A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

Sir William Stewart: Precautionary or “Fusspot”?

Consumer Reports Discounts Possible Risks

January 13, 2005

The British press has given a lot of ink to the Stewart report, featuring numerous interviews with Sir William. In one of the most detailed of these he told Nic Fleming of the Daily Telegraph that he is “more concerned” about possible health risks today than he was five years when he first called for children to be discouraged from using mobile phones.

Sir William said that, “When it comes to suggesting that mobile phones should be available to three- to eight-year-olds, I can’t believe for a moment that can be justified. It seems to me ludicrous.” He explained: “They should not have them because children’s skulls are not fully thickened, their nervous systems are not fully developed and the radiation penetrates further into their brains.”

Not everyone agrees with Stewart. The editorial writers at the Telegraph, for example, called him a “Professional Fusspot.” They wrote that “all human activity carries risks, and we have quite enough to worry about these days, without getting into a flap about dangers that may or may not exist.”

Even some of those who report to Sir William at the NRPB appear to a bit uneasy. (We doubt that the NRPB has yet gotten comfortable with having an activist chairman.) In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, published today, Michael Clark of the NRPB’s press office tried to moderate Sir William’s warnings. “Our chairman felt very strongly that parents ought to be aware of the risk of a risk. But we found no hard evidence of a risk,” Clark said.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Journal quotes David Heim, the deputy editor of Consumer Reports, who also downplayed possible health concerns, as did officials at the FCC and the FDA (see our January 11 post). Heim discounted recent studies that point to hazards —such as the Karolinska paper, published last October, pointing to an increased incidence of acoustic neuromas among those who had used cell phones for more than ten years. He reasons that ten years ago everyone was using analog phones, and since these are no longer around, it would be a mistake to infer that the present generation of digital phones is unsafe. “Analog phones use considerably more power than digital phones and their emission patterns are different,” he told the Journal.

Heim is right, but he neglects to mention that pulsed radiation, like the signals from many digital phones, is more biologically active than the continuous wave (CW) radiation from analog phones. At this point, no one knows whether the enhanced biological activity might compensate for the weaker signals.

And we will not know for another decade or so, by which time we will probably have graduated to yet another type of phones with yet another set of radiation signals. Health research may never catch up with the changing technology, preserving industry’s and Consumer Reports’ ability to keep on the path of denying the relevance of health studies as they are published.

But Heim is ignoring a much more fundamental issue. According to current (official) thinking, analog cell phones should not be able do anyone any damage. If the Karolinska study turns out to reflect a true tumor risk (and it’s the second epidemiological study to point that way) all bets would be off. We may have been wrong about analog phones and equally wrong about digital phones.

Why then is Consumers Union and its magazine, Consumer Reports, so gung ho about discounting digital phone risks —to the point of sounding like they are part of industry’s PR machine? It’s true that Consumer Reports has long been uninterested in cell phone health risks, (see MWN, J/F02, p.19), but it’s still strange that its editors’ first instinct is to dismiss an important new study by a leading group of Swedish researchers on little more than wishful thinking.

As we argued in our recent commentary on the precautionary principle, the reason the EMF controversy never moves forward toward resolution is that those whom we count on to speak out on behalf of public health remain strangely silent —or worse, shoot from the hip in the wrong direction— when it comes to electromagnetic radiation.

Before moving on, we should give credit to the Journal for covering the Stewart report. It is practically the only newspaper in America to do so. The Financial Times had an item in its UK news, but, perhaps because the FT well understands the US market, it did not bother to run the news in its US edition.

As expected, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences today released its report on the possible health impacts of the US Air Force’s PAVE PAWS radar. The investigating committee found that, “There is no evidence of adverse health effects to Cape Cod residents from long-term exposure to radiofrequency energy from [the] nearby U.S. Air Force radar installation," the press release states. You can download a free summary. You can also read the report page-by-page, but you cannot download a full copy. The published report will be available for purchase later this winter from the National Academy Press.