11/07/2005 - Is her cellphone safe?
The Cellphone Industry shamelessly tries its hardest to keep health
effects from cellphone radiation quiet.
Written by: ROBERT CRIBB AND TYLER HAMILTON
What you know about the potential health risks of your cellphone may be
clouded by powerful corporate interests anxious to protect the image of the
world's most successful gadget.
In the high-stakes world of cellphone research, where a $120 billion North
American industry's fortunes could rest on the latest findings, scientific
interests often collide with corporate bottom lines. Some scientists say they
have been pressured to produce the right answers.
"There's so much money involved, that the only thing industry sees is the
money," says Dr. Jerry Phillips, a well-known cellphone researcher in the U.S.
with dozens of peer-reviewed papers published under his name.
"They couldn't give a damn about basic science."
Allegations by several U.S. scientists interviewed by the Toronto Star
include corporate intimidation and having their work altered to soften concerns
about potential risks. And they say manipulation of scientific studies is
slanting public debate around a legitimate health concern as the cellphone
industry, using popular images such as Barbie and Hilary Duff, shifts its
marketing efforts to pre-teens.
The U.S. industry vigorously denies the allegations.
Joe Farren, a spokesperson for the U.S.-based Cellular Telecommunications and
Internet Association, says his members have a strictly hands-off relationship
"We have nothing to do with them. We write the cheque and they do the
Dr. Louis Slesin, founder and publisher of New York-based scientific
newsletter Microwave News, has spent more than 20 years watching the
science around cellphones unfold. He says the public is getting a sanitized
"If people had any understanding of what goes on in the trenches, people
would change their view. ... If you really go in there and dig into it, you see
this is really a sordid business."
An analysis of 252 published studies worldwide on cellular radio frequencies
out of the University of Washington, obtained by the Toronto Star, shows
a clear difference in results between independent research and studies directly
funded by industry.
According to the analysis, research is considered independent when funded by
governments, government agencies or academic institutions.
Among the peer-reviewed, published studies with no direct industry funding,
biological effects from cellphone frequencies were noted 81 per cent of the
time, according to researcher Dr. Henry Lai. When corporate money is directly
funding the science, effects are noted only 19 per cent of the time.
Not everyone agrees scientists are pushed to come up with favourable
"Certainly not with the research I've been involved in and with the research
my Canadian colleagues have been involved in," says Dr. Mary McBride, senior
scientist in cancer control research at the B.C. Cancer Agency. "There are ways
to arrange (industry) support that puts the researcher at arm's length and in an
independent position. The studies I've seen have been designed in that way."
But some scientists who have conducted industry-funded studies say that, far
from being the model of pure, objective research, they've seen their results
misrepresented or discredited.
Phillips recalls the sudden concern washing over the faces of Motorola
executives in 1995 when he began detailing his findings on the impact of
cellphone signals on rat cells.
What began as a friendly chat between Phillips and officials with the
cellphone giant took an unpleasant turn when he explained that his
Motorola-funded experiments revealed biological effects from cellular radio
frequency signals, he says.
"There was a lot of agitation, frowning and long faces," Phillips recalls.
"Rather than talking about the implications of the work, the (Motorola) attorney
and the (public relations) guy immediately asked, 'What are you going to do if
people call and ask for this?' It was at that point our relationship with
In their research, Phillips and his colleagues found changes in the
expression of rat genes exposed to cellphone signals. They didn't know what it
meant, but they knew it was noteworthy. Phillips authored a paper describing the
results and submitted a draft to Motorola.
He says he soon received a call from Dr. Mays Swicord, director of
electromagnetic research at Motorola.
"He said, 'You need to include a statement in here that, even though you see
a change in this one gene, that it's of no physiological importance.' I said,
'I can't say that. I don't know whether it is or not. Whether or not we have
consequences, I don't know.' He said, 'No, it has to say it has no physiological
consequences.' I said, 'No, I won't do it.'"
When the study was published in 1997, it contained a sentence at the end
Phillips says he never wrote. It states that changes he discovered are "probably
of no physiologic consequence."
The origins of that sentence remain a mystery to the now semi-retired
"I have no idea how that statement got in there."
While Phillips privately disputed the change, he says he decided at the time
that any outspoken challenge would risk a loss of funding that would undermine
his livelihood. "We were all dependent on money coming in. I was in no position
to do anything else."
In an interview, Swicord dismisses the allegations as "pure nonsense," saying
there was no company interference.
"I thought the results were incomplete and there was a lot of statistical
variation," said Swicord, who joined Motorola in 1995 after 26 years with the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"This was a point of difference of opinion. ... We did not tell him what to
publish or how to publish."
While Swicord says he was concerned about the public reaction to the
research, his concerns about the study were based in science. "I just didn't
think it was properly done."
Lai's review of the science on the biological impacts reveals what he calls a
The Canadian-trained scientist concludes that nearly 60 per cent of published
studies on cell radio frequencies have reported some biological effects,
including altered gene expression, DNA breaks and even death of animal brain
In some cases, the differences are dramatic.
In 36 studies focused on genetic effects, such as DNA damage, 53 per cent
showed some kind of biological effect that might indicate concern. Of those
studies, a vast majority — 79 per cent — were independent. Conversely, studies
showing no effects had direct industry funding 82 per cent of the time.
Published research on other potential effects including behaviour, molecular,
brainwave and other effects show a similar pattern of funding biases, according
Swicord challenges Lai's analysis, saying the quality of each study must be
considered in weighing its value. And industry funded studies, he says, have
strong scientific credibility.
"We have tried in the industry to fund quality work, and I know there are
some sloppy studies out there."
Lai says industry has unfairly painted his work as sloppy.
Early data for a study he conducted with colleague Narendrah Singh in the
early 1990s found DNA damage in rat brain cells exposed to microwave signals
considered safe by government standards. In an internal memo that has since been
made public, a Motorola executive strategized on how to put a "damper on
speculation arising from this research."
"I think we have sufficiently war-gamed the Lai-Singh issue," the memo
Norm Sandler, a senior Motorola communications executive and author of the
memo, said it was written to prepare company executives for public reaction to
"I think we were doing what we needed to do in terms of due diligence,
informing our people the research was coming out and our take on it," he said in
Independent studies showing biological effects, or hinting at possible health
effects, have faced a similar barrage of industry criticism. Such studies are
typically dismissed as anomalies among an "overwhelming" body of evidence
showing no health risks.
"One of the most irrational approaches I see industry taking is trying to use
studies on both sides to cancel one another out," says Phillips. "You don't
cancel, you don't weigh. What you do is evaluate carefully."
He says industry arguments may be simple, but they're effective when talking
to a public ill-equipped to challenge the information.
Replication of research is another problem. A study that comes out with a new
finding generally does not have much credibility in the scientific community
unless another research lab has been able to replicate the work and the
When Dr. Leif Salford, a neurosurgeon in Sweden, published a study in 2003
showing that rat brain neurons were dying from exposure to cellphone radiation,
he warned there might be similar effects in humans that over time could lead to
degenerative diseases of the brain. His study was written off by the industry as
a "novel" finding that needed to be replicated.
But achieving the scientific standard of replication can be complicated.
Salford says if studies aren't absolutely replicated, providing an
apples-to-apples comparison, there's wiggle room to dispute follow-up
"We are very, very convinced that what we see is true. But the other guys who
have tried to do the same thing have not got their papers published," said
"As long as people have major problems in doing these studies, it's a
situation where the industry can continue to say there's no scientific
Industry's dismissal of controversial findings strikes at the heart of
scientific credibility, says Dr. Martin Blank, associate professor of cellular
biophysics at Columbia University. He's also the former president of the
Bioelectromagnetics Society, a highly regarded organization of scientists
devoted to the "independent" study of electromagnetic fields.
"These guys are naysayers from the word go," says Blank, who last year called
for an investigation into "conflicts of interest" within the society that is now
"Everybody tries to influence everybody else. This is reasonable. But there
are certain things that go beyond the pale."
Blank says the society's own newsletter, now funded by Motorola and edited by
Swicord, is showing "clear instances of bias" against research that shows
effects from radio frequencies.
Swicord responded publicly to Blank's accusation in the society's newsletter,
saying that while perceptions of bias need to be taken seriously, there's no
"credible evidence" that cellphone signals cause adverse health effects.
"Most of the results in the literature show no effects," wrote Swicord. "From
a public health perspective when do we say enough is enough?"
Dr. Om Gandhi, a Utah-based scientist who has been studying cellphone
frequencies since 1973, says there remain plenty of unanswered questions. In his
own attempts, he says he's felt the sting of industry retribution.
His research, showing that cellphone frequencies penetrate much deeper into
the heads of children, triggered a backlash that he says has left him without
research funding and the subject of mudslinging at industry-dominated
"I have been marginalized for the last three years because I would not back
down from what I was publishing," he says. "It's very nasty."