How the Wireless Industry Convinced the Public Cellphones Are Safe

Ninety-five out of every 100 American adults owns a cellphone today. And worldwide, three out of four adults now have cellphone access. The wireless industry is one of the fastest-growing on Earth, raking in annual sales of $440 billion in 2016.

But are cellphones safe? Well, a new investigation by The Nation suggests that’s a question that cellphone giants prefer you don’t ask. The article, by journalists Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie, is headlined “How Big Wireless Made Us Think That Cell Phones Are Safe.”

The article notes that cellphones were first marketed to U.S. consumers in the 1980s without any government safety testing. Then, a decade later, one of the industry’s own hand-picked researchers, George Carlo, reportedly told top company officials, including leaders of Apple, AT&T and Motorola, that some industry-commissioned studies raised serious questions about cellphone safety. On October 7th, 1999, Carlo sent letters to industry CEOs urging them to give consumers, quote, “the information they need to make an informed judgment about how much of this unknown risk they wish to assume.” Instead, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association reportedly tried to discredit Carlo’s findings, and had him physically removed from its premises during its annual conference in February 2000.

Mark Hertsgaard talking:

Let me emphasize, our piece is not saying that cellphones are safe or are not safe. Our piece is an investigative exposé showing you how the cellular industry has worked for 25 years behind the scenes to convince you that cellphones are safe, when, in fact, if you look at the independently funded science, the picture is a lot more mixed than that. And as you mentioned, there’s that smoking gun memo—letter, I should say—from George Carlo in 1999 telling the CEOs of all these big companies, “Look, this stuff is raising serious questions, especially about kids and cancer and genetic damage.”

And I think that’s the real parallel with both Big Oil and Big Tobacco. In each case, these big companies were told privately by their own scientists that there are serious questions about your product, whether it be cigarettes or fossil fuels or cellphones. And in each case, those executives decided not to share that with the public, but rather to keep that information to themselves, while telling the public and telling the press and telling policymakers there’s no problem.

There is a lot of evidence suggesting that we need to be a lot more careful about these cellphones. The World Health Organization has listed them as a possible carcinogen. And just last week, here in the United States, the National Institutes of Health had a major study, peer-reviewed, about cellphone radiation. And the peer-review scientists, who are independent of government, said that there was, quote, “clear evidence,” unquote, that cellphones can cause cancer.

And that is something that you have not read in the American media. And I have to say that that’s another part of the story, Amy, is how the U.S. news organizations and journalists have been hoodwinked, yet again, by a corporate propaganda campaign, where we listen more to what the industry says than to what independent scientists are saying.

The term that they use is “war gaming.” They have war-gamed the science. That comes from an internal memo in 1994 from Motorola, a major cellphone manufacturer, which at that point was already facing lawsuits from customers claiming that their brain tumors had come from Motorola-supplied equipment. War gaming means a number of different things. It means funding science that is friendly to industry. It means discrediting science, or attempting to discredit scientists, that are critical of industry. And it means trying to put industry-friendly scientists on key advisory boards, such as the World Health Organization.

And our piece in The Nation magazine documents how when the World Health Organization was preparing, in the year 2011, to render a judgment on how likely cellphones are to cause cancer, the industry made sure to get a number of its scientists onto the advisory boards that consulted with the WHO on that decision. And that is contrary to the conflict-of-interest rules that the WHO has, but the industry managed to circumvent those. It put money into that process. And at the end of the day, in 2011, the WHO, World Health Organization, called cellphone radiation a “possible” carcinogen.

But a number of the scientists who were on that committee, who we interviewed, said that they wanted to call it a “probable.” And one scientist even wanted to call it a “known” carcinogen. So, later this year, the WHO is going to revisit this question of cellphone radiation, and they told us that they will look very carefully at this recent study from last week by the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. government that found clear evidence that cellphones can cause cancer.

Lennart Hardell, the Swedish scientist you mentioned, Amy, he was the one scientist on that WHO committee who wanted to call cellphone radiation a “known” cancer risk—not probable, not possible, but known. That would be Category 1. And he did that on the basis of his studies of gliomas. They are a nasty brain tumor, brain cancer, partly because it’s very difficult to treat them. It’s not like a specific sort of nodule that you can take out. They kind of leak through the brain in long strands.

And Hardell was especially concerned about what this means for children. And I should note here, Amy, that, you know, the United States is quite different than other advanced countries on this. In Britain, in France, in Israel, the governments have issued very strict limitations on cellphone use by children. In the public schools in France, there are no iPads, there is no wireless, partly for the reasons of addiction, but also because of these concerns about health.

And in the case of Lennart Hardell in Sweden, once he started to publish those findings in 2002, the industry immediately mobilized to have two of their friendly—industry-friendly scientists immediately put out a paper condemning Hardell. Well, we found out that those two scientists, at the very time that they were posing as independent scientists and saying that Mr.—that Dr. Hardell’s findings were methodologically incoherent, they were consulting—they were consulting to Motorola as expert witnesses in a brain tumor case. So, who are you going to believe?

I want to emphasize I’m not a scientist. I’m a journalist and an author. But we talked to a lot of scientists. And our story does not say whether cellphones are safe or not. We looked at the industry disinformation and propaganda campaign that for the past 25 years has been convincing the public that these cellphones are safe.

And the way they’ve done that is to war-game the science, as they put it in an internal memo from Motorola. They’ve funded their friendly scientists. They’ve attacked critical science, independent science. They’ve put their own people onto advisory boards. All that said, that’s resulted in, I think, the message coming across from the mainstream media, frankly, that cellphones are safe enough, shall we say?

However, that point of view took a major hit just last week, the night before we released our story. There was a peer review by independent scientists of the biggest study that the United States government has had to date on cellphone radiation. This was a study by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, that’s part of the National Institutes of Health. The study was commissioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And it released some preliminary findings in February, and then those findings were peer-reviewed by independent scientists last week. And those independent scientists finally concluded that there was, quote, “clear evidence,” unquote, “clear evidence” that cellphone radiation can cause cancers.

And notably, those independent scientists upgraded the confidence level of that and other findings by this National Toxicology Program. So, what that seemed to do was to confirm the suspicions by outsiders that the National Toxicology Program brass, the people up at the top, were trying to downplay this study, because it was the very same data that had been released in 2016, and when that data was released in 2016, it came with a public health warning by the National Toxicology Program. And in 2018, back in February, they tried to downplay this. So it’s very significant that last week these independent scientists said, “Oh, no, there is clear evidence here that cellphones can cause cancer.”

Now, before you all worry out there that you’re having the equivalent of a cigarette habit, let me just say that the evidence is not yet definitive of how much—how high the risk is for cancer and genetic damages and other concern here. But it is definitely, it seems, a risk. If you look at the scientific data that is compiled by the National Institutes of Health, the actual studies that they catalogue there, the vast majority of them do indicate that there are health impacts of this technology, of this radiation, I should say, according to Henry Lai, a professor at the University of Washington, who’s analyzed all of this. And we talked with him in some detail.

So, there are things you can do. The main thing you can do as a consumer is to minimize your use of your cellphone. Use a landline telephone whenever you can. And if you must use a cellphone, always use earbuds, and use it for as little the time as possible. Don’t go on and on. Have your phone call and complete it. And in general, you want to try and minimize the risk.

That’s as—again, I am not a pediatrician. I’m not a doctor here. You can talk to organizations like the American Pediatrics Association, which, by the way, told the Federal Communications Commission five years ago that they needed to revisit this question because their standards weren’t adequate. The FCC has not done that. But you can talk to them. You can talk to a group called the Environment Health Trust, and they will give you more information on this.

– Thomas Wheeler, who was President Obama’s pick as FCC chair, speaking to Brian Ross on ABC.

And that was a lie. That was a lie that Mr. Wheeler told. We spoke with Mr. Wheeler for this story. He gave us an interview but insisted on putting it off the record except for one statement that said that he followed the recommendations of the Food and Drug Administration, which had found no dangers from [cellphones]. But what he told Brian Ross in that story, that there had been—that they went out and aggressively questioned the science, “Was there a problem?” that part was true. But to say that they found no such evidence, that was an absolute lie. And I use the word “lie” deliberately. He knew perfectly well, by that time, that he had been told by George Carlo, the scientist, that there were serious questions, from their own $28.5 million research program.

And so, to me, the career of Tom Wheeler is an interesting illustration of a very old story in Washington, D.C., about how the regulatory agencies of the federal government get captured by the very industries that they are supposed to regulate. So, Wheeler left the industry and later went on to head the FCC for President Obama. And in the meantime, it’s gone the other way around. The FCC person, vice president at the FCC, I guess, or vice chair, rather, Baker, came to—now runs the trade association. And this is why the Harvard study on this, by Norm Alster, calls the FCC a captured agency. They have been captured by the industry they’re supposed to regulate.

And the single best example of that that I can give you is the FCC does not even independently test the radiation levels on these phones. They take what the industry claims, and just put it on their website. That is not good enough. Part of the reason that we’re down this road all the way we are so far is that we did not test cellphones back in the 1980s, before they went on the consumer market. And we’re about to make that same mistake again with 5G technology.

“5G” means fifth generation. And that’s the next generation of the technologies that have been used for cellphones and wireless, going back into the 1990s. And where people might have heard of it most is, 5G technology is what will be required if we go to this thing called the internet of things. The internet of things is the idea of your smartphone being connected to your smart car and your smart household, so that all of your appliances, your cellphones, your computers, everything will be connected 24/7, so that you can—while you’re driving home, you can turn on the oven 25 minutes from home so that it’s nice and warm, and you can make your dinner when you get home. That seems like it’s a kind of a convenient idea perhaps.

But when we did the reporting on this, my colleague Mark Dowie went to the conference of the industry and saw—and we have this picture in The Nation magazine story—saw a picture of a baby, a doll, wearing a diaper, and at the crotch of the diaper is a little transmitter. So, this transmitter, under the 5G technology, internet of things, this transmitter will send a little message to mom or dad in the next room that, “Oh, the baby’s diaper needs changing.” Well, do we really need that? And do we really want to have radiation going from our baby’s crotch to our cellphones? Why don’t we just walk into the next room and check for ourselves?

as Brian Ross’s report just showed, they had a huge public relations problem at that point. It was—there were congressional subcommittees beginning to investigate. The stock on Wall Street was tanking. And that’s when Tom Wheeler stepped up and immediately told a hastily gathered press conference, “Cellphones are safe, but we’re going to revalidate that with this new science.”

And that was how they then found George Carlo, the scientist who they hired to do that. And it’s interesting. George Carlo, I wouldn’t call him a whistleblower exactly, but he certainly did not work out the way that the industry had hoped. They had hired him because he seemed like, by his own acknowledgment in our interviews with him—he seemed like an industry guy. And they thought that because he had previously done studies in which he said dioxin was not terribly harmful in small quantities. Dioxin, of course, was behind the Love Canal and the Agent Orange scandals, one of the most toxic chemicals on Earth. He had also said that breast implants were not necessarily dangerous. So he seemed—George Carlo seemed like the kind of guy who would return a friendly verdict for the industry. And then he did not. And that is really where their ways parted. And Carlo eventually told the truth, wrote to Brian Ross and to us, and in a book, Cell Phone Radiation, if listeners want to check that out.

Now, to your question, Nermeen, about the differences, again, I’m not a scientist here. I’m a little uncomfortable talking about that. There are plenty of places where you can go to get good information on this. I’d recommend the National Environment Trust, is one. The American Pediatrics Association has also raised concerns about this. However, I do know this from sources that we’ve interviewed on this story, that you want to always wear earbuds, if you’re going to use a phone. You want to minimize your use of the phone. And yes, texting is better than a phone call, in terms of the amount of radiation you’re exposed to. And also, the moment of the connection of the call is when there is the biggest surge of radiation. That is, after you’ve dialed, and you hear it ringing, and then it connects to the other phone, at that moment, hold that phone away from you. The farther away it is from your skull, the less radiation that is going to be touching you. But again, the main thing is to just limit your use of all of this to the maximum extent that you can. Use landlines when you can. You know, the world still spun on its axis, we all had our lives, before there were cellphones. You can do it, folks.

Thank you, Dr. Gorski, for providing such a illuminating illustration of the very kind of disinformation campaign we’re talking about here. We’re not scientists, but maybe he would revisit his blog post if he looked at what the peer review of independent, credentialed scientists just said last week about the National Toxicology Program’s finding. They said, quote-unquote, “clear evidence”—”clear evidence” that cellphone radiation causes cancer. We are not cherry-picking. That is exactly what the biggest study ever funded by the United States government has said about this. And it was not what the government agency was trying to say. The government agency was trying to retreat from that position. And it’s only because of peer-reviewed scientists on the outside that we know that. Go back and read our piece, and compare it to the good doctor’s blog. I’m very confident that our reporting stands up.

Just like the cigarette companies, the tobacco companies, added nicotine to cigarettes, the wireless companies deliberately addicted people to this technology. They’ve admitted that. Sean Parker at Facebook talked about that in November. And they are now regretting that, some of those individuals. But the fact remains that this is a highly addictive technology. And they were told 20 years ago that this could cause cancer in kids, and they kept doing it. Think about that. Think about that.

– Sean Parker, who was speaking at an Axios event in Philadelphia last year, Facebook’s founding president, “That thought process was all about: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content. And that’s going to get you, you know, more likes and comments. And it’s a social validation feedback loop, that it’s like a—I mean, it’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. … It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other, with—you know, it probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Mark Hertsgaard
environment correspondent and investigative editor for The Nation.

— source


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