Health: A Cancer Muckraker Takes on Cell Phones

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If anyone would be receptive to the idea that cell phone radiation might play a role in cancer, it would be Dr. Devra Davis. The epidemiologist and toxicologist is an expert in environmental health, and she’s made a career out of the idea that cancer often has more to do with what’s happening to us than what’s going on inside our genes. Her 2007 book The Secret History of the War on Cancer showed that some of the best medical minds in the U.S. played down the environmental factors behind cancer—from cigarette smoke to chemical exposure—far too long, in part because of deception and delay from industry.

But when a colleague raised the possibility that cell phones could be connected to brain cancer, Davis wasn’t receptive. “I couldn’t believe it and I didn’t want to,” says Davis. “These were attractive devices. Cell phones were like cars—you couldn’t imagine life without them.” But as she began to look seriously into the field, Davis began to have doubts that cell phones were harmless. She found evidence of studies, some decades old, showing that the radio-frequency radiation used by cell phones could indeed have biological effects–enough to damage DNA and potentially contribute to brain tumors. She found that other countries—like France and Israel—had already acted, discouraging the use of cell phones by children and even putting warning signs on handsets. She found evidence of  increases in certain kinds of brain tumors among unusually young patients who were heavy users of cell phones. And, just as she saw with tobacco and lung cancer, Davis discovered that the wireless industry—often with the help of governments—had fought independent scientists who studied cell phones, and helped produced questionable science that effectively clouded the issue. “This is about the most important and unrecognized public health issues of our time,” says Davis.”We could avert a global catastrophe if we act.”

Her new book Disconnect is the result of those investigations, and it’s convincing enough to give you pause before you fire up that iPhone. I’ve already covered the possible connections between cell phones and cancer—you can see my February story in TIME for a backgrounder on the scientific debate, and another piece I did recently on the Interphone study, a collection of international studies on mobiles and cancer that was meant to clarify the issue, but only ended up further confusing it. It’s a complex subject—mixing electrical engineering, biology and epidemiology—but Davis makes a strong case in her book that we’ve underplayed the possible threat from cell phones for too long. We’re disconnected—even as worrying studies have begun to pile up, however quietly, the message has been slow to reach those in public health and even slower to reach the government. “The fact that we don’t know everything about the subject doesn’t mean that everything is fine,” she says. “I can’t tell you that cell phones are dangerous, but I can tell you that I’m not sure they’re safe.”

The wireless industry has an easy answer for this: in the thousands of studies that have been done on cell phones and health, few of them have shown any effect—and public agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the World Health Organization have found no clear health risks. As CTIA, the wireless industry group, says in a statement on its website: “To date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use.”

The magic word there is “established,” because as Davis argues in some of the best passages of Disconnect, it could be that we haven’t established the dangers of cell phone use because we haven’t asked the right questions—and that might be on purpose. “If you don’t want to know the answer,” Davis says, “don’t ask the question.” Much of the research into the biological effects of cell phone radiation has been underwritten by the… cell phone industry, and you don’t have to be a raging paranoiac to wonder whether that money might have an impact on the conclusions of those thousands of studies. After all, in this case—just as it was with tobacco and lung cancer—doubt is the friend of industry. To hold off the possibility of legislation or regulation—not to mention lawsuits—wireless companies and their advocates don’t have to prove that cell phones are safe beyond any doubt. They just have to play defense.

However, as Davis shows in Disconnect, that argument is going to get tougher and tougher to make. In one of the finest passages of her book, Davis details the tale of Dr. Franz Adlkofer, a German scientist who had long been involved in tobacco research. Like many scientists—more than medical science might like to admit—Adlkofer was willing to take money from the tobacco industry to fund his research, without really thinking about how that might constrain his work. He was, in a sense, a company man. But when Adlkofer began working with the wireless industry and produced research showing that cell phone radiation unravels DNA, he suddenly found his work under attack by the industry that had funded it. He was accused of fraud in highly suspicious circumstances (he fought the charges, and they were eventually withdrawn), and says the industry paid other scientists to produce studies that would discredit his own work, as he told Davis in Disconnect:

I can’t prove this, but here’s what I think they did. The industry never liked this work. From the first they heard about it, they set out to discredit it. I had seen this happen with tobacco science so often, especially at the hands of the American companies. Yet suddenly it was happening to me.

Davis is justifiably suspicious of Adlkofer—he was a tobacco scientist, after all—but ultimately his story seems to check out. He’s also far from the only researcher Davis meets whose career suffered after challenging the conventional wisdom on cell phones and cancer. Davis shows that independent studies on cell phone radiation found dangers at more than twice the rate of industry-funded studies—though because the cell phone industry is the source of much of the funding of cell phone studies, there are far more of the latter. And ultimately that is what is truly disturbing about Davis’s book. Time and again, she shows the way that industry has been able to twist science just enough to stave off the possibility of any regulation—and finds that researchers are afraid of challenging the status quo, lest they find themselves suddenly out of a job, denied the lifeblood of research money. Most of the few brave researchers who challenge the prevailing wisdom on cell phone radiation—like the electrical engineer Om Gandhi or the bioengineer Henry Lai—are senior scientists, secure in their positions and their tenure. But a young researcher just starting out is far more vulnerable to industry pressure. Science isn’t as pristine as we imagine it. “There has not been truly independent research in this field,” says Davis. “That has to change.”

Davis wants to see the government fund new studies on cell phones and health, independent of government interference—and fortunately the National Toxicology Program will be running its own tests, though not until 2014. The good news in the meantime is that you don’t have to throw away your cell phone to minimize any potential risks. Simply using a wired headset should significantly cut down on radiation exposure to the brain, although Davis recommends that children—whose thinner skulls can absorb higher levels of radiation—avoid using phones altogether. “We do so much to protect our children from all manner of threats,” she says. “We need to protect them from this as well.” Read Disconnect, and you’ll be on guard as well.