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Big Wireless Made Us Think That Cell Phones Are Safe

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Things didn’t end well between George Carlo and Tom Wheeler; the last time the two met face-to-face, Wheeler had security guards escort Carlo off the premises. As president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), Wheeler was the wireless industry’s point man in Washington. Carlo was the scientist handpicked by Wheeler 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 cell-phone subscriptions for every 100 adults in the United States. But industry executives were looking forward to a booming future, reported The Nation (US).

Remarkably, cell phones had been allowed onto the US consumer 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 tumor. After Reynard appeared on national TV, the story went viral. A congressional subcommittee announced an investigation; investors began dumping their cell-phone stocks; and Wheeler and the CTIA swung into action.

A week later, Wheeler announced that his industry would pay for a comprehensive research program. Cell phones were already safe, Wheeler told reporters; the new research would simply “re-validate the findings of the existing studies.”

George Carlo seemed like a good bet to fulfill Wheeler’s mission. He was an epidemiologist who also had a law degree, and he’d 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 $28.5 million made it the best-funded investigation of cell-phone safety to date.

Outside critics soon came to suspect that Carlo would be the front man for an industry whitewash. They cited his dispute with Henry Lai, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Washington, over a study that Lai had conducted examining whether cell-phone radiation could damage DNA. In 1999, Carlo and the WTR’s general counsel sent a letter to the university’s president urging that Lai be fired for his alleged violation of research protocols. Lai accused the WTR of tampering with his experiment’s results. Both Carlo and Lai deny the other’s accusations.

Critics also attacked what they regarded as the slow pace of WTR research. The WTR was merely “a confidence game” designed to placate the public but stall real research, according to Louis Slesin, editor of the trade publication Microwave News. “By dangling a huge amount of money in front of the cash-starved [scientific] community,” Slesin argued, “Carlo guaranteed silent obedience. Anyone who dared complain risked being cut off from his millions.” Carlo denies the allegation.

Whatever Carlo’s motives might have been, the documented fact is that he and Wheeler would eventually clash bitterly over the WTR’s findings, which Carlo presented to wireless-industry leaders on February 9, 1999. By that date, the WTR had commissioned more than 50 original studies and reviewed many more. Those studies raised “serious questions” about cell-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.

Carlo sent letters to each of the industry’s chieftains on October 7, 1999, reiterating that the WTR’s research had found the following: “The risk of rare neuro-epithelial tumors on the outside of the brain was more than doubled…in cell phone users”; there was an apparent “correlation between brain tumors occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head”; and “the ability of radiation from a phone’s antenna to cause functional genetic damage [was] definitely positive….”

Carlo urged the CEOs to do the right thing: give consumers “the information they need to make an informed judgment about how much of this unknown risk they wish to assume,” especially since some in the industry had “repeatedly and falsely claimed that wireless phones are safe for all consumers including children.”

The very next day, a livid Tom Wheeler began publicly trashing Carlo to the media. In a letter he shared with the CEOs, Wheeler told Carlo that the CTIA was “certain that you have never provided CTIA with the studies you mention”—an apparent effort to shield the industry from liability in the lawsuits that had led to Carlo’s hiring in the first place. Wheeler charged further that the studies had not been published in peer-reviewed journals, casting doubt on their validity.

Wheeler’s tactics succeeded in dousing the controversy. Although Carlo had in fact repeatedly briefed Wheeler and other senior industry officials on the studies, which had indeed undergone peer review and would soon be published, reporters on the technology beat accepted Wheeler’s discrediting of Carlo and the WTR’s findings. (Wheeler would go on to chair the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the wireless industry. He agreed to an interview for this article but then put all of his remarks off the record, with one exception: his statement that he has always taken scientific guidance from the US Food and Drug Administration, which, he said, “has concluded, ‘the weight of scientific evidence had not linked cell phones with any health problems.’”)

Why, after such acrimony, Carlo was allowed to make one last appearance before the CTIA board is a mystery. Whatever the reason, Carlo flew to New Orleans in February 2000 for the wireless industry’s annual conference, where he submitted the WTR’s final report to the CTIA board. According to Carlo, Wheeler made sure that none of the hundreds of journalists covering the event could get anywhere near him.

When Carlo arrived, he was met by two seriously muscled men in plain clothes; the larger of the two let drop that he had recently left the Secret Service. The security men steered Carlo into a holding room, where they insisted he remain until his presentation. When summoned, Carlo found roughly 70 of the industry’s top executives waiting for him in silence. Carlo had spoken a mere 10 minutes when Wheeler abruptly stood, extended a hand, and said, “Thank you, George.” The two muscle men then ushered the scientist to a curbside taxi and waited until it pulled away.

In the years to come, the WTR’s cautionary findings would be replicated by numerous other scientists in the United States and around the world, leading the World Health Organization in 2011 to classify cell-phone radiation as a “possible” human carcinogen and the governments of Great Britain, France, and Israel to issue strong warnings on cell-phone use by children. But as the taxi carried Carlo to Louis Armstrong International Airport, the scientist wondered whether his relationship with the industry might have turned out differently if cell phones had been safety-tested before being allowed onto the consumer market, before profit took precedence over science. But it was too late: Wheeler and his fellow executives had made it clear, Carlo told The Nation, that “they would do what they had to do to protect their industry, but they were not of a mind to protect consumers or public health.”

This article does not argue that cell phones and other wireless technologies are necessarily dangerous; that is a matter for scientists to decide. Rather, the focus here is on the global industry behind cell phones—and the industry’s long campaign to make people believe that cell phones are safe.

That campaign has plainly been a success: 95 out of every 100 adult Americans now own a cell phone; globally, three out of four adults have cell-phone access, with sales increasing every year. The wireless industry is now one of the fastest-growing on Earth and one of the biggest, boasting annual sales of $440 billion in 2016.

Carlo’s story underscores the need for caution, however, particularly since it evokes eerie parallels with two of the most notorious cases of corporate deception on record: the campaigns by the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries to obscure the dangers of smoking and climate change, respectively. Just as tobacco executives were privately told by their own scientists (in the 1960s) that smoking was deadly, and fossil-fuel executives were privately told by their own scientists (in the 1980s) that burning oil, gas, and coal would cause a “catastrophic” temperature rise, so Carlo’s testimony reveals that wireless executives were privately told by their own scientists (in the 1990s) that cell phones could cause cancer and genetic damage.

Carlo’s October 7, 1999, letters to wireless-industry CEOs are the smoking-gun equivalent of the November 12, 1982, memo that M.B. Glaser, Exxon’s manager of environmental-affairs programs, sent to company executives explaining that burning oil, gas, and coal could raise global temperatures by a destabilizing 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. For the tobacco industry, Carlo’s letters are akin to the 1969 proposal that a Brown & Williamson executive wrote for countering anti-tobacco advocates. “Doubt is our product,” the memo declared. “It is also the means of establishing a controversy…at the public level.”

Like their tobacco and fossil-fuel brethren, wireless executives have chosen not to publicize what their own scientists have said about the risks of their products. On the contrary, the industry—in America, Europe, and Asia—has spent untold millions of dollars in the past 25 years proclaiming that science is on its side, that the critics are quacks, and that consumers have nothing to fear. This, even as the industry has worked behind the scenes—again like its Big Tobacco counterpart—to deliberately addict its customers. Just as cigarette companies added nicotine to hook smokers, so have wireless companies designed cell phones to deliver a jolt of dopamine with each swipe of the screen.

This Nation investigation reveals that the wireless industry not only made the same moral choices that the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries did; it also borrowed from the same public-relations playbook those industries pioneered. The playbook’s key insight is that an industry doesn’t have to win the scientific argument about safety; it only has to keep the argument going. That amounts to a win for the industry, because the apparent lack of certainty helps to reassure customers, even as it fends off government regulations and lawsuits that might pinch profits.

Central to keeping the scientific argument going is making it appear that not all scientists agree. Again like the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries, the wireless industry has “war gamed” science, as a Motorola internal memo in 1994 phrased it. War-gaming science involves playing offense as well as defense: funding studies friendly to the industry while attacking studies that raise questions; placing industry-friendly experts on advisory bodies like the World Health Organization; and seeking to discredit scientists whose views depart from the industry’s.

Funding friendly research has perhaps been the most important component of this strategy, because it conveys the impression that the scientific community truly is divided. Thus, when studies have linked wireless radiation to cancer or genetic damage—as Carlo’s WTR did in 1999; as the WHO’s Interphone study did in 2010; and as the US National Toxicology Program did in 2016—industry spokespeople can point out, accurately, that other studies disagree. “[T]he overall balance of the evidence” gives no cause for alarm, asserted Jack Rowley, research and sustainability director for the Groupe Special Mobile Association (GSMA), Europe’s wireless trade association, speaking to reporters about the WHO’s findings.

A closer look reveals the industry’s sleight of hand. When Henry Lai, the professor whom Carlo tried to get fired, analyzed 326 safety-related studies completed between 1990 and 2005, he learned that 56 percent found a biological effect from cell-phone radiation and 44 percent did not; the scientific community apparently was split. But when Lai recategorized the studies according to their funding sources, a different picture emerged: 67 percent of the independently funded studies found a biological effect, while a mere 28 percent of the industry-funded studies did. Lai’s findings were replicated by a 2007 analysis in Environmental Health Perspectives that concluded industry-funded studies were two and a half times less likely than independent studies to find a health effect.

One key player has not been swayed by all this wireless-friendly research: the insurance industry. The Nation has not been able to find a single insurance company willing to sell a product-liability policy that covered cell-phone radiation. “Why would we want to do that?” one executive chuckled before pointing to more than two dozen lawsuits outstanding against wireless companies, demanding a total of $1.9 billion in damages. Some judges have affirmed such lawsuits, including a judge in Italy who refused to allow industry-funded research as evidence.

Even so, the industry’s neutralizing of the safety issue has opened the door to the biggest, most hazardous prize of all: the proposed revolutionary transformation of society dubbed the “Internet of Things.” Lauded as a gigantic engine of economic growth, the Internet of Things will not only connect people through their smartphones and computers but will connect those devices to a customer’s vehicles and home appliances, even their baby’s diapers—all at speeds faster than can currently be achieved.

There is a catch, though: The Internet of Things will require augmenting today’s 4G technology with 5G, thus “massively increasing” the general population’s exposure to radiation, according to a petition signed by 236 scientists worldwide who have published more than 2,000 peer-reviewed studies and represent “a significant portion of the credentialed scientists in the radiation research field,” according to Joel Moskowitz, the director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped circulate the petition. Nevertheless, like cell phones, 5G technology is on the verge of being introduced without pre-market safety testing.

Lack of definitive proof that a technology is harmful does not mean the technology is safe, yet the wireless industry has succeeded in selling this logical fallacy to the world. In truth, the safety of wireless technology has been an unsettled question since the industry’s earliest days. The upshot is that, over the past 30 years, billions of people around the world have been subjected to a massive public-health experiment: Use a cell phone today, find out later if it causes cancer or genetic damage. Meanwhile, the wireless industry has obstructed a full and fair understanding of the current science, aided by government agencies that have prioritized commercial interests over human health and news organizations that have failed to inform the public about what the scientific community really thinks. In other words, this public-health experiment has been conducted without the informed consent of its subjects, even as the industry keeps its thumb on the scale.

“The absence of absolute proof does not mean the absence of risk,” Annie Sasco, the former director of epidemiology for cancer prevention at France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research, told the attendees of the 2012 Childhood Cancer conference. “The younger one starts using cell phones, the higher the risk,” Sasco continued, urging a public-education effort to inform parents, politicians, and the press about children’s exceptional susceptibility.

For adults and children alike, the process by which wireless radiation may cause cancer remains uncertain, but it is thought to be indirect. Wireless radiation has been shown to damage the blood-brain barrier, a vital defense mechanism that shields the brain from carcinogenic chemicals elsewhere in the body (resulting, for example, from secondhand cigarette smoke). Wireless radiation has also been shown to interfere with DNA replication, a proven progenitor of cancer. In each of these cases, the risks are higher for children: Their skulls, being smaller, absorb more radiation than adults’ skulls do, while children’s longer life span increases their cumulative exposure.

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