A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

New York Times Looks Behind CDC Reversal on Cell Phone Risks

Based on More Than 500 Pages of Internal Documents
[Update: CDC E-Mails Made Public]

January 1, 2016
Last updated 
January 12, 2016

In August 2014, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued and then rescinded precautionary advice on the use of cell phones.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.

He writes:

“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.”

And concludes:

“‘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.

January 4, 2016

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.)

January 13

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.