#925: Cell phone cancer risk debated with Henry Lai
From Iris Atzmon:
Cell phone cancer risk debated
Last updated August 1, 2008
Henry Lai, a UW professor of bioengineering, has been warning of the
potential health risks of cellular phones since the 1990s.
Cell phone cancer risk debated
UW researcher sees vindication
By TOM PAULSON
More than a decade ago, the University of Washington’s Henry Lai and his
colleague Narenda “N.P.” Singh reported that cell phones appear to emit
enough electromagnetic radiation to cause the kind of DNA damage to brain
cells that can lead to cancer.
Few paid much attention, and mobile phone use exploded. But the UW
scientists said they became targets of an industry strategy aimed at
discrediting and suppressing studies raising health concerns about cell
“They even wrote letters to the UW trying to get me fired,” said Lai, a
gentle man who laughs easily despite being on the losing side in a war
between business and science.
The latest skirmish to shine a spotlight on this battle which has moved
mostly to Europe because of lack of research funding for it in the U.S.
came last week when a prominent cancer researcher, Dr. Ronald Herberman at
the University of Pittsburgh, warned parents against letting young children
ever use cell phones.
“Recently, I have become aware of the growing body of literature linking
long-term cell phone use to possible adverse health effects, including
cancer,” Herberman wrote in an advisory that included brain imaging scans
showing how radiation from cell phones penetrates much deeper into the heads
of children compared with adults.
Herberman suggested that the electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell
phones should be of concern to adults as well, citing “unpublished data”
from large studies done in Europe that though not yet definitive link
cell phone use and brain cancers.
Lai, for his part, chuckled at the media frenzy Herberman caused.
“I guess it’s only newsworthy when a cancer doctor, who hasn’t done any of
the research himself, discovers it,” Lai said, grinning widely. “We’ve been
saying this for more than a decade.”
The UW bioengineering professor emphasized that there is no direct evidence
showing that cell phone use causes cancer.
But in the decade since he was attacked by the cell phone industry
Motorola, to be specific Lai said further epidemiological studies done in
Europe show some indication of a cancer link.
Not everyone agrees.
“I consider it alarmist, premature and without any scientific basis,” said
Dr. Marc Chamberlain, a neuro-oncologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer
The most alarming studies aren’t that credible, Chamberlain said, and the
more credible studies done on the potential risk of cancer from cell phone
use have failed to document any link.
Herberman’s warnings, Chamberlain said, are basically hearsay and border on
irresponsible. Brain cancer does appear to be on the increase, Chamberlain
said, so it’s important not to alarm the public without concrete scientific
John Walls, a spokesman for the cell phone industry trade association CTIA,
agreed and noted that numerous studies reviewed by the American Cancer
Society, the Food and Drug Administration and other scientific organizations
agree that the majority of research shows no convincing evidence of
increased cancer rates among cell phone users.
“That may be due to the fact that so many of these studies have been done by
scientists funded by the industry,” countered Louis Slesin, editor of
Microwave News, a newsletter devoted to getting the word out on evidence of
harm from various kinds of electromagnetic radiation.
Given the hundreds of billions of dollars at stake in the cell phone market,
Slesin said, the industry is also trying to discredit or redirect the
independent science in Europe.
Herberman, he said, was referring to the so-called Interphone study a
13-country, $15 million European epidemiological study of tumor rates among
cell phone users which was completed in 2005 but remains unpublished
because of disagreement among the scientists (some of them funded by
industry) on how to interpret the results.
“Industry doesn’t like the data,” said Slesin, who has quoted some
scientists who say the study clearly shows increased cancer rates among cell
phone users. “The problem is that we still don’t know and the science has
been heavily politicized. Henry (Lai) was never alarmist. He just presented
his findings and refused to budge from them.”
That was in the mid-1990s. Lai and Singh published their findings of DNA
damage in rats exposed to relatively low levels of the kind of radiation
cell phone users get. At the time, the UW researchers had been working with
Motorola, sharing findings and meeting the company’s scientists.
“We thought they were collaborating and interested in the science,” Singh
“We were naive,” Lai said.
As they later discovered when an industry memo was leaked to Slesin, and
published in 1997 in Microwave News, Motorola had secretly drafted a “war
games” memo that aimed to use media relations, industry-paid scientists and
any other means possible to discredit and suppress the scientists’ findings.
One industry-sponsored scientist even wrote a letter to then-UW President
Richard McCormick asking that Lai and Singh be fired, according to a UW
Motorola spokeswoman Paula Thornton Greear, in an e-mail to the Seattle P-I,
denied that the company ever sought to suppress Lai’s research but rather
sought out independent review of the UW’s findings.
She said: “It is noteworthy that, despite numerous attempts, other
scientists have not been able to confirm Dr. Lai’s claims of DNA breaks. In
fact, recent scientific reviews have concluded that the weight of scientific
evidence demonstrates that RF (radio frequency) exposure does not induce DNA
Lai noted with a chuckle that if you subtract from the literature all of the
industry-funded scientific studies, most research shows evidence of health
effects from cell phone use.
Scientists at other institutions they worked with lost funding and
university positions as a result of this industry campaign. Lai said the UW,
however, supported them despite the industry attacks, but the campaign
succeeded in effectively eliminating independent studies of electromagnetism
and health in the U.S.
“It’s all being done in Europe now,” he said.
Well, maybe not all of it. Dr. Sam Milham, a retired Washington state
epidemiologist who has for many years studied the health effects of
electromagnetic radiation, continues to pursue this question on his own
Milham, Lai and other international scientists have formed the BioInitiative
Working Group dedicated to improving safety standards for exposure to
Milham has long believed that even household or office exposures to
electromagnetic radiation can be dangerous. But it remains a hard sell, and
a hard case to make scientifically.
“Look, people love their cell phones and microwave ovens,” Milham said.
“Nobody wants to hear this. And even though the corporations have cut off
all the research money for this in the U.S., there’s plenty of new data
supporting this coming out of Europe.”
Lai, however, emphasized that scientists still can’t say with any certainty
that using cell phones causes cancer. But he won’t use a cell phone or a
wireless headset, which he said puts out just as much radiation.
What the professor said he does know for certain, from personal experience,
is the cell phone industry has worked hard to prevent science from resolving
P-I reporter Tom Paulson can be reached at 206-448-8318 or