• 24 FEB 11
    • 0

    1361: Between a Rock and A Hard Place Down Under

    Opinion :

    “Question Everything” – The motto written on the side of one of the campus buildings at the Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorne Campus, Melbourne.

    For those interested in following the continuing controversy over the state-of-play in regards to cell phone research, the blog “Between a Rock and A Hard Place” by Research Professor Dariusz Leszczynski from the Radiation Nuclear safety Authority of Finland is essential reading: http://betweenrockandhardplace.wordpress.com/

    In his February 9th and 22nd blogs he reports on his trip to Australia where he is taking up an eight-month sabbatical position as Adjunct Professor at Andrew Wood’s lab at the Brain Sciences Institute (BSI) at Swinburne University of Technology (SUT). Wood is author of the proposed ARPANSA ELF exposure standard that aims to increase the allowable limits to power frequency EMFs by a factor of three, apparently to accommodate the needs of the MRI industry. I refer to it as the Amazing Technicolor Sparkle Standard (ATSS) which sidesteps the link between childhood cancer and low-level ELF magnetic fields to instead concentrate on avoiding Magnetophosphenes which are those annoying flashes of light (phosphenes) that are sometimes seen when one is subjected to a intense magnetic field such as when in an MRI. Links:

    #1133: Scientific workshop on “A New Australian EMF Standard”

    #1029: MRI and EMF standards: When is enough enough?

    #1028 : ICNIRP exposure limits in conflict with the MRI industry

    In regards to the Australian ELF standard setting being influenced by MRI considerations, it is interesting to see that Swinburne University’s Bioelectromagnetics Laboratory, one of the participating laboratories of ACRBR, has received a grant for research titled: “Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) electric and magnetic field safety studies”.

    Quoting from the relevant Brain Sciences Institute web page:

    ELF fields in the environment due to the transmission, distribution and use of electric power have been shown to have a weak association with childhood leukaemia. In the short term, ELF fields can cause neurostimulation and synaptic effects in the retina of the eye. International standards for protection require a detailed understanding of these processes. Some of the uncertainties in this understanding are leading to an approach which is so conservative as to apparently restrict the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging by medical personnel. The Cellular Neuroscience Group are undertaking detailed analyses of the influence of ELF fields on neural tissue, especially where this impinges on MRI practice.
    Link: http://www.swinburne.edu.au/lss/bsi/researchunits/bioelec_lab.html

    While in Australia Leszczynski will be involved in research exposing cells to mobile phone radiation for a possible stress response, using new exposure equipment developed at ACRBR / BSI. This is an area where Leszczynski has a great deal of experience. For example he hosted a heat shock protean (HSP) workshop in Helsinki, Finland in April 2004 where he reported on his findings, supporting a HSP effect. An attempt to suppress this information was made by Motorola’s Mays Swicord which was reported in Microwave News, July 2007 (http://www.microwavenews.com/IndustryRulesRF.html )

    Leszczynski attended the ACRBR Science & Wireless 2010 event in Melbourne on 22 November 2010 and in his blog recounts his observations on the outcomes and possible future of research as a result of Interphone. According to Leszczynski “the weaknesses of the study design put in serious doubts the validity and usefulness of the final conclusions of the Interphone [study]”. Much of the discussion at the ACRBR event was over the many weaknesses of Interphone and this can be seen on the ACRBR website at: http://www.acrbr.org.au/sw2010/Default.aspx?section=Panel

    As for the possible long-term scientific impact of Interphone, Leszczynski considers it unfortunate that the legacy may be that funding agencies [many of which have ties to industry – my comment] may refuse to provide further funding because “there is no sufficiently proven evidence of health risk and, therefore, further studies on biological effects are unnecessary”. Leszczynski raises the idea that perhaps epidemiology has reached its limits and a better avenue of research may be basic laboratory research to determine if the reported biological effects are real or just artifacts.

    Extrapolating these viewpoints to their logical conclusion suggests that it is advisable to cease further epidemiological research as a waste of time and scarce funding resources and instead concentrate on laboratory studies. Considering that Australia is home to ACRBR and the BSI, perhaps these organizations should become the focus of further laboratory research to determine if mobile phone use is linked to adverse biological and neurological effects. If one looks at the people and facilities this is logical considering that Australia has both the expertise and world-class laboratories to do first class, quality mobile phone research – there is no argument about this. The BIG question, however, is to what extent do political and industrial pressures play on Australian mobile phone research outcomes?

    There are two problems with the above viewpoint, however. Consider:

    1) The usefulness of continuing the epidemiological research effort.
    If you take the 13 nation Interphone study as one entity then it is easier to dismiss it as “scientifically imperfect” (what is a ‘perfect’ study anyway?) and “inconclusive” (you don’t get ‘conclusive’ findings with epidemiological research). However, when you look at individual national studies it is no longer possible to throw any inconvenient babies (especially Swedish ones) out with the proverbial bath water. Take for example the Swedish research by the Hardell group from Örebro, Sweden. They have been criticized for finding a higher risk for brain tumours and mobile phone use than in other studies but Bruce Armstrong admitted at the ACRBR Science & Wireless 2010 event that even though the Hardell findings were not highly thought of (he failed to say exactly who thought this), he could not find any weaknesses in their methodology.

    What has been shown is that the Hardell group used a more thorough criteria than that stipulated in the Interphone methodology. For example the Interphone study included only persons diagnosed with brain tumour at the age of 30-59 years, whereas the Örebro studies included brain tumour patients aged 20-80 years. Interphone did not assess the use of cordless DECT phones while the Hardell group did. Interphone restricted the highest exposure group to people who had used a mobile phone for 1,640 hours or more in total, corresponding to a mere 30 minutes per day over a time period of 10 years. In comparison, Hardell’s group included people who had used a mobile phone 2000 hours or more. So, I would suggest that, rather than ruling out further epidemiological research as a waste of time and resources, Hardell and his team have shown how it should be done – and independent of industry influence.

    2) The usefulness of Australian laboratory research
    The centre of the mobile phone research effort in Australia is ACRBR working in close co-operation with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the Brain Sciences Institute at Swinburne University of Technology and a few other Australian Universities. Another important entity deeply involved in mobile phone research and in partnership with all these organizations is the Australian Telecommunications giant, the Telstra Corporation. It makes sense that Telstra would be deeply involved in the overall Australian mobile phone research effort for in Telstra’s 2004 Annual report it admitted that “the establishment of a link between adverse health effects and electromagnetic energy (EME) could expose us to liability or negatively affect our operations.” (This was the same year that ACRBR commenced operations.) In keeping with Swinburne Universities motto to “Question Everything” I question whether research partnering with Telstra is good science or just a political decision made in order to protect economic interests?

    Imagine a possible scenerio where the researchers at ACRBR and BSI come up with laboratory research findings that finds a clear adverse biological effect on cells exposed to mobile phone or Wi-Fi emissions. Before being submitted to a reputable journal for peer review and publishing it would obviously be evaluated by the research partners, including Telstra Corporation.
    Could there be a slight conflict of interest here, especially as Telstra has just announced its roll-out of the new 4G mobile network later in 2011, using something called Long Term Evolution technology? See Telstra’s press release dated 15 Feb, 2011: Telstra to launch 4G mobile broadband network by end 2011. Link: http://www.telstra.com.au/abouttelstra/media-centre/announcements/telstra

    In this situation will Telstra’s corporate interests influence research findings that could come out of a ACRBR-RMIT- BSI –Telstra research collaboration? Is it really sensible to assume that research findings that could be bad for Telstra’s business would ever end up on a journal publisher’s desk? This is not to say the researchers would be doing bad research but they would be aware that the results of their research would have to pass through the Telstra filter before it ever saw the light of day. They would also be aware of Bruce Hocking’s claim that he was fired from his position as Telstra’s chief medical officer after reporting on worker health complaints to management. They would know what happened to senior CSIRO scientist Stan Barnett after he displeased the telco industry, not to mention the tribulations that befell Dr. Peter French when he claimed that his research found that mobile phone radiation switched on heat shock proteins.

    Dancing to the tune of the piper

    It is somewhat ironic that the scientists in the old Soviet Union apparently had far more freedom to research all possible biological effects of RF exposure than their present day counterparts in Australia. The problem is not the individuals involved in Australian cell phone research. – The problem is that if they want a career in this area they have no choice but to play by the rules established by government and industry policy. They are between that proverbial rock and a hard place.

    This was not always so. Back in the early 1990’s Australian mobile phone research had a promising future through the CSIRO’s telecommunications division. There was the landmark 1994 RF literature review report conducted by the CSIRO’s Dr Stan Barnett for Spectrum Management Agency and the Australian government. The report concluded, in part, that there were still many unknowns and further research was necessary before mobile phone technology could be declared to be without risk. CSIRO made a number of proposals for funding to conduct what it considered the necessary research but the telcos complained to the government (which was the major share holder in Telstra) and the request was rejected. What was important about the CSIRO research proposals was that, if approved, it would have been research largely independent of industry influence. Was CSIRO’s independence from industry influence an important factor in the government’s refusal to allow CSIRO to conduct its RF bioeffects research program? Did the fact that the government’s key medical advisor on mobile phone health research was also Motorola’s “Director of Global EME Strategy and Regulatory Affairs” have a role in axing the CSIRO?
    Link to the CSIRO report:

    Read all about it

    It seems that the above mentioned Australian research organizations are now seeking funding in order to conduct ongoing laboratory research to determine if mobile phone radiation has a detrimental effect on human endothelial cells, thus affecting the blood-brain barrier. Is this the best avenue for research funding post Interphone? Can Telstra be trusted to be an impartial partner in the research?

    As part of my thesis I conducted an extensive analysis on the history of cell phone research in Australia. Titled, A Machiavellian Spin: Political and corporate involvement with cell phone research in Australia, it was not used in the thesis because it was not directly relevant to my topic: telecommunications standard setting. It is now available online on the European Pandora Foundation website. http://www.pandora-foundation.eu/documents/a-machiavellian-spin.html

    There will probably be a few individuals less than happy with these writings (that’s nothing new) but before they ring for legal advice or fire off a spittle covered flamer email may I suggest they head off to Melbourne (if they’re not there already), catch the tram out to Swinburne University (Hawthorne campus), seek out that campus building with the huge letters on the side proclaiming: Question Everything and meditate on what that really recommends.

    The final question is what would they prefer? As it is worded on the building or a change to ‘Question Everything – Except Us’.

    Don Maisch PhD

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