Devra Davis: Disconnected from Science: Part I

Over the past several months, Skeptic North has been publishing various critiques of the movement to ban WiFi and limit microwave radiation in the 2.4 GHz range used in cellular telecommunications.  Despite the continued insistence by this fractious bunch that our children (and even our rose bushes) are in danger, they have failed to offer convincing evidence of their claim.

Despite the best efforts of Health Canada, various boards of education and our own Steve Thoms, Rodney Palmer has continued to yell “WiFi” in the crowded theatre of concerned and confused parents who are legitimately worried about the effects that non-ionising radiation emitted by cell phones may have on their children.  This has led the Centre for Inquiry, Canada to submit this brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health (HESA).  They released their findings on Friday of last week and CFI distributed this press release.  HESA seems to have rejected most of the odd claims by the fringe scientists and promoters of electro-hypersensitivity.  Quoting the release:

“HESA  has confirmed its support of Health Canada to properly assess and manage the risks of electro-magnetic radiation. While it is prudent to keep a watchful eye on the health effects of new technology, HESA, in its report, has not affirmed the  existence of EHS or any adverse health effects from wireless or cellular technology.”

In the mean time, Lorne Trottier, electronics engineer and science advisor to the CFI Canada, who has written blistering critiques of Trent University professor Magda Havas and the American conspiratorial duo of Levitt and Lai, has co-authored, along with Harvy Kofsky, a final comprehensive report on the last person standing in the debate: Devra Davis.

Dr. Davis has had an impressive career, if Wikipedia is to be believed, and stayed mostly within the mainstream of science and her field of epidemiology and cancer research.  She has won some high profile awards and even shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace prize awarded to Al Gore and 400 of Dr. Davis’ fellow lead authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  It is unfortunate, therefore,  that her new book Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide it, and How to Protect Your Family hits so far off the mark.  It is a hodge-podge of cherry picked and mis-represented science that reveals more about Davis’ individual ideological outlook than it ever does about the current state of the scientific consensus.

The first half of Lorne Trottier’s examination of Davis’ claims is below, and the second half will be published on Wednesday of this week.  For more on the debate, see www.emfandhealth.com .

Part I: Major Misstatements

Introduction/Overview

Disconnect is an alarmist and conspiratorial account of the issue of cell phones and health. The tag line on the jacket sets the tone: “The truthabout cell phone radiation. What the industry has done to hide it, and how to protect your family”. Far from sticking to the facts, Disconnect totally misrepresents key findings of some of the most important cell phone studies.  If you were expecting an objective review of the often confusing scientific data in this area, you should avoid this book.

Disconnect focuses almost exclusively on studies that support its alarmist conclusions while either ignoring or falsifying information about studies showing no harm. Virtually all the alarmist “studies” that Davis cites used a poor methodology and/or have not been replicated in follow up studies. In fact, most have been refuted by far more comprehensive and rigorous studies. In many cases, serious flaws have been found with studies that show harm. She interviewed only a relatively small group of dissident scientists who are outside of the mainstream. The book is completely lacking in objectivity.

Disconnect completely ignores the fact that each of the public health organizations of the industrialized world does regular expert reviews of the scientific literature. Virtually every one of these expert reviews has come to the same conclusion as the World Health Organization “that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields”. This conclusion is echoed by the expert reports of the public health organizations of virtually every industrialized country including the American Cancer Society, Health Canada, and the European SCENIHR (* 1 – 5).

Instead, Davis implies that there is a massive worldwide conspiracy to cover up data, and disprove or dismiss the alarmist studies. The book is full of anecdotes about data that was altered, or disappeared, funding that was cut off, and alleged threats. This is the stuff of a Hollywood conspiracy movie. Such a massive conspiracy, involving virtually all the world’s most prestigious health science organizations, is simply not plausible.

Major Misstatements in Disconnect

There are so many things wrong in Disconnect that it is difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps the most devastating criticism that can be made about Disconnect is that it totally misrepresents key findings of some of the most important cell phone studies. We will review a few of the most blatant examples.

Basic physics

Early in Disconnect, Davis gets some facts on basic physics wrong. On P. 17 she states: “Electromagnetic waves ability to travel depends on how long they are. The faster a wave oscillates and the smaller it is, the shorter the distance it can reach.” Hello, did she check with NASA? The Voyageur 1 is the most distant man made object. After doing a Grand Tour of the outer planets in the 70’s and 80’s, it’s still operating at a distance of 17 billion km. Travelling at the speed of light, it takes 15.4 hours for it’s signals to reach earth. Its transmitter operates in the X band at approximately 5X the frequency of a cell phone, and at 19W or only roughly 100X the power of a cell phone. A first year physics student could tell her that all electromagnetic waves follow the inverse square law. The frequency has no effect on distance.

Defending scientific misconduct

She devotes a whole chapter of the book to defending Dr. Hugo Rüdiger, who was found guilty of scientific fraud – the most serious offence in science. Rüdiger had published a couple of papers purporting to show that cell phone radiation can damage DNA. If true, this would be quite serious. A couple of other scientists reviewed the data in his paper and found compelling statistical evidence that critical parts of the data were “cooked” (Lerchl  et al. *6 ). An attempt to reproduce Rüdiger’s experiments found no DNA damage (Speit et al. *7 ). The University of Vienna held two inquiries and found that Rüdiger was guilty of scientific misconduct and recommended that the papers be withdrawn. Davis spins these damning facts into an elaborate whodunit claiming that Rüdiger was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy and frame-up. This is simply not credible.

Men’s fertility

Davis devotes another chapter to the assertion that cell phone radiation affects men’s fertility. On P. 140 she states: “A report from researchers (*8)….garnered headlines around the world, such as Cell Phones Lower Sperm Count”. On P. 141 she continues with “The Cleveland researchers referred to their results, in the customary voice of science, as preliminary, and duly called for more research.” Despite this caution, she proceeds to tie together a handful of disparate sperm studies to back up her sensational claim that cell phones reduce male fertility.

She ignores the fact that all of the studies she cites have been criticized for poor methodology, and some have failed attempts at replication (*9, 10). In its 2009 assessment Health Effects of Exposure to EMF, the European SCENIHR (*5 P 32 – 33) had this to say: “The authors reported (*8) that reduced sperm quality was associated with duration of daily exposure to mobile phones assessed by interview and with duration of use of mobile phones assessed by questionnaire. However, possible confounding due to lifestyle differences (associated with differences in the use of mobile phones) may have biased the results of both studies”. Davis sums up her “case” with this bold claim on P. 146 “We must remember that we live in a world in which some continue to believe evolution itself is a sort of preliminary theory.”

SAM the “standard head”

Davis devotes large sections of the book to SAM (specific anthropomorphic mannequin), the model head that was developed by international standards bodies (IEEE and IEC) and is used by cell phone manufacturers to test and certify compliance with RF exposure safety limits. This limit, which is known as the SAR (specific absorption rate), is set at 1.6W/kg averaged over 1 gram of body tissue in the US and Canada (2 W/kg averaged over 10 gram of body tissue in countries adopting the ICNIRP guidelines). She states P 74 “In coming up with ways to estimate exposures from cell phones, scientists in 1996 relied on a fellow named SAM, which stands for Standard Anthropomorphic Man (sic). SAM is not an ordinary guy. He ranked in size and mass at the top 10 percent of all military recruits in 1989 weighing more than two hundred pounds, with an eleven-pound head, and standing about six feet two inches tall”. P. 75 “These standards were set in 1993 and based on SAM’s big brain, not for the much smaller heads of children, of women, or other adults.”

She implies that regulators and the industry have callously continued to use SAM as the reference, without considering the issue of smaller heads. This is simply not the case. The IEEE 1528 standard for SAM was published in 2003. Dozens of studies have been published comparing the SAR exposures of SAM to various sizes of heads including those of children. Many of these studies have concluded that SAM absorbs more energy than any human head, and is therefore a conservative model for certification tests. For example in Beard et al. 2006 (*11) conducted an international study by 14 laboratories: “The results show that when the pinna SAR is calculated separately from the head SAR, SAM produced a higher SAR in the head than the anatomically correct head models. Also the larger (adult) head produced a statistically significant higher peak SAR for both the 1- and 10-g averages than did the smaller (child) head for all conditions of frequency and position”. In addition, it should be noted that the established SAR limits have a safety margin of 50X.

Thus ends the first of two parts of this series.  Return on Wednesday for Part II: Cell Phones and Cancer.

Author bios

Dr. Lorne Trottier. is an electronics engineer, a co-founder of Matrox a major hi-tech company. He is President of the Foundation of the Montreal Science Center, and has an honorary doctorate from McGill University. He has spent considerable time (with colleagues from McGill) putting together the web site www.emfandhealth.com which contains a wealth of information and credible scientific references on the issue of EMF and health. Included on the web site are references to statements from most of the world’s public health organizations attesting to the fact that there is no credible scientific evidence that EMF causes health effects. Dr. Trottier is a member of the CFI Canada board and a science adviser to the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) at the Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Harvey Kofsky is a Professional Engineer. He has a BaSC degree in 1966 in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto. He is an entrepreneur who has founded a number of successful electronics companies including Promatek Industries Ltd. during his career. Kofsky is passionate about ensuring that the public is given appropriate information in order to evaluate pseudo scientific media reports.

References

  1. WHO. Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health: Mobile Phones http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs193/en/index.html
  2. WHO. About Electromagnetic Fields http://www.who.int/peh-emf/about/en/
  3. American Cancer Society Cellular Phones http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/OtherCarcinogens/AtHome/cellular-phones
  4. Health Canada. Safety of Cell Phones and Cell Phone Towers http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/prod/cell-eng.php
  5. European Commission.  Health Effects of Exposure to EMF. Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_risk/committees/04_scenihr/docs/scenihr_o_022.pdf
  6. Statistical tools used to identify scientific misconduct in mobile phone research (REFLEX program) Alexander Lerchl, Adalbert FX Wilhelm http://arxiv.org/abs/0807.2554
  7. Genotoxic effects of exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) in cultured mammalian cells are not independently reproducible, Speit et al. Mut Res 626:42– 47; 2007 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16997616
  8. Effect of cell phone usage on semen analysis in men attending infertility clinic: an observational study, Agarwal et al. Fertil Steril 2008; 89:124-8.  http://www.fertstert.org/article/S0015-0282%2807%2900332-9/abstract
  9. Whole Body Exposure of Rats to Microwaves Emitted From a Cell Phone Does Not Affect the Testes, Dasdag et al. Bioelectromagnetics 24:182^188 (2003) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bem.10083/abstract http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bem.10083/pdf
  10. The Lack of Histological Changes of CDMA Cellular Phone-Based Radio Frequency on Rat Testis, Lee et al. Bioelectromagnetics 31:528^534 (2010) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bem.20589/abstract
  11. Comparisons of Computed Mobile Phone Induced SAR in the SAM Phantom to That in Anatomically Correct Models of the Human Head, Beard et al. IEEE Trans. Electro Comp, Vol. 48, No. 2, May 2006  http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=1634754
  12. Interphone Study Goup: Brain tumour risk in relation to mobile telephone use: results of the INTERPHONE international case–control study. Cardis et al. International Journal of Epidemiology 2010;39:675–694  http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/39/3/675.full.pdf
  13. Cellular Telephone Use and Cancer Risk: Update of a Nationwide Danish Cohort, Schüz et al. JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (6 December 2006) 98 (23): 1707-1713 http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/98/23/1707.full
  14. Trends in brain cancer incidence and survival in the U.S.: Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program, 1973 to 2001, Deorah et al. Neurosurg Focus 20:1 (2006)  http://thejns.org/doi/abs/10.3171/foc.2006.20.4.E1?prevSearch=allfield%253A%2528Deorah%2529&searchHistoryKey=
  15. Analysis of trends in incidence rate of brain tumors from 1992-2006 in U.S., Inskip et al. Neuro Oncol 12(11):1087 (2010)  http://neuro-oncology.oxfordjournals.org/content/12/11/1147.abstract?sid=a27c5433-bb37-464f-8f8d-5130bb55b69a
  16. Cellular telephone use and time trends in brain tumour mortality in Switzerland from 1969 to 2002, Roosli et al. Eur J Cancer Prev. 16:77 (2007) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17220708
  17. Time Trends in Brain Tumor Incidence Rates in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, 1974–2003 J Natl Cancer Inst. 2009 Dec 16;101(24):1721-4. http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/101/24/1721.abstract?sid=776da054-2ba3-4894-9b15-a181bc786a4c

5 Responses to “Devra Davis: Disconnected from Science: Part I”

  1. Michael5MacKay says:

    Skeptiblog also has a new post on this subject: http://skepticblog.org/2010/12/07/cell-phones-and-cancer/#more-11108 It’s good to see that this issue is now squarely on the skeptical “radar” so to speak.

    In terms of press releases, it’s interesting to see that much of the fearmongering about EMF in the Canadian media has flowed directly from press releases issued by Rodney Palmer’s Safe Schools Committee: http://www.newswire.ca/en/releases/orgDisplay.cgi?okey=104847&pos=0&view=print

  2. Arthur Joyce says:

    So every scientist who has ever conducted a study and found links between biological effects and non-thermal levels of microwave radiation is either mistaken or a fraud? This is exactly what the wireless industry’s mantra has been, which makes me suspect this author’s motives. The fact that he is directly involved with an (unspecified) high-tech firm leads me to wonder if he isn’t placing himself in a conflict of interest to even comment on this issue. The links between biological effects and microwave EMR were known as far back as the Cold War, when US and Soviet intelligence were developing them for use as biological weapons, at the same frequencies used commercially today. Several international scientists, including Dr. Olle Johansson, Dr. Martin Blank, Dr. Andrew Goldsworthy, Dr. Magda Havas, and Dr. David Carpenter all submitted briefs to the HESA to the effect that Canada’s exposure standard (Safety Code 6) is outdated and inadequate to protect public health, based on the current state of scientific knowledge. When it comes to WiFi, the fact that children—children!—are suffering heart symptoms when these systems go into schools ought to be enough of a red flag to exercise the Precautionary Principle. To do less is morally irresponsible for those most vulnerable in society and you do us all a disservice by spreading these lies.

    • >”So every scientist who has ever conducted a study and found links >between biological effects and non-thermal levels of microwave >radiation is either mistaken or a fraud?”

      Mistaken? Probably, no claims of fraud have been made, as we have no proof – bias certainly exists and to date the rigor of the studies conducted that show an effect has been low and disagrees with more rigorous studies or have not been replicated.

      >The fact that he is directly involved with an (unspecified) high->tech firm leads me to wonder if he isn’t placing himself in a >conflict of interest to even comment on this issue

      Lorne Trottier is a co-founder of the Montreal-based video graphics company Matrox Electronic Systems and no conflict of interest has been declared.

      >The links between biological effects and microwave EMR were known >as far back as the Cold War, when US and Soviet intelligence were >developing them for use as biological weapons, at the same >frequencies used commercially today

      And where are these “weapons” today? It seems as if this research did not pan out, especially at the power levels that are associated with cell phones and Wifi, the latter which is negligible.

      >Several international scientists, including Dr. Olle Johansson, >Dr. Martin Blank, Dr. Andrew Goldsworthy, Dr. Magda Havas, and Dr. >David Carpenter all submitted briefs to the HESA to the effect >that Canada’s exposure standard (Safety Code 6) is outdated and >inadequate to protect public health, based on the current state of >scientific knowledge

      It does not mean they are correct, an arguement to authority does not constitute proof

      >When it comes to WiFi, the fact that children—children!—are >suffering heart symptoms when these systems go into schools ought >to be enough of a red flag to exercise the Precautionary Principle

      No one has to date offered any proof at all that children are experiencing heart symptoms at schools in the presence of WiFi – this is so far a myth by all accounts and repeating it over and over again will not make it true. Given this, with no definable syndrome, the precautionary principle as outlined in a later article on this site is unwarranted and misapplied. Who is spreading lies now?

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    Michael is an advanced-care paramedic in York Region, just north of Toronto, Ontario. A semi-retired theatrical lighting designer as well, he re-trained in 2005 as an EMT-PS at the University of Iowa and as an ACP at Durham College, and is currently working towards a B.Sc at the University of Toronto. Michael is a founder and the chair of the board of directors of Bad Science Watch. He is also the recipient of the first annual Barry Beyerstein Award for Skepticism. Follow Michael on twitter @anxiousmedic. Michael's musings are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or Bad Science Watch.