Research on cell phone radiation safety

The Action Moves To Europe
Microwave News
February, 1999

The U.S. government is getting ready to bury the EMF issue (see p.7)—at the same time that the European Parliament is discussing prudent avoidance measures like ALARA (see p.1). The European Union is also likely to fund important studies on cellular phone safety – studies that the U.S.’s WTR has not carried out in six years, with a budget of over $25 million.

There’s no doubt about it. On power line EMFs, on cellular phone safety—the action has moved to Europe. But will Europe avoid the mistakes made in the U.S.? Right now it’s hard to say.

The debate in the European Parliament is encouraging: The issue of EMF health effects has been placed in a public health context. In America, it has more often been treated as a battle best left to individuals and their lawyers.

The U.S. is so averse to regulation of business activity that the standard response to an uncertain level of danger to public health is to do nothing. In America, industry is generally given the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, this too often means that the public ends up serving as guinea pigs, even when low-cost precautionary measures are available.

The European Parliament holds out the possibility of a better approach. The substantial support for ALARA points to a different relationship between public health, private profit and uncertainty. Europe is at least considering a more intelligent response to an uncertain level of risk: “be careful,” rather than “do nothing.” Ironically, the idea of prudent avoidance was born in the U.S., at Carnegie Mellon University. But it seems to have taken firmer root across the Atlantic.

Uncertainties about health effects can only be resolved through more research. In the U.S., that research has been badly handled. Research on cellular phone safety, for example, has been left in the hands of industry. The result has been a lot of delay, little science and too much spin.

Unfortunately, Europe does appear to be flirting with one of the worst American errors. Two years ago an EC expert group called for a “fire wall” to prevent industry from influencing “the choice of research studies funded, the conduct or the outcome of such studies” (see MWN, M/A97). That is a good description of what is needed—but the idea has now been abandoned.

Instead, it has been left to industry to define what a wireless health research plan should cover. And even though half the funding will be public, corporations might be able to restrict researchers’ discussion of results prior to publication. Corporate PR departments could then be guaranteed advance notice of troublesome findings, the better to spin the news.

The phone manufacturers say they do not want industry to influence the course of research. They argue that their research agenda is based on that of the WHO, and point out that a WHO panel is to decide which labs will take part.

But the WHO’s EMF project has shown that it is not independent of corporations or the military. After a conference on mobile phone safety in Austria, an industry representative escorted the head of the WHO project, Dr. Michael Repacholi, to a meeting with the press at which he downplayed the concerns raised at the conference (see MWN, N/D98). The U.S. military has had too much influence on the WHO project’s deliberations (see MWN, M/A97 and M/J97). And when Repacholi himself found that mobile phone radiation was linked to an increased cancer risk, he gave the experimental results to his corporate sponsor, Telstra, several months before they were made public (see MWN, M/J97 and J/A97).

Concerned about this sort of coziness with vested interests, we urged the EC not to delegate its wireless research effort to the WHO. Repacholi responded that, “WHO has neither the resources nor the desire to run such a program” (see MWN, M/A97 and M/J97). But now industry is following the WHO’s lead on which studies to conduct, and the WHO will choose the labs to conduct them. True, the WHO is not “running” the program; that has been left to the cellular phone industry itself.

European citizens should be uneasy about this sort of corporate influence over research. When scientists receive public funds, private interests must not be allowed to restrict when or how results can be discussed. In each country and Europe-wide, health officials must define and support their own research agendas on non-ionizing radiation. It should not be left to industry to choose which studies are needed to assure the safety of the public.

The U.S. has fumbled the issue of non-ionizing radiation and public health. We hope that Europe finds a better way.