calls himself a soldier, and you might assume as much from his shaved
head and six-foot, 210-pound frame. But hes never been in the armed
forces. Instead, Shattuck has been reluctantly drafted to fight against
something in his own body: a malignant brain tumour. To me, its a
war, he says. Im at war with this thing every day.
Although Shattuck doesnt know for sure what caused his tumour hes
asked his doctor a thousand times but says hes never received a
clear answer he certainly has a theory: he worked as an operator and
then as a technician for a phone company for thirteen years, and
regularly used a cellphone for a good ten of them. Three of his former
co-workers also have malignant brain tumours, and he suspects their
cellphone use, too, is to blame.
Shattuck isnt alone in worrying about the effects of the devices. In
May, speculation swirled that Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedys
brain cancer was linked to habitual cellphone use. Picking up on the
s Larry King Live
devoted a show to the subject. On it, the neurosurgeon who treated
US attorney Johnnie Cochrans brain tumour in 2005 said he would not
rule out a link between cellphones and cancer. An issue that wont go
away had resurfaced, and concern over cellphones causing or
contributing to brain tumours went mainstream again.
The wireless industry adamantly denies the association. The
overwhelming majority of studies that have been published in scientific
journals around the globe show that wireless phones do not pose a
health risk, says a spokesperson for the ctia
a heavyweight international organization that represents the
trillion-dollar wireless industry. Many scientists agree: the
literature shows little evidence of a problem.
But what if the published science doesnt reflect whats really
happening out there? And what if there has been a concerted effort to
shield us from the evidence that does exist? Accounts from a handful of
well-respected scientists suggest that since the mid-1990s wireless
companies have been doing their best to bury worrying findings,
discredit researchers who publish them, and design experiments that
virtually guarantee the desired results. Biological effects are
undoubtedly there, no question, and its a canard to suggest that
theyre not, says Abe Liboff, a research professor at Florida Atlantic
University, and co-editor of the journal Electromagnetic Biology
. The cellphone industry, he insists,
will use any excuse to avoid the truth.
Even so, a new possibility is emerging. Although cellphones appear to
be safe when used sporadically, individuals who use them frequently for
more than a decade may be vulnerable. Eight population-based studies
published since 1999 indicate that heavy users are twice as likely to
develop certain types of brain tumours as infrequent users. Citing
recall bias and memory loss on the subjects parts, critics reject such
suggestions. Still, since cancer often takes decades to develop, other
scientists wonder whether these findings are the first faint whispers
of a public health crisis. After all, with an estimated three billion
users around the world, cellphones have become ubiquitous.
n 1995, Jerry Phillips, a biochemist at
the Pettis Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Loma Linda, California,
received a call from the head of his biomedical research group. He and
his co-workers were doing contract work for Motorola and the US
Department of Energy on the effects of electromagnetic radiation, and
Motorola, he says, needed a favour: higher-ups had learned of a study
just published by University of Washington scientists Henry Lai and N.
P. Singh showing that radio frequency fields similar to those emitted
by cellphones damaged rats brain cells, breaking their dna
structures after just two hours of
exposure. The company, Phillips says, wanted to discredit the study.
To Motorola, it didnt make sense that a cellphone could break dna
. The ionizing radiation of X-rays and
atomic bombs has enough energy to knock around electrons and cause
genetic damage. But the radiation emitted by cellphones is
non-ionizing, similar to radar, and thought to be too weak to do
genetic harm. That is, while cellphone radiation fits within the
microwave spectrum, it emits too little energy to significantly heat
tissue. So how could cellphones, Motorolas reasoning went, possibly
affect or harm the brain?
Nonetheless, Lais research suggested they could, and his paper worried
Motorola. Phillips recalls that the company asked him to find ways to
put a spin on it that was favourable to them and less favourable to
Henry and N. P. He declined, but did agree to provide Motorola with
comments on the study, and to conduct a similar trial if they were
They were. Phillips designed a comparable experiment to investigate how
radiation emitted by cellphones affected dna
in cells. He tested two slightly different radiation frequencies and
exposure times, and found that in both cases the radiation did affect
the cells dna
, albeit in significantly
different ways: sometimes it increased the base level of dna
damage typically seen in cells, and
sometimes it lowered it. He wrote a report and sent it to Motorola with
a note saying he wanted to publish the results and, if the company
would fund him, design studies to further investigate his findings. A
few days later, Mays Swicord, the director of electromagnetic research
at Motorola, called him.
He started questioning a lot of the results, pointing to what he
called inconsistencies in data, Phillips recalls. I pointed out
that its not unusual to see, with a single chemical agent, results go
in one direction for one time period, and in the opposite direction for
another. Phillips went on to explain to Swicord that long or heavy
exposure to a toxin can initiate a cells repair mechanisms,
immediately fixing the damage. A shorter or lighter exposure might
cause damage, but not enough to trigger the same repair mechanisms. In
this manner, paradoxically, the lighter dose might be more dangerous.
Swicord, who has a background in bioelectromagnetics, wasnt convinced.
He suggested that I consider not publishing anything and that I do
more work, Phillips says. And I said no. I know when the project is
done. Ive been doing research for twenty-five years.
Their argument went on for weeks. Eventually, says Phillips, the head
of his research group, Ross Adey, phoned him. Apparently under a lot of
pressure, and worried that his group might lose Motorolas financial
support if he didnt cooperate, Adey, says Phillips, told me that if I
didnt give Motorola what they wanted, it could be detrimental to my
career. Phillips wouldnt back down. This isnt about the group. It
isnt about money, he told Adey. Its about science.
Phillips refused to work on any further Motorola-funded projects, and
in 1998, in the peer-reviewed journal Bioelectrochemistry and
, he published his dna
study, which would be one of his last. That same year, the Department
of Energy stopped funding the groups work on electromagnetic radiation
effects. Phillips left Loma Linda and moved to Colorado Springs. Today
hes the director of the Science/ Health Science Learning Center at the
University of Colorado.
Lai, the soft-spoken University of Washington scientist who published
the study that inspired Phillips research, has also felt outside
pressure. In a 1994 Motorola memo obtained and published by the New
Yorkbased Microwave News a corporate communications employee
discussed how the company could discredit Lais findings. The memo
concludes, I think that we have sufficiently war-gamed the Lai-Singh
issue, assuming the Scientific Advisory Group and ctia
have done their homework.
Shortly thereafter, an anonymous call was made to the National
Institutes of Health, the agency funding Lais work. The person charged
that Lai was performing experiments outside the scope of his grant. The
looked into the allegation but told
Lai to continue his research. Then, he says, the scientific advisory
group created by ctia
to manage $25
million (US) in industry-donated research money sent a letter to the
president of the University of Washington demanding that Lai and Singh
both be fired. Lai wasnt, but soon after, all non-industry funding for
related research dried up in the US. Like Phillips, he left the field.
wicord, now semi-retired, admitted in an
interview that he asked Phillips to collect more data, but insisted
that Motorola eventually encouraged him to publish his findings.
Similarly, the Motorola spokesperson acknowledged the war game memo,
but told me that the company and the wireless industry in general have
demonstrated a strong commitment to high- quality research in the area
of the safety of radio waves.
The industry has indeed funded a number of trials on the potential
effects of cellphone radiation, but the results of those studies differ
markedly from those funded by the government or other public agencies.
In short, industry-funded research tends to show no cause for concern;
the findings of other studies suggest a need for precaution.
In a paper published last year in Environmental Health Perspectives
Swiss researchers reported that of the studies published between 1995
and 2005, which investigated whether controlled exposure to radio
frequency radiation affected humans, 82 percent of those funded by
public agencies, and 71 percent of those funded by a combination of
industry and public money, reported that there were effects; only 33
percent of the solely industry-funded studies did. The authors point
out that scientists funded by public agencies may have an interest in
finding a response in order to secure additional funding, but Lai
doesnt buy this argument. Having shifted his research focus to finding
cancer cures, he still follows the literature on cellphones, and has
done his own analysis of 336 published papers. Industry-funded studies,
he says, are roughly twice as likely as government-funded ones to
conclude that cellphones are harmless. Phillips is also convinced that
the industry either cherry-picks its data or designs studies to show
nothing. A lot of the studies that are done right now are done purely
as PR tools for the industry, he says.
ecent epidemiological (population-based)
studies comparing the cellphone habits of people with brain tumours to
healthy individuals suggest that the frequency and length of use
may indeed play a role in tumour development. Theres no indication,
for people who use their phones for less than ten years, of an
association between mobile phone use and these particular cancers,
says Lawrie Challis, former chairman of the UKs Mobile
Telecommunications and Health Research Programme. But knowing what
happens in the short term tells you nothing about what happens in the