The inconvenient truth about cancer and mobile phones
by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie, The Guardian, 14 July 2018
|Hot spot: could the radiation from your phone have long-|
term side-effects? Photo: VOISIN/ Getty Images/Canopy
On 28 March this year, the scientific peer review of a landmark United States government study concluded that there is “clear evidence” that radiation from mobile phones causes cancer, specifically, a heart tissue cancer in rats that is too rare to be explained as random occurrence.
Eleven independent scientists spent three days at Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, discussing the study, which was done by the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services and ranks among the largest conducted of the health effects of mobile phone radiation. NTP scientists had exposed thousands of rats and mice (whose biological similarities to humans make them useful indicators of human health risks) to doses of radiation equivalent to an average mobile user’s lifetime exposure.
The peer review scientists repeatedly upgraded the confidence levels the NTP’s scientists and staff had attached to the study, fuelling critics’ suspicions that the NTP’s leadership had tried to downplay the findings. Thus the peer review also found “some evidence” – one step below “clear evidence” – of cancer in the brain and adrenal glands.
Not one major news organisation in the US or Europe reported this scientific news. But then, news coverage of mobile phone safety has long reflected the outlook of the wireless industry. For a quarter of a century now, the industry has been orchestrating a global PR campaign aimed at misleading not only journalists, but also consumers and policymakers about the actual science concerning mobile phone radiation. Indeed, big wireless has borrowed the very same strategy and tactics big tobacco and big oil pioneered to deceive the public about the risks of smoking and climate change, respectively. And like their tobacco and oil counterparts, wireless industry CEOs lied to the public even after their own scientists privately warned that their products could be dangerous, especially to children.
Outsiders suspected from the start that George Carlo was a front man for an industry whitewash. Tom Wheeler, the president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), handpicked Carlo to defuse a public relations crisis that threatened to strangle his infant industry in its crib. This was back in 1993, when there were only six mobile subscriptions for every 100 adults in the United States, but industry executives foresaw a booming future.
Remarkably, mobile phones had been allowed on to the US market a decade earlier without any government safety testing. Now, some customers and industry workers were being diagnosed with cancer. In January 1993, David Reynard sued the NEC America company, claiming that his wife’s NEC phone caused her lethal brain tumour. After Reynard appeared on national television, the story gained ground. A congressional subcommittee announced an investigation; investors began dumping mobile phone stocks and Wheeler and the CTIA swung into action.
A week later, Wheeler announced that his industry would pay for a comprehensive research programme. Mobile phones were already safe, Wheeler told reporters; the new research would simply “revalidate the findings of the existing studies”.
Carlo seemed like a good bet to fulfil Wheeler’s mission. An epidemiologist with a law degree, he had conducted studies for other controversial industries. After a study funded by Dow Corning, Carlo had declared that breast implants posed only minimal health risks. With chemical industry funding, he had concluded that low levels of dioxin, the chemical behind the Agent Orange scandal, were not dangerous. In 1995, Carlo began directing the industry-financed Wireless Technology Research project (WTR), whose eventual budget of $28.5m made it the best-funded investigation of mobile safety to date.
However, Carlo and Wheeler eventually clashed bitterly over WTR’s findings, which Carlo presented to industry leaders on 9 February 1999. By that date, the WTR had commissioned more than 50 original studies and reviewed many more. Those studies raised “serious questions” about phone safety, Carlo told a closed-door meeting of the CTIA’s board of directors, whose members included the CEOs or top officials of the industry’s 32 leading companies, including Apple, AT&T and Motorola.