reported a link between long-term use of a mobile phone and an elevated risk of acoustic neuroma (AN) in May now says that it is no longer there. In a short letter to the International Journal of Epidemiology (IJE), the Oxford team advises that when the analysis was repeated with data from 2009-2011, "there is no longer a significant association." Also gone, the team writes, is the "significant trend in risk with duration of use."
After ten or more years of phone use, the risk of AN is now only 17% higher with a confidence interval (0.60-2.27) that indicates the small increase is not significant. In their earlier paper, the Oxford group reported that the AN tumor risk more than doubled after ten years and was statistically significant (RR = 2.46, CI = 1.07–5.64).
The update comes in response to a letter from Frank de Vocht of the U.K.'s University of Manchester expressing surprise that the Oxford team had not included the finding of the AN risk in its original published abstract —especially given that it "provides further support" for the IARC decision to classify RF radiation as a possible human carcinogen.
In his letter to IJE, de Vocht includes the results of an informal meta-analysis he carried out on studies of long-term use of mobile phones and the incidence of AN:
“As shown, the accumulated scientific evidence remains inconclusive, but does indicate a 14 - 43% summary increased risk of acoustic neuroma because of long-term (10+ years) use of mobile phones, although without reaching statistical significance (95% CI = 0.76–2.67).”
It is too soon to know how the latest data from the Oxford study would affect de Vocht's meta-analysis.
October 8, 2013
Frank de Vocht has —quickly— updated his meta-analysis to take into account the new Oxford data. He now finds a non-significant 18% increase of AN among long-term users. (A relative risk of 1.18 with a 95% CI = 0.67-2.08.)
This may be an underestimate. de Vocht did not take into account a Japanese study which showed that those who used cell phones for more than 20 minutes a day for at least five years had three times more acoustic neuromas than expected. (See our report.) The Japanese results are not presented in the same way as those in the other studies and may not be easily integrated.
But Not for Meningioma
Using a new data set covering 2007-2009, Lennart Hardell and his research team have reaffirmed their previous findings that long-term use of a wireless phone leads to higher rates of both malignant brain tumors and acoustic neuromas (AN), but not of meningiomas, a type of benign brain tumor. In general, they report, the longer the use, the greater the risk for AN and malignant brain tumors.
An excerpt from the brain tumor paper:
“In summary, our results are consistent with an early effect in carcinogenesis (initiator) by analogue mobile phones, and both an early (initiator) and late (promoter) effect by wireless phones of the digital type.”
One from the acoustic neuroma paper:
“The risk increased with time since first use. For use of both mobile and cordless phones the risk was highest in the longest latency group. Tumor volume increased per 100 h of cumulative use and years of latency for wireless phones.”
And one from the meningioma paper:
“The present results strengthen our previous findings of an increased risk for glioma and acoustic neuroma, since a systematic bias in those studies would have been expected also in this study of meningioma using the same methodology. An indication of increased risk for meningioma was seen in the group with highest cumulative use but was not supported by statistically significant increasing risk with latency.”
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