The truth about mobile phone radiation
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Ali Moore
American epidemiologist Dr Devra Davis joins Lateline to discuss the health risks associated with mobile phone use.
ALI MOORE: How many minutes or hours a day are you on your mobile phone?
Do you use a headset or hold it close to your ear? Do you keep it in a pocket for easy reach and do you ever think about what it could be doing to your health?
Our guest tonight says you should.
Dr Devra Davis is an epidemiologist and founding director of the toxicology and environmental studies board at the United States National Academy of Sciences. She’s written a new book called Disconnect: The truth about mobile phone radiation, what the industry has done to hide it, and how to protect your family.
Devra Davis joined me from Washington earlier.
Devra Davis, welcome to Lateline.
DEVRA DAVIS, EPIDEMIOLOGIST AND AUTHOR: Thank you.
ALI MOORE: The cover of your book states categorically that as research scientists are now demonstrating, mobile phone radiation can damage the human body’s cells and yet in the first few pages you write neither the danger nor the safety of cell phones is yet certain, why the apparent contradiction?
DEVRA DAVIS: Well, I think there’s a lot of legitimate complexity to the science and I think industry has done a good job of magnifying that complexity so people are terribly confused about it. But the bottom line is a cell phone is a two-way microwave radio and should not be held next to the brain or close to the body.
ALI MOORE: What’s convinced you, what evidence do you point to?
DEVRA DAVIS: Well, I think some of the most compelling evidence actually comes from Australia, from the laboratory of John Aitken who has shown that sperm from healthy men when split into two samples will die three times faster and have three times more damage on the DNA on the sperm after exposure to cell phone radiation.
Other work has been done also in Australia by surgeons Vinnie Karona and Charlie Teo who have looked at all the world’s literature and have concluded people who use cell phones heavily have a doubled or greater risk of brain cancer overall. And then finally there’s the work of Bruce Armstrong among others looking at large studies done over time in 13 different countries which also confirm the views of Dr Karona and Teo that long term regular use of cell phones puts one at risk of brain cancer.
ALI MOORE: A couple of points there. First the study involving 13 countries, there was the World Health Organisation’s interphone study which was over a number of years and as we said, involved more than a dozen countries. That study determined that overall there was no increase in risk of glioma, in other words, brain cancer, with the use of mobile phones. They did say it requires further investigation. But more investigation is a lot different to saying big risk, isn’t it?
DEVRA DAVIS: Well, let me point something out to you, that study defined a user as someone who made one call a week for six months. I don’t know about you but I certainly use my phone more than that. And the average user in that study hadn’t used a cell phone very long. Very recently two of the leaders of that study have broken ranks from that conclusion. Dr Siegal Sadetzki and Dr Elisabeth Cardis who originally was the director of the entire interphone study, have just published an analysis where they say that while more studies are always needed, And I certainly agree we need more data, at this point they think it would be imprudent not to take precautionary actions based on what they have observed which is, as I noted, a doubled or greater risk of brain tumours with long term cell phone users and remember this, the interphone study did not analyse data that they still have on tumours of the cheek and tumours of the hearing nerve and there again several studies in a number of country, Israel and Japan among them, have found a double or greater risk on tumours on the hearing nerve and tumours on the check associated with long term cell phone use. So I do think at this point it’s appropriate to take precautionary action because brain cancer can take 40 years to develop in a population that’s been exposed. We know that because it took 40 years after the bombings that ended World War II before we saw a measurable significant increase in brain cancer in the general population in Japan.
ALI MOORE: Is that why when you look at the studies even going as far back as the mid-80s when mobile phone use became more common, the rates of brain cancer had been pretty constant, is that how you explain that?
DEVRA DAVIS: Exactly. And by the way in the mid-80s fewer than 3 per cent of all people in most of our countries were using cell phones but if you fast forward to today when almost 100 per cent of people are using cell phones and in Australia you have more than one phone for every person. Some people have two or three phones. So the situation right now today is radically different than in the 1980s, 1990s or even at the beginning of this decade.
ALI MOORE: What about the Danish study of 2006 which is cited by many, more than 420,000 mobile phone users were followed for more than 21 years and no evidence was found of tumour risk with phone use, would you say that’s another case of not enough time and not enough usage?
DEVRA DAVIS: Two things, I think that’s well said. Not enough time, not enough usage but the average user in that study had used a cell phone for eight years. Again, we know that it seems to be 10 years or more that triggers this measurable increase in risk but there’s something else that’s very important to understand about that study. That study actually started out with 700,000 cell phone users, mobile phone users and they excluded 200,000 people because they were business users of mobile phones. So they excluded the people that might have been the biggest users, the heaviest users. They then looked at the remaining group and asked whether there was any measurable increase in brain tumours that had occurred in a period of time that included 20 years but very few people in their study had actually used a cell phone for more than 10 years. Now, here’s the problem, they looked at less than a million people, the rate of brain cancer in the general population is say four to five per 100,000. So you need to observe many millions of people in a large population over a long period of time before finding anything at all and as you pointed out before we just don’t have enough time to observe all that. That’s why in my book, Disconnect, I talk about what we know experimentally and what we know experimentally is if you take radio frequency radiation from a cell phone and expose it to brain cells in a culture in the laboratory you can actually measure markers of damage to those brain cells just like that which we see with cancer.
ALI MOORE: If the evidence is so clear why is it that no less an authority than the World Health Organisation says that the current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields and indeed that’s a finding that’s echoed by other public health organisations?
DEVRA DAVIS: Well, actually the World Health Organisation has said that low level electromagnetic fields are a suspect cause of cancer in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, and in May they’re going to be reviewing the evidence on mobile phone radiation as well which is a form of radio frequency radiation. In fact, it is difficult to view the evidence and the World Health Organisation tends to focus predominantly on human studies and as we indicated at the beginning if you focus only on cancer I think you’re missing an important part of the equation. That’s why the work on sperm count and male health is so important.
John Aitken’s work has been matched by work by the director of the Cleveland Clinic, Professor Ashok Agarwal, one of the world’s most distinguished experts in this field, and work by Lukas Margaritas in a laboratory in Greece and by the medical university in Turkey. All of those laboratories working totally independently of one another have shown markers of damage on the DNA of sperm, have shown a production of free radicals which are damaging agents in the blood and those together, I think, indicate that we’ve got real reason for concern which is why the Israeli government, the Finnish government, the French government and British government have all issued precautionary statements of various sorts. In fact in France right now it would be illegal to sell a cell phone for the use of a child under the age of 12.
ALI MOORE: Wouldn’t you imagine though that that in itself would be enough for the WHO and other organisations to issue stronger warnings?
DEVRA DAVIS: I think they will be doing that soon. I’ve been in contact with senior officials there and in a number of other nations that are very concerned about this. The issue with cell phones is not that hard. It’s not that we tell people you shouldn’t use them but you need to use them safely which means use a head set, use a speaker phone, don’t keep the phone on your body. Be smart and sensible with how you use a phone and don’t give a phone to a child to use without a head set or a speaker phone. Children should be encouraged to text and not talk on a phone and all of us should think twice before keeping a phone close to the head or close to the body.
ALI MOORE: And if you take the steps that you recommend does that reduce the risk or remove it?
DEVRA DAVIS: Well you know, there’s no such thing as a life without risk and I think phones today are like cars and guns and alcohol, they’re things that we become quite accustomed to, they have valuable roles in our society but we’ve got to be smart about how we use them. Remember when we didn’t have air bags or seatbelts and when we weren’t quite aware of the needs to take precautions in the way we drove, that’s where we are with cell phones today. We’ve got to take a step back and be sensible to understand that there are safer ways to use cell phones and that’s why we’re launching the global campaign for safer cell phones.
ALI MOORE: Given the uncertainty while you might argue the absence of proof doesn’t equal proof of safety, you go a step further, you warn of a public health catastrophe, is that not alarmist?
DEVRA DAVIS: Well, you know, let me explain where I’m coming from. I worked at the US National Academy of Sciences for 10 years and in that capacity as director of one of their large boards I oversaw the evaluation of the evidence on passive smoke and tobacco and asbestos and in those instances we looked at the data and we said well we’re not sure, we think there could be a problem and while we waited and continued to evaluate the issue unfortunately millions of people were exposed and you in Australia now are just starting to recover from the epidemics associated with tobacco and asbestos. In this situation with cell phones I don’t think we want to wait. That’s why I’ve written my book, that’s why I’ve taken a step outside of the traditional academic role and say look, we can be sensible about this. Let’s take these precautions now, we’re going to be better off and my children and grandchildren will be better off as well. I recognise we don’t have definitive proof in terms of human harm but for where I sit as someone who evaluated evidence for governments around the world on tobacco and asbestos we have plenty of good solid reasons for concern and there are simple things we can do to protect ourselves so let’s just do it.
ALI MOORE: You say not definitive proof but in fact you’re implying a cover up, aren’t you? You write that the existence of scientific conflict on this subject is in large part a reflection of the successful efforts of some to manufacture scientific doubt?
DEVRA DAVIS: Well, I think the documentation on that is pretty clear. It’s in my book, it’s in the work of Dr Donald Maisch in Australia as well where we trace the paper trail and trace the money trail. One example that will be in my new afterword that is not out yet is that in 1994 when scientists first reported in a scientific meeting that cell phone radiation could damage the DNA inside the nucleus of the brain of rats, those scientists were treated the following way. First the journal that accepted their paper was asked to unaccept it. Then their university was asked to fire them, then the agency that funded them was asked to defund them and when all of that failed then the company hired a public relations firm to “war game the science” and all of that is documented and will be in the afterword to my book as well. So this war game strategy is what industry did in the 1990s and remember, in the 1990s we didn’t even have a cell phone in every house, in every person.
ALI MOORE: That would imply, wouldn’t it, that the WHO and the other public health organisations that say there’s no risk are part of the same conspiracy and where’s their incentive to hide the facts?
DEVRA DAVIS: I don’t think it’s such a simple thing as a conspiracy. Look, cell phones are very convenient, we want to believe that they’re going to be safe. I myself started out when writing this book years ago, I had three phones. I thought that people were concerned about this were ridiculous and I learned I was wrong. I learned that Sir William Stuart in Britain in the year 2000 headed up a commission for the government, for the Royal College of Physicians, and concluded that based on what he knew then it would be prudent for teenagers not to use cell phones and by the way the British health authorities have recently reaffirmed that view in a pamphlet you can find from our website. So I don’t think it’s a matter of a simple conspiracy. Science is more complicated than that and we become scientists because we like to argue and we like to look to look at detail and nuance and there are legitimate uncertainty and questions that can be raised by reasonable people. I think what’s happened in this situation is that the industry has taken some advantage of the inherent tendencies of scientists to get into arguments with one another, magnified that, exaggerated uncertainties which are legitimate and as a bottom line consequence the public’s terribly confused which I understand.
ALI MOORE: Certainly plenty of food for thought. Devra Davis, many thanks for joining Lateline.
DEVRA DAVIS: Thank you so much, appreciate it.Leave a reply →