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12/08/2009 - FDA update their cellphones and health pages with misinformation and spin

The United States Food and Drug Administration agency have updated their web information on cellphones recently. From their overview page to the cellphones and health and research pages, the current content is filled with misinformation and badly worded spin.

The main overview talks about the compliance with guidance (in the US, as set by the Federal Communications Commission, but broadly the same as ICNIRP levels) and the fact that phones comply and base stations are lower. At this stage there is no mention of health associations or precaution.

Unjustifiable claims

The cellphone "Health Issues" subsection is where many claims are made that simply cannot be justified. The opening paragraph concludes "The weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems", which uses pseudo-scientific terms to spin the evidence to present an unbalanced picture. The whole point of a weight of evidence approach is to measure levels of probability in context, and following it with a definitive statement such as "has not linked" does not make sense. Either there is evidence that has linked cell phones with health problems or there isn't, and a weight of evidence approach can be used to determine the strength of the association and it's probability of being causal. Phrased like this, it gives the impression that there really isn't much evidence demonstrating a possible risk, something which is unequivocally not the case.

It continues: "Cell phones emit low levels of radiofrequency energy (RF). Over the past 15 years, scientists have conducted hundreds of studies looking at the biological effects of the radiofrequency energy emitted by cell phones. While some researchers have reported biological changes associated with RF energy, these studies have failed to be replicated. The majority of studies published have failed to show an association between exposure to radiofrequency from a cell phone and health problems.

"The low levels of RF cell phones emit while in use are in the microwave frequency range. They also emit RF at substantially reduced time intervals when in the stand-by mode. Whereas high levels of RF can produce health effects (by heating tissue), exposure to low level RF that does not produce heating effects causes no known adverse health effects."

This is in contrast with the official information from the FCC who supposedly gave them the advice that led to them writing this. Their paragraph acknowledges the uncertainty in the literature and difficulty in extrapolating the studies published so far into a causal association with human health, and concludes that standard setting in the meantime must only refer to established effects. This is very much the same principle that ICNIRP runs on, and while this is only part of the bigger picture required for making adequate public policy and legislation decisions, and is as follows:

"At relatively low levels of exposure to RF radiation, i.e., levels lower than those that would produce significant heating; the evidence for production of harmful biological effects is ambiguous and unproven. Such effects, if they exist, have been referred to as "non-thermal" effects. A number of reports have appeared in the scientific literature describing the observation of a range of biological effects resulting from exposure to low-levels of RF energy. However, in most cases, further experimental research has been unable to reproduce these effects. Furthermore, since much of the research is not done on whole bodies (in vivo), there has been no determination that such effects constitute a human health hazard. It is generally agreed that further research is needed to determine the generality of such effects and their possible relevance, if any, to human health. In the meantime, standards-setting organizations and government agencies continue to monitor the latest experimental findings to confirm their validity and determine whether changes in safety limits are needed to protect human health."

FCC FAQ entry on non-thermal effects of RF radiation

The FDA interpretation of their advice has spun the wording into something which entirely misrepresents the science. The first of their paragraphs quoted above, with the exception of the first sentence, is simply factually incorrect. Some studies have failed to replicate certain effects, whereas others have successfully replicated effects, and it is not true to state that the majority of studies have failed to show an association, when the real proportion is closer to 50%. This is also unlikely to be an accidental slip in wording choice, as the research section opens with "Is there a connection between RF and certain health problems? The results of most studies conducted to date say no. In addition, attempts to replicate and confirm the few studies that have shown a connection have failed.". These paragraph manage to successfully give the impression that there is nothing to worry about, but sadly do so with a very inaccurate and non-scientific approach.

Brain tumour data simply ignored

There is bizarrely no mention of the work behind cell phones and brain tumours either, despite the ever growing literature from Hardell's team [Hardell 2005, Hardell 2006, Hardell 2007], and the Interphone project, of which some found evidence of harm for long term use [Lonn 2004, Schoemaker 2005, Lahkola 2007] and some didn't [Christensen 2004, Takebayashi 2006, Takebayashi 2008]. There has also been a meta-analysis on the Interphone work demonstrating that, thus far, there is good evidence to suggest that even their limited data is showing a long term risk already [Kan 2008]. If there is any link that has reached a point where concern is warranted it is with phones and cancer, and not to mention the science on this issue at all is astonishing, and highlights the possibility that those responsible for the text do not themselves understand or read the papers in question.

Outdated and inaccurate information on energy and DNA damage

They finish the page with an implication of the common misconception that because RF isn't ionising, it can't damage DNA, via the following:

"Very high levels of electromagnetic energy, such as is found in X-rays and gamma rays can ionize biological tissues. Ionization is a process where electrons are stripped away from their normal locations in atoms and molecules. It can permanently damage biological tissues including DNA, the genetic material.

"The energy levels associated with radiofrequency energy, including both radio waves and microwaves, are not great enough to cause the ionization of atoms and molecules. Therefore, RF energy is a type of non-ionizing radiation. Other types of non-ionizing radiation include visible light, infrared radiation (heat) and other forms of electromagnetic radiation with relatively low frequencies."

As we have previously covered, the majority of DNA damage caused by both ionising and non-ionising radiation has nothing to do with the energy required to break bonds or strip electrons. Although some papers have not found such an association [Lantow 2006, Valbonesi 2008], there is still plenty of evidence supporting the possibility of free radical creation from non-thermal RF exposure, and also evidence supporting actual DNA damage by this method [Nikolova 2005, Friedman 2007, Yao 2008].


Had this been written in 1995, they would have at least had an excuse for claiming the data shows little evidence of a risk, and for not recognising the current understanding on how cell DNA damage can be triggered in vivo from electromagnetic field exposure. To be published in 2009 demonstrates either incompetence, a serious lacking in research / understanding of the published literature over the last 10 years, or a more sinister motive. For it to be published by a current agency, set up to assess safety of a number of consumer products for the general public, is both astonishing and depressing. We would hope that more competent and knowledgeable experts would be responsible for writing such guidance.


FDA Homepage - FDA Homepage
FDA Cellphone Page - FDA Cellphone Page
FDA Health Page - FDA Health Page
FCC Page - FCC Page
Powerwatch Mobile Phones Page - Powerwatch Mobile Phones Page


1. P Hardell L et al, (2005) Case-control study on cellular and cordless telephones and the risk for acoustic neuroma or meningioma in patients diagnosed 2000-2003, Neuroepidemiology. 2005;25(3):120-8 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
2. P Hardell L et al, (February 2006) Case-control study of the association between the use of cellular and cordless telephones and malignant brain tumors diagnosed during 2000-2003, Environ Res. 2006 Feb;100(2):232-41 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
3. P Hardell L et al, (September 2007) Long-term use of cellular phones and brain tumours - increased risk associated with use for > 10 years, Occup Environ Med. 2007 Sep;64(9):626-32 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
4. P Lonn S et al, (November 2004) Mobile phone use and the risk of acoustic neuroma, Epidemiology. 2004 Nov;15(6):653-9 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
5. P Schoemaker MJ et al, (October 2005) Mobile phone use and risk of acoustic neuroma: results of the Interphone case-control study in five North European countries, Br J Cancer. 2005 Oct 3;93(7):842-8 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
6. P Lahkola A et al, (April 2007) Mobile phone use and risk of glioma in 5 North European countries, Int J Cancer. 2007 Apr 15;120(8):1769-75 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
7. N Christensen HC et al, (February 2004) Cellular telephone use and risk of acoustic neuroma, Am J Epidemiol. 2004 Feb 1;159(3):277-83 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
8. N Takebayashi T et al, (December 2006) Mobile phone use and acoustic neuroma risk in Japan, Occup Environ Med. 2006 Dec;63(12):802-7 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
9. N Takebayashi T et al, (February 2008) Mobile phone use, exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic field, and brain tumour: a case-control study, Br J Cancer. 2008 Feb 12;98(3):652-9 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
10. - Kan P et al, (January 2008) Cellular phone use and brain tumor: a meta-analysis, J Neurooncol. 2008 Jan;86(1):71-8 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
11. N Lantow M et al, (September 2006) Comparative study of cell cycle kinetics and induction of apoptosis or necrosis after exposure of human mono mac 6 cells to radiofrequency radiation, Radiat Res. 2006 Sep;166(3):539-43 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
12. N Valbonesi P et al, (March 2008) Evaluation of HSP70 Expression and DNA Damage in Cells of a Human Trophoblast Cell Line Exposed to 1.8 GHz Amplitude-Modulated Radiofrequency Fields, Radiat Res. 2008 Mar;169(3):270-9 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
13. P Nikolova T et al, (October 2005) Electromagnetic fields affect transcript levels of apoptosis-related genes in embryonic stem cell-derived neural progenitor cells, FASEB J. 2005 Oct;19(12):1686-8 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
14. P Friedman J et al, (August 2007) Mechanism of a short-term ERK activation by electromagnetic fields at mobile phone frequency, Biochem J. 2007 Aug 1;405(3):559-68 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
15. P Yao K et al, (May 2008) Effect of superposed electromagnetic noise on DNA damage of lens epithelial cells induced by microwave radiation, Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2008 May;49(5):2009-15 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]

Also in the news

"Mobile phones and health: what do we know", by freelance journalist Yanar Alkayat

Freelance journalist Yanar Alkayat has recently written an excellent article for the Ecologist, entitled Mobile phones and health: what do we know?

Contacting scientists in the fields, neurosurgeons working with brain tumours on a daily basis, and leading organisations responsible for assessing the effects of mobile phones on health, she has put together a well balanced piece on the subject, addressing issues from the basis for precaution, existing actions and movements, and what the future may hold.

Chillout DJ Steve Miller releases the album "Electrosensitive"

Well known chillout DJ Steve Miller recently released a new album entitled "Electrosensitive", in reference to having become highly sensitised to electromagnetic radiation recently, specifically WiFi.

He gave a short interview with Defected, describing his music, the album, and what it is like living with electrosensitivity. From not being able to do indoor gigs to having to avoid certain festivals such as Glastonbury, Steve paints a picture of a life where there are considerable obstacles to his professional vocation, and how he turned this into the inspiration for his latest work.

Albany city council passes resolution requesting science update on the potential health effects of RF

Albany city council has passed a resolution requesting the Federal Government to update studies on the potential health effects of radiofrequency emissions.

Taking into consideration the existing positions of the various agencies in some way responsible for the current guidelines, the key points in the resolution were as follows:

  • Now therefore be it resolved that the Albany City Council requests the FCC to work in cooperation with the FDA and other relevant federal agencies to revisit and update studies on potential health concerns arising from RF wireless emissions in light of the national proliferation of wireless use; and
  • Be it further resolved that the City Clerk shall cause a copy of this Resolution to be sent to all members of the FCC board, to the FDA commissioners, to all members of the California Congressional Delegation and to Albany's State Representatives.