Here’s some more embarrassingly reported tripe on the purported health dangers of cell phones, this time from The New York Times. Since its publication about a week ago (Nov. 13), “Should You Be Snuggling with Your Cell Phone?” has been among the paper’s top e-mailed articles. Predictably, the dubious scaremongering of Devra Davis provides the inspiration for the piece; also unsurprising is the author’s reliance on the work of University of Washington bioengineering prof Henry Lai, who is usually rolled out on occasions like this to supply additional weight to the belief that low doses of non-ionizing radiation from electromagnetic fields (EMF) can provoke an array of health adversities. (Lai is among the small number of proper scientists who actually believe that the phenomenon of electromagnetic hypersensitivity [EHS] exists, despite all evidence to the contrary.)
I’ve discussed Davis’ work before, but Lai’s role in the debate is also worth noting. Here’s the Times:
Henry Lai, a research professor in the bioengineering department at the University of Washington, began laboratory radiation studies in 1980 and found that rats exposed to radiofrequency radiation had damaged brain DNA. He maintains a database that holds 400 scientific papers on possible biological effects of radiation from wireless communication. He found that 28 percent of studies with cellphone industry funding showed some sort of effect, while 67 percent of studies without such funding did so. “That’s not trivial,” he said.
The unit of measurement for radiofrequency exposure is called the specific absorption rate, or SAR. The Federal Communications Commission mandates that the SAR produced by phones be no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram. One study listed by Mr. Lai found effects like loss of memory in rats exposed to SAR values in the range of 0.0006 to 0.06 watts per kilogram. “I did not expect to see effects at low levels,” he said.
Of course he wouldn’t. And neither would virtually anyone else, since Lai’s rat studies from the early 1990s — which occupy a special place in the EMF literature — have failed to receive any subsequent confirmation. Numerous attempts have been made to replicate the results detected by Lai and his co-author, but none have succeeded. Any application of the weight-of-evidence standard would be sufficient to relegate Lai’s two rat articles to the far margins of the relevant scientific literature, and yet you can’t swing a dead cat without bumping into another credulous journalist willing to mention them. (These same journalists, by contrast, seem curiously unaware of Lai’s efforts to affirm the efficacy of Hulda Clark’s low-voltage “zapper”, which she claimed would rid the body of virtually any disease, including Alzheimer’s and AIDS. Lai’s willingness to accept money from and conduct research on behalf of known scam artist should be enough to give pause, even if the results of his peer-reviewed research had actually held up over time.)
As for Lai’s database of “400 scientific papers” and his claim that industry funding correlates positively with industry-friendly results? Well, these are the sorts of things that might sound impressive to readers but don’t actually carry any real meaning. As it happens, the half-century of literature on the health effects of electromagnetic fields (including cell and cordless phones) now runs into the tens of thousands of articles — covering the whole gamut of lab studies, animal studies, and epidemiological studies, as well as examinations of short- and long-term exposure at varying frequencies. Given that science is messy to begin with and that the results of small, preliminary studies are often challenged or disproved by larger, better-designed research, it’s not surprising that someone willing to pick cherries could bring up a list of published work (including his own) whose data and conclusions have nevertheless failed to thrive under additional scrutiny. Rather than worry about the “400 published papers” mentioned by Lai and the Times, it would be far better to look at the reviews conducted by the World Health Organization, public health and other government agencies around the world, as well as standards-setting organizations like the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation
Protection (ICNRP) or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety (IEEE/ISCES), the latter of which has a brief, outstanding report — for people who get excited by this sort of thing — in the October 2009 issue of Health Physics (available as a .pdf here). The IEEE pays special attention to a literature review (the 2007 BioInitiative Report) conducted by a group headed by Lai himself; suffice it to say that the IEEE committee was not impressed with the effort.
Similarly, although the question of funding does matter, industry support for the research do not matter not nearly so much as the question of what the largest, best-designed and reproducible studies have discovered. As it stands, in spite of noise in the data, the weight of the evidence continues to support the conclusion that cell phones, cell towers, wi-fi networks or any other everyday electromagnetic fields pose no significant risk to human health.
If anyone has read this far in the post, you may be wondering why anyone should care about this. Personally, I couldn’t be bothered if people read articles like the one in the Times and decide to cancel their high-speed internet or throw away their iPhones. After all, the public health effects of cell phone hysterics are nonexistent compared to the perils caused by, say, people who refuse to have their kids vaccinated against measles. But while the species may be distinct, the fears of EMF and vaccines share the same genus. Moreover, bad science reporting on any particular issue is bad for critical thought in general, and it reinforces our shared misunderstanding of how the scientific community actually works. And if that’s not sufficient justification, remember that the condemnation of bullshit is its own reward.