In 1989, a New Yorker writer named Paul Brodeur published a story about Meadow Street in Guilford, Connecticut, where cancer cases had clustered near power lines and an electric substation.
His influential book, called The Great Power Line Cover Up, followed in 1993. It was a sequel, of sorts, to stories Brodeur had written in the 1970s linking microwave ovens, TV broadcasts, and CB radios to potentially lethal doses of radiation.
“After reading ‘The Great Power-Line Cover-Up,’ the only thing I am convinced of is that author Paul Brodeur truly believes that electromagnetic waves from power-lines cause cancer,” a reviewer wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1993.
These days, we don’t hear much about microwaves, or power lines, or CB radios causing cancer, because now we have new gadgets to worry about: our cell phones.
On Thursday, a preliminary cell phone radiation study in rats, posted online by the very respectable National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has once again raised the question of whether invisible radiation is giving us all cancer. The study found low rates — in the 2% to 3% range — of brain and heart tumors in 90 male rats dosed with nine hours a day of cell phone exposure for two years, starting in the womb.
The rats exposed to cell phone signals also lived longer than others, which is kind of weird if the radiation is so deadly. And it didn’t affect female rats.
Despite the slew of headlines the study spurred, cancer researchers say one rat study doesn’t erase a patchy history of claims of a link between electric fields and cancer. Plus, there just isn’t any human data, and no increase in brain or heart tumors in people that should show up with hundreds of millions of them using cells phone, if there really was a link.
“There is a really long history here of studies like this one, where the immediate response of people in the field is that ‘this must be wrong’, we would have seen it long ago if it was true. Which is infuriating,” cancer epidemiologist Richard Stevens of the University of Connecticut, who was not involved in the study, told BuzzFeed News. “On the other side, we have had a long history of scares, where many times, they are junk science.”
A 1992 study linking power lines to cancer, for example, turned out to be a case of scientific misconduct, where a researcher from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory fabricated data to suggest cells altered their chemistry in response to electromagnetic fields.
The new NTP study isn’t junk science, which is why it has gotten some notice, after it was first reported by Microwave News (dedicated to “reporting on the potential health and environmental impacts of electromagnetic fields and radiation” for 35 years). The experiment was requested by the Food and Drug Administration after a 2011 World Health Organization classification of cell phone signals as a “possible carcinogen” and conducted by well-regard federal scientists.
“This report from the National Toxicology Program is good science,” Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society said in a statement on the study that called it a “paradigm shift” in cell phone risk thinking. “This is a striking example of why serious study is so important in evaluating cancer risk.”
On the other hand, “a lot of these basic science studies just don’t work out and are never replicated,” Nicole Willmarth of the American Brain Tumor Association. “People should take studies like this one with a grain of salt.”
The rat study is just part of a bigger effort scheduled for completion next year, which also includes mice.
One NIH reviewer of the paper, Michael Lauer, suggested that the results were likely false, simply based on the low number of rats involved in the study. The curious finding that male rats in the control group unexposed to cell phone signals died sooner, and that past studies haven’t seen such an effect, “leaves me even more skeptical of the authors’ claims,” Lauer wrote.
“We do not know why the male rat control group had a low survival rate,” the NTP research team acknowledged in their report. But they stood by their statistics, suggesting there is only a 5% chance it is a fluke. That’s standard in medical studies, but it makes a lot of statisticians nervous, especially after a 2005 Stanford study titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” raised the profile of unreliable statistics in biomedicine.
The dose of cellphone radiation — not enough to warm the rats, but close — and its duration starting in the womb, make it very hard to extrapolate from the findings to the average person whose cell phone spends most of its time plugged into the dashboard of their car, Willmarth said. “What’s remarkable is they are finding any effect at all.”
About 240 million Americans own cell phones, while only 150 million owned one in 2000. And over that same time period, brain cancer rates have remained flat or declined slightly, according to National Cancer Institute data, at about 6 cases in every 100,000 people.
“You might argue that brain tumor rates are not increasing and more people are using cell phones, but you could also say people don’t hold cell phones to their heads so much anymore, they are reading or sending text messages on them,” said Willmarth.
Most researchers just see the new NIH study as science at work, slow and steady. But the original radiation alarmist Brodeur, now 85, sees a conspiracy.
“These findings are nothing short of a bombshell,” he told BuzzFeed News by email, saying they will force NCI and NIH to weigh in after “ignoring or denying the existence of this problem for more than two decades.”
Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Dan Vergano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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