A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s (& the New York Times’ & NBC News’) Questionable Sources

April 14, 2011

Next Sunday, the New York Times Magazine will feature a long piece titled "Do Cell Phones Cause Brain Cancer?" by Siddhartha Mukherjee (it's already on the Times' Web site). It's a well-written article, as might be expected by his well-received book, Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Yet an important part of the story is missing: the politics of cell phone research, or more precisely the heavy hand of industry that controls much of what goes on and what gets done.

A few examples: Mukherjee cites, at some length, a 2005 review that concludes that a link between RF and cancer is "weak and unconvincing." But he does not identify the actual paper or its four authors, other than calling them "experts" and noting their professional training (e.g., epidemiologist, radiation biologist, etc.). Who are these people? Two are industry consultants who make money testifying that there are no hazards: The epidemiologist is Linda Erdreich of Exponent, an industry-friendly consulting firm. A second is John Moulder, the radiation biologist, who for many years has testified that all types of EMFs and RF radiation have no connection to cancer (see"Radiation Research and The Cult of Negative Results"). A third is Ken Foster, a biomedical engineer, who has long pooh-poohed RF health risks and who argued, back in 1987, that it was time to stop microwave health research (hardly a prescient call!). The fourth is James McNamee of Health Canada. That 2005 paper was really little more than an ad for Erdreich's and Moulder's services to refute claims of possible risks: Come hire us if you get into an RF jam. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of RF radiation risks would have found a more reliable source. In fact, the editors at the Times were warned about the authors' industry connections and that the paper was out of date, but they ran with it anyway.

Another example: Mukherjee points out that the work on RF-induced DNA breaks at the Medical University of Vienna was likely to have been "fraudulent." Here again, no mention of any specifics. The uncited paper is from Hugo Rüdiger's lab which has been the target of a nasty smear campaign, perpetrated by industry allies. In fact, the study has been exhaustively investigated and no proof of fraud has ever come to light. 

And another: Mukherjee refers to six animal experiments that failed to show a link between chronic radiation exposure and brain cancer. Once more, no details are given, but many of these studies were part of an industry project that used equipment that put the animals under so much stress that, even if there were a cancer risk, those exposure experiments could not have detected it. The crew running the project knew about this confounding, but hushed it up (see "Wheel on Trial").

We could go on, but the point's been made. We offer Mukherjee that good advice from Watergate's Deep Throat, "Follow the Money." Too bad he didn't. If he had, he might have seen the other complexities of the cell phone cancer problem and would not have been so quick to suggest that it's time to move on to more convincing health risks.