Why it is imprudent to say
"No, we're not all being pickled in deadly radiation from smartphones and WiFi"
I was compelled to write this rebuttal to the article by Professor Simon Chapman (School of Public Health, University of Sydney) in the Conversation on 20 May 2015 https://theconversation.com/no-were-not-all-being-pickled-in-deadly-radiation-from-smartphones-and-wifi-41980 as an overseas trip prevented me from commenting on it. I could not publish this in the Conversation as one needs to be affiliated with a registered academic institution to do so.
Professor Chapman attempted to ridicule the concerns about mobile and wireless radiation (microwave/radio frequency electromagnetic radiation or MW/RF-EMR) as an environmental toxin with carcinogenic capacity by a growing body of scientists and clinicians. In particular, he mentioned with scorn the popular neurosurgeon and former Australian of the Year Dr. Charlie Teo, and me, a self-funded independent Australian researcher.
Before I address the scientific evidence of adverse biological effects, I would like to make a major correction to Professor Chapman’s description of our one-and-only meeting. In what seems like an attempt to portray me as a fear-mongering figure, he said “Last year, a former student of mine asked to meet with me to discuss wifi on our university campus. She arrived at my office with Bandara who looked worried as she ran a EMF meter over my room. I was being pickled in it, apparently.” Yes, I did go to talk to Professor Chapman with a friend who appears to be suffering from WiFi microwave radiation, and with the professor’s permission I did measure the ambient RF-EMR levels in his office. However, I certainly had no reason look worried about Professor Chapman being “pickled” (not my jargon). On the contrary to what he has reported, I told him good news – the levels in his office were much lower than in most offices these days. Commenting on his office RF-EMR exposure levels (in the frequency range 10MHz - 8 GHz) of 10 -100 micro watts/m, I said that he was a lot luckier than his former student who has been exposed to much higher levels in her work space. Yes, his office levels were up to a thousand times lower than my friend’s (10,000 -100,000 micro watts/m). I also showed him with a DECT phone I carried with me, how proximity to a single transmitting device could massively change one’s exposure, and we talked about the large variability in people’s exposures depending on what devices they use (and how), where they live and work.
I was keen to discuss the existing scientific evidence of harm from rapidly increasing EMR in our living environments with Professor Chapman, a former pioneering activist against the Big Tobaccos who deserves much credit for his work to protect Australian public health from toxic and addictive tobacco smoking. Professor Chapman knows, probably better than anyone else in Australia, how tobacco industry-independent scientists struggled for many decades to have their credible scientific evidence of harm accepted by the health authorities due to manipulations by the Big Tobaccos. Manipulation of science to their advantage hasn’t been limited to tobacco industry.
When Professor Joel Moskowitz, Director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the School of Public Health at University of California, Berkeley dedicates an active website (http://www.saferemr.com/) to disseminating EMR safety information in an attempt to protecting public health, I thought public health professors at the University of Sydney (where I was a former academic staff member) would also be interested in the issue. I was wrong. Despite the amicable meeting we had, I was surprised and disappointed when Professor Chapman got fired up finding out (after the meeting) that I had done work to qualify as an EMR “activist”. Perhaps my appearance in the media saying there is enough scientific evidence to take the precautionary principle with EMR and in particular, to reduce exposure of more vulnerable children bothered him. I am not alone in this stance. This has been the conclusion of Sir (Professor) William Stewart, former Chairman of the Health Protection Agency UK who investigated the scientific research (see details in reference 2 below) and many other very high profile scientific experts. All I sought in meeting with Professor Chapman was an open and unbiased mind as a professor of public health to the scientific evidence, yet he wrote this one liner to my subsequent single email that showed the opposite: “Do not write to me again”. True sceptics are those who refuse to believe anything without seeing good evidence, not those who refuse to see the evidence.
With respect, I would like to point out that Professor Chapman’s expertise does not qualify him to assure EMR safety to the public. He has no relevant scientific expertise in the area of biological effects of EMR as a sociologist who has specialized in public health advocacy. Our meeting did not indicate that he had attempted to find out if there could be any scientific evidence of harm from EMR. He did email a single paper funded by wind farm industry to dispel health concerns of wind turbines.
Professor Chapman is not new to controversy as he has made many attempts to discredit those who claim adverse health effects from nearby wind turbines (http://stopthesethings.com/2013/01/05/deals-done-in-ivory-towers/). While recognizing Professor Chapman’s expertise in the area of risk perception, it is fair to say the situation with wind farms represents an understudied complex environmental phenomenon involving infrasound as well as electromagnetic fields and likely biological responses to them. It is unfortunate that Professor Chapman while lacking the pertinent scientific knowledge (physics of infrasound/EMFs and biological/physiological effects induced by them) has taken a strong media assault on claims against wind farms. Further, Professor Chapman has a clear conflict of interest in this area having been paid by the wind farm industry (see the fine print declaration at the end of this article: http://theconversation.com/lets-appoint-a-judge-to-investigate-bizarre-wind-farm-health-claims-41612)
Such controversial direct financial relationships between industry and academic researchers clearly point to one critical need of our times – to sever them in order to maintain truly independent academic research. It is important to liaise with the industry to drive for excellence in research, however, many hold my opinion that academic researchers should not be financially dependent on industry. I take the opportunity to recommend an excellent book on this topic “Rescuing Science from Politics- Regulation and the Distortion of Scientific Research” by high caliber US academics, Professors Wendy Wagner and Rena Steinzor. “This book does an excellent job of flagging the concerns and pointing us in the right direction toward reform” commented the New England Journal of Medicine. And that’s not conspiracy theory.
Now, let me address the issue of harmful effects of RF-EMR including carcinogenic potential. Whilst thermal effects are better known, non-thermal effects in the absence of tissue heating also occur, even at very low levels of exposure. Yet, our obsolete public exposure standards or “safety” standards are only based on acute thermal effects, that is heating effects evident in 6 minutes of exposure, which make them completely useless in protecting people against chronic exposures and non-thermal effects. Without going into detail, I would like to refer to some credible expert reports (which can be accessed on the internet) that provide details of scientific evidence of adverse biological effects.
Commissioned by Governments:
1. Status of Research on Biological Effects and Safety of Electromagnetic Radiation – Telecommunication Frequencies. Division of Biophysics CSIRO, 1994 (Australia).
2. The Stewart Commission Report, 2000 (UK).
3. Bibliography of Reported Biological Phenomena ('Effects') and Clinical Manifestations Attributed to Microwave and Radio-frequency Radiation, Naval Medical Research Institute, 1971 (USA).
4. Biological Effects of Electromagnetic Radiation (Radiowaves and Microwaves)- Eurasian Communist Countries. Army Medical Intelligence and Information Agency - Office of the Surgeon General, 1976 (USA).
5. RADIOFREQUENCYIMICROWAVE RADIATION BIOLOGICAL EFFECTS AND SAFETY STANDARDS: A REVIEW. Air Force Materiel Command, Griffiss Air Force Base, New York , 1994 (USA).
Commissioned by Telecommunications Industry:
ECOLOG Institute Report 2000 for T‐Mobil, DeTeMobil Deutsche Telekom MobilNet GmbH (Germany)
Prepared by the Telecommunications Industry:
International Patent Application (#WO 2004/075598 A1) by Swisscom 2003 (Switzerland).
Prepared by Independent Scientists:
Bio-Initiative Report 2012 (by an international panel of experts). Available at www.bioinitiative.org
This collates about 4000 peer-reviewed scientific publications showing non-thermal effects of RF-EMR.
PhD Thesis by Maisch D. 2010 (Wollongong University, Australia) - An examination of the manipulation of telecommunications standards by political, military, and industrial vested interests at the expense of public health protection. Available at www.emfacts.com
One US military expert report even stated “human body may be more sensitive to the nonthermal effects of RF/MW radiation” (page 2, Ref. 5). Yet, our authorities have ignored these non-thermal effects and allowed public exposure to increase by billions of times over the last few decades, most rapidly in the last decade or so with changes in deployment of these technologies. What used to be very limited exposure until a few decades ago (of military personnel exposed to radar and populations living near TV/radio transmitter towers) has been allowed to become widespread as transmitters came inside people’s homes in many forms of mobile and wireless gadgets, particularly over the last decade or so – WiFi routers, smart phones, DECT cordless phones, baby monitors etc. Most of the teenagers I have talked to have admitted to having their microwave emitting smart phones under the pillow at night. Why have our authorities kept a blind eye to the adverse biological effects and not issued precautionary warnings? A single statement in a US government report on the extensive RF-EMR research and stricter control of exposure by the Russians and other former Soviet Bloc countries, gives insights into the conflicts of interests within the authorities: “If the more advanced nations of the West are strict in the enforcement of stringent exposure standards, there could be unfavorable effects on industrial output and military functions” (Summary page vii, ref. 4).
If one looks at the world cancer map (http://globocan.iarc.fr/Pages/Map.aspx) produced by the World Health Organization (WHO), it is evident that cancer is plaguing the industrialized Western countries. The clear pattern points to environmental factors (rather than genetic) as major causes. Sadly, the WHO branch International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is predicting a major surge in cancer around the globe, particularly in the underdeveloped world (where the cancer levels have been low until recent times) which in the face of inadequate health facilities is going to be a major global health problem. RF-EMR is certainly one environmental pollutant that has rapidly increased and often poorly regulated in the underdeveloped countries over the last couple of decades.
The IARC on 31 May 2011, classified RF-EMR as a class 2B possible human carcinogen after 30 international experts evaluated the scientific evidence available at the time, particularly the emerging evidence linking mobile phone use to brain cancer (http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2011/pdfs/pr208_E.pdf). Therefore, outright rejection of health concerns like what Professor Chapman has done is clearly not warranted.
Brain cancers involved complex pathobiological mechanisms and they may also have very long latency periods up to 10-50 years. At this stage, three large case-control studies, (the WHO’s 13-country Interphone study, Hardell group study of Sweden, CERENAT study of France) published since 2010 involving several thousand brain tumour patients and matching controls have shown a significant increase in risk associated with mobile phone use. They pointed to a general picture of doubled or higher brain tumour risk (particularly for gliomas) on the same side of the head where a mobile phone was used, after 10 years of use. Findings of these are summarised by expert authors in this recent review: Mobile phone radiation causes brain tumors and should be classified as a probable human carcinogen (2A). Morgan LL, Miller AB, Sasco A, Davis DL. Int J Oncol.2015 May;46(5):1865-71. doi: 10.3892/ijo.2015.2908. Epub 2015 Feb 25. Now, this is one example out of several thousand peer-reviewed scientific publications that couldn’t and shouldn’t be rubbished.
As shown by Professor Chapman, the overall Australian brain cancer incidence has not changed much since mid 1980s to 2011, our last publicly available data point. These are all different types of brain cancers caused by factors that have not been elucidated. We have discontinued or reduced the use of many environmental toxins which may have contributed to brain cancers in the past and we are also likely to have introduced new ones. For example, we have limited the exposure to ionizing radiation by more stringent control of X-ray, which was freely used to scan pregnant bellies and even to fit children’s’ shoes several decades ago. Effects of such factors may cancel out each other and may prevent an overall increase in incidence rates of some cancers. Further, there is evidence of changed incidence rates of some forms of brain cancers. For example, a large Australian study found an increased incidence of glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most aggressive glioma type brain cancer and meningiomas with a reduced incidence of Schwannomas between 2000 and 2008 (Dobes et al, Surg Neurol Int. 2:176 (2011) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22276231). Such opposing trends in the incidence rates of brain cancer subtypes could effectively mask trends in the overall incidence rate. Morgan et al review cited also discusses other similar findings – for example a 2012 report of near doubling of GBM within a decade in Denmark by the Danish Cancer Registry. So far these incidence data are not publicly available. The incidence of GBM increased in the frontal and temporal lobes, and in the cerebellum among adults of all ages in the U.S. A. (Zada et al., 2012; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=22120376 ). Adding to the evidence for caution when solely relying on cancer incidence data, some national cancer registries have been shown to be unreliable. A recent study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25854296 ) that scrutinized the data in the Swedish National Inpatient Register (IPR) and Causes of Death Register (CDR) against the brain cancer incidence data in the Swedish Cancer Register (SCR) data for the time period 1998–2013 found a statistically significant increase in brain tumours in the IPR and the CDR but not in the SCR. Unclassified (type not diagnosed) brain and central nervous system (CNS) tumours had increased, but they did not appear to be reported to the SCR. Intriguingly, the EMF Project of the WHO has used the SCR data (now shown to be unreliable) to deny a brain cancer risk posed by mobile phone use. Professor Moskowitz of University of California at Berkeley has informative slides on cancer data on his website: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B14R6QNkmaXuU180Q3F6Nzl4TVE/view?pli=1
We certainly need to carefully monitor incidence rates of all brain cancer subtypes, particularly GBM that has shown a significant association with mobile phone usage in multiple studies, as well as the incidence rates of benign tumours (such as meningiomas and acoustic neuromas that have already shown an association with the use of mobile phones) beyond 2011 when the widespread mobile phone use would accumulate considerable years of exposure comparable to long latency periods of such tumours. In particular, Smartphone use (much higher exposure than previous mobile phones) and WiFi are relatively new and any effects may take decades to be seen.
Another important factor to be considered is the thick bony skull that protects the brain from EMR to much greater extent than exposed soft tissue. Our focus on brain cancer has taken the attention away from more susceptible tissues. For example, considering where people keep mobile phones and WiFi-enabled devices like laptops, we need to pay attention to not just cancer but all chronic inflammatory conditions of eyes, thyroid and salivary glands, breasts, testicles, prostate, wombs, ovaries, kidneys, liver etc, and very importantly to the dwindling sperm quality in men. Data shows that incidence rates for cancers in many of these tissue types have been on the increase (Table 1) – some dramatically. For example, thyroid (known increased sensitivity to ionizing radiation) cancer incidence rate has been rapidly rising since the ‘80s (Fig.1a) and that’s not in the ageing Australians. The trend is in fact worse in young females (Fig.1b) and that is also unlikely due to effective diagnosis of a hidden thyroid cancer reservoir due to better screening as asymptomatic young people don’t usually go for scans. Whist presented data for women aged 35-40 may represent a group that is subjected to higher level of screening due to investigations of sub-fertility for example, doubling of incidence rates even in younger women, aged 20-30 years indicates a true increase in incidence rates.
Table 1. Some cancers that have rapidly increased in the Australian population
Figure 1a. Age-standardised incidence rate for thyroid cancer for Australians from 1982 to 2010.
Figure 1b. Variation of thyroid cancer incidence rate for a young group of Australians between 35 and 39 years of age from 1982 to 2010.
Raw data from Australian Institute of Health & Welfare
Existing scientific data warrants particular attention to chronic inflammatory conditions of nervous, immune, endocrine, haematologic and skeletal system/tissue that are associated with the observed biological effects of chronic exposure to low level RF-EMR. There is considerable evidence of increased cellular oxidative stress, ionic imbalance (for example voltage gated Ca channels) etc. altering signal transduction pathways and gene expression leading to physiological dysfunction.
The current wealth of scientific evidence available needs to be evaluated by appropriately qualified biological scientists and clinicians with the expertise required to make sound judgements. Considering this dire need, it is necessary to mention the fair criticism Australia’s peak research organization in the EMR area, the Australian Centre for RF Bioeffects Research (ACRBR) has attracted due to the lack of professional expertise it demonstrates. Appointment of a psychologist (Professor Rodney Croft) as the Executive Director of this program, rather than a biological scientist with the necessary scientific expertise in biological effects remains questionable. Both Professors Chapman and Croft do one thing very clearly – ignore the vast evidence of physiological/ biochemical effects of EMR and attribute a psychological nature to health complaints. That’s neither scientific nor helpful!