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How the cell phone industry has muddied the waters for decades on the science of cell phone safety.

Are cell phones dangerous for human health? Many scientists knowledgeable about the issues say that they do pose human health risks. Ask the telecoms industry and their friends in the federal government, though, and you get a different response: cell phones are perfectly safe and there is no cause for alarm. Using the same playbook as tobacco companies decades earlier, the telecoms industry has, for decades, spent millions to warp the scientific debate about cell phone safety and attack those who dare to talk about the safety issues. Cell phone companies have known all along that cell phones can cause cancer and genetic damage, but muddied the waters to protect their bottom line.

It is a sordid history, starting as far back as 1993. At that time, a lawsuit alleged that a cell phone caused a lethal brain tumor. The story went viral, prompting a congressional subcommittee investigation and a drop in cell phone stock. The trade association for the cell phone industry, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), began a decades-long effort to get the best science money could buy to show that cell phones are completely safe. To spearhead the effort, they hired George Carlo, an epidemiologist who had previously done damage control for other industries. With chemical industry funding, for example, Carlo concluded that low levels of dioxin, the chemical in Agent Orange, were not dangerous. So, it seemed like a good bet that Carlo would also go to bat for the telecoms industry.

With a budget of $28.5 million, Carlo headed the Wireless Technology Research project. Unfortunately for industry, the studies conducted as part of this well-funded project raised serious questions about cell phone safety—questions which Carlo presented to industry leaders. Carlo’s studies had found that the risk of certain tumors was more than doubled in cell phone users and that the radiation from cell phone antennas could cause functional genetic damage.

Soon after Carlo presented these findings to the industry bosses, Tom Wheeler, the head of the CTIA, began discrediting Carlo to members of the media. Wheeler would go on to become a Federal Communications Commission chairman. This would become emblematic of the industry’s approach to the cell phone safety debate. A 1994 internal memo from Motorola referred to “war gaming” the science, where industry would fund studies that would be friendly to the industry and attack those that raise questions. Industry would also work to place friendly scientists on advisory boards like those at the World Health Organization (WHO).

And “war game” they did. One researcher looked at 326 safety studies on cell phone use between 1990 and 2005 and found that 67 percent of independent studies found biological damage from cell phone radiation, but only 28 percent of industry-sponsored studies did. This was confirmed by a separate analysis that concluded industry-funded studies were two and a half times less likely than independent studies to find a biological effect from cell phone radiation.

When the WHO started looking into the health effects of cell phone radiation, the industry did all it could to ensure a favorable outcome. Industry financial contributions to the WHO’s work, totaling some $4.7 million, paid off when the WHO convened a group of scientists to discuss how to classify the cancer risk posed by cell phones. The cell phone industry secured “observer” status for its trade associations and was able to place two industry-funded scientists on the working group that would debate the classification. You’ll recall that the WHO did classify cell phone radiation as a “possible carcinogen,” which is not the outcome industry wanted; but a number of the scientists in the working group favored the “probably carcinogen” classification, so industry influence was able to limit the damage.

The US government’s National Toxicology Program invested in a $30 million, ten-year project looking into the link between cell phones and cancer. It concluded that “there is clear evidence that male rats exposed to high levels of radio frequency radiation (RFR) like that used in 2G and 3G cell phones developed cancerous heart tumors.” Yet the industry was able to spin these findings. Just consider some of these excerpts from mainstream media coverage at the time: “Seriously, stop with the irresponsible reporting on cell phones and cancer,” read a Vox headline. “Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer? Don’t Believe the Hype,” said The Washington Post

So what’s the big picture? Of the studies done in the last 30 years on the health effects of radio frequency radiation, 75 percent reported significant biological effects; 87 percent of studies on electromagnetic fields reported significant biological effects.

The science tells us that radiation from cell phones can negatively impact human health, but the industry has been able to evade regulation through crony capitalism. The FCC is a “captured agency” beholden to industry interests. The industry has confused the debate about cell phone safety so successfully that the public is largely ignorant of the dangers of these devices.

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