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Alasdair's EMF Musings - View Comments

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Peer Review and quality of science

The other evening I was talking to a Council about mobile phone masts and health and there was a senior scientific representative of the HPA also talking. He kept banging on about only accepting the results of proper peer-reviewed science published in good quality scientific journals.

His organisation has recently had a version of their microcell and picocell base station investigation published in a reasonable quality scientific journal. (Journal of Radiological Protection, 26 (2006) 199-211). Even though this does admit that low-height, low power, base station do often expose the public to higher levels of microwave radiation than larger macrocell masts, they did not actually assess the more powerful low-height base stations that are located around Britain.

This was with the connivance of the UK MTHR committee who funded the study:
... "In compiling the cohort, it was noted that there were some 2000 of the 32,837 base stations, or around 6%, radiating more than 5 W at heights up to 10 m. In consultation with the MTHR project monitors, it was considered whether these transmitters should have been included in the cohort. It was decided that they should not and that this project should concentrate on the low power sites in order to stay true to its original aim of considering microcells as low height / low power transmitters."

Earlier, the NRPB had published a report R321 on public microwave exposure from base stations where they state (page 10) that: "microcellular antennas are expected to radiate no more than a few watts."
Apparently the high-power low-height base stations that they identified did not comply with this as they radiated far too much power, and so they chose to ignore them.

Is this meant to be good scientific method, as used by the HPA and suggested by the UK MTHR? To ignore what is inconvenient (as it would raise real questions about public safety) and which does not match their original ideas about microcells?

They did not even suggest and/or carry out a Part 2 survey that just looked at these previously identified but ignored most highly radiating transmitters. That would have been scientifically and ethically appropriate. Instead, they just ignored them. I think this is near to being criminal negligence. The HPA is there to help guide the levels of protection given by Government to members of the general public, and their staff (Tim Cooper, Simon Mann and colleagues) identified a problem, tried to cover it up using the MTHR opinion as an excuse, and did not even investigate how bad the problem was. This is even after they had admitted that the low-power microcells expose the public to higher levels of microwave phone-mast signals than the larger macrocell masts. They only considered base station radiating up to 5 watts, but admitted in Figure 2 in their fuller report, published in September 2004 as NRPB W-62 (freely downloadable from the HPA website), that some have radiated powers of over 100 watts - i.e. over 20 times more powerful. Yet two years on, a shorter version of the W-62 report is published in a peer reviewed journal. Two years when they could have much more usefully (from the general public's radiation protection point of view) have carried out and published a report showing what the highest of the low-height base station are exposing the public to.

The MTHR are even more guilty than the HPA staff of covering up this problem. It is a great shame that the MTHR committee, under Professor Lawrie Challis, does not include good quality lay members as the original IEGMP under Sir William Stewart did. Instead, it is made up of senior members of the scientific community - the very people who often peer review papers for the better scientific journals. Yet these scientists choose not to fund further work into the higher-power low-height base stations. And we are expected to trust them and their half-truths.

I first reported on their W62 report in February 2005:

The cellular phone industry should not install these high powers on such low height base-stations. The HPA-RPD should be saying that loudly and clearly. Instead, not only is it silent but it is choosing to allow its staff to publish science that is highly misleading.

Another example that was mentioned was the large "Interphone" mobile phone study. This is a multi-country and multi-agency study and various papers have so far been published "finding no evidence of an increase in cancer from up to 10 years of mobile phone use". However, they include very low use in their "user" group and completely ignore (in the official Interphone protocol) any cordless phone use - and DECT cordless phones and their base units often expose users to higher fields that they receive from a mobile phone in towns and cities near a base station (because DECT handsets do not have adaptive power control). The form of radiation (frequency and characteristics) is very similar to that from a mobile phone. Yet they ignore this large group of people who must seriously confound their analyses. Not part of the Interphone Group, Hardell and colleages have published a number of papers showing that over 5 years of cordless phone use does increase the chance of developing brain cancer. Yet the HPA spokesman told us that the Interphone study is offering the best proof that mobile phones cannot harm us. I see it as significantly flawed. Some of the Interphone papers have been published in the BMJ and these and other problems can be read about in the correspondence. The BMJ should be be praised for its letters and 'fast responses' web publishing which provides good public scientific debate on these contentious points. Yet, doubtless, the rest of the Interphone studies will be held up by industry and people like the HPA and WHO as "gospel".

Other MTHR projects use the flawed MTHR handset design as regards testing people for electrical sensitivity. In "sham" (= "no exposure") mode it actually works at full microwave transmission power and dumps this power into an internal dummy load rather than sending it to the antenna. So although it does give off about 1000 times less than when transmitting at full power, the remaining levels are still well above the levels at which ES people react. The MTHR committee can't seem to get it out of their minds that non-thermal effects are just that - non-thermal. 1000 times less is no good if it is still above the claimed sensitivity threshold - which it certainly is - and this is also documented on the BMJ fast responses site.

All in all, the MTHR does not seem to be intent on getting a better understanding of these matters.

In the New Scientist magazine, 04 January 1992, p39, we can read an interesting early example of bad peer review. I extract some of it below.

Among the papers of the UK Medical Research Council is a grant application submitted by the then Regius Professor of Anatomy at the London College of Physicians, one Guilielmus Harveius. The evaluation the MRC's external referee is given below; according to MRC rules, his name is withheld.

Title of proposed research
Anatomical exercises concerning the motion of the heart and blood.

Guilielmus Harveius, BA (Cantab 1597), MD (Padua 1602).

Summary of proposed research
The applicant intends to perform a series of experiments on animals to provide evidence for, and to confirm, some of the postulates concerning the flow of blood and the function of the heart which he has publicised in his position as Lumleian Lecturer at the Royal College of Physicians since 1615, namely that, (1), the volume of blood which passes from the veins to the arteries per unit time is too great to be produced from the food consumed, (2), the volume of blood going into the extremities is far in excess of their actual metabolic needs, and (3), arterial blood returns to the heart from the extremities through the veins.

Dr Harvey will measure the volume of blood he claims is ejected by the heart, per beat and per time. He also plans to study the emptying and subsequent refilling of superficial blood vessels in the forearm and he hopes that he will find a pattern such as to support his notion of the circulation as a hydraulic system.

Experience and qualifications of applicant
Dr H. is a distinguished anatomist, has been appointed the King's Physician in Ordinary and practises general medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. However, he has not received any formal training in physiology and he is not known as an astute experimentalist.

Critical evaluation of proposed research
The applicant's theory re the existence of a contiguous circulatory system challenges the view, held by all physicians since Galen, that venous blood is alimentary, produced in the liver from food absorbed in the intestines, and endowed with the spirit of vitality through a connection with the arterial system provided by pores in the walls which separate the heart's three ventricles. He claims never to have observed pores or holes in the heart, a statement that is contradicted directly by my own vast professional experience: I find a direct connection between one of the arteries and the principal vein right above the heart in the majority of autopsy cases available for study.

By contrast, I have never seen any evidence for the existence of blood vessels providing a link between arteries and veins in the periphery of the body, as is stipulated by the scheme of Dr H.

Final assessment
The opinions expressed in the application are highly speculative. Critical to the applicant's theory is a presumed connection between the arterial and venous sides in the periphery of the putative circulation. Given the facts that the applicant has not had any postdoctoral training, has practically no research experience and has no publications by which to judge his research competency.

I therefore give the application as submitted a rating of 3 on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high score) and I recommend that funding be denied.
Date: 16 March 1618; Signature: ......(not published)

William Harvey (April 1, 1578-June 3, 1657) is credited with first correctly describing, in exact detail, the properties of blood being pumped around the body by the heart. Harvey announced his discovery of the circulatory system in 1616 and in 1628 published his work Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals), where, based on scientific methodology, he argued for the idea that blood was pumped around the body by the heart before returning to the heart and being recirculated in a closed system.

Sadly, I see little evidence that the state of Peer Review has improved much since 1618. In some ways it is worse, because there are now such vast numbers of scientific papers published each year that no one can keep up with reading or remembering them and powerful vested interests help spread scientific urban myths of safety. It is often almost impossible to tell which papers are soundly based on reality / real world conditions and which are just research exercises to add papers to researchers' publication lists to help with their career advancement. I am not saying that the researchers are deliberately being misleading - often the advice they are given in how to do / what to measure / etc., by the so-called experts in any particular field is just plain wrong. I have seen many examples of this.

Instead of being a critical examination of the authors' submitted research, Peer Review is all too often a hurried quick-look-through of work by over-busy scientists of work done by friends and/or colleagues of friends that then proceeds to publication with minimal, or no, challenges and changes.

I leave you with something Sir Richard Doll once wrote, tongue in cheek, in the NRPB's Journal of Radiological Protection. It went along the lines: "When you are young, you read everybody's (scientific) papers; when you get established, you read your own and your peer's papers; when you get old, you don't even bother to read your own."

Enough said.


Posted at: 07/08/2006 16:02:17 :: 0 Comments


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