“Brain Cancer Link To Ordinary Mobile Phone Use Is Debunked After More Than 20 Years Of Speculation And Fear,” reads the MSN headline. Well, yes and no. It was first debunked in February 1993 in Investor’s Business Daily by a writer I know well. As the future Sir Lancelot sang in Camelot, “C’est moi! C’est moi ’tis I!”
I think it launched one of the scientific tracks I’m best known for, the “After this therefore because of this” mass hysteria. It comprises a very simple pattern. Someone who was healthy becomes unhealthy (or thinks they are) and they or a survivor picks something that they feel was the cause. Yes, I do know how incredibly simplistic that sounds. But you can’t argue with success.
In this case, a man appeared on the show of the late Larry King, who became so successful precisely because he never threw anything but a slow softball. (‘So tell me, Mr. Stalin, why did nobody actually starve to death under your reign?’) The guest had recently lost his wife to a relatively common form of brain cancer, he had previously given her a cellphone, and he insisted that as he recalled, she mostly used the phone on the side of the head where the tumor developed. Oh, not incidentally, he had also filed suit against a cellphone maker called NEC America.
As I noted in Investor’s Business Daily, what he was asserting was a physical impossibility. The wife had used the phone merely three months before developing symptoms. Five years is the shortest documented time for a brain tumor to grow to a detectable size; the average is decidedly longer. She was also just one of about 25,000 Americans who develop malignant brain or spinal cord tumors each year, of whom most die.
But the stock of Motorola — the biggest mobile maker at that time with their “Beam me up, Scotty!” clamshells — plummeted, and after my article appeared, I actually had a conference call with something like five of their executives as to where to go from there. I made a hopeful suggestion: “Do you have evidence of your phones being used in emergencies that ended up saving lives?” “Um, yeah, sure… ” My eyes rolled. If I surrendered half my IQ points, I could be a corporate executive or publicist.
So anyway, everyone realized how stupid this all was and that was the end of it, right? C’est ne pas!
Cellphone electromagnetic fields (EMF) plus EMF from power lines became a cash cow for desperate and unscrupulous researchers who used every trick in every book to try to show at least a possible connection between EMF and brain tumors and keep that grant or donations flowing. Leading the way was journalist Paul Brodeur with his regular installments in the normally staid New Yorker and two books: Currents of Death and The Great Power-Line Cover-Up. (One had a German edition with the nifty title: Report Elektrosmog.) He labeled EMF “the most pervasive — and covered up — health hazard Americans face.”
His articles won many accolades, including the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award, Columbia University’s National Magazine Award, an American Association for the Advancement of Science/Westinghouse Science Writing Award, and an American Bar Association Award. One New Yorker installment, “Calamity on Meadow Street,” was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and the influential, albeit politically correct, Publisher’s Weekly could barely contain its excitement over The Great Power-Line Cover-Up, calling it an “important, riveting expose” which “should be on Al Gore’s desk as he tackles environmental health problems, and on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bookshelf as she reorders national health priorities.” It probably was.
It also earned him a whole chapter in my 1996 book, Science Under Siege.
The power line thing never translated into policy if for no other reason than burying high transmission lines is just too bleeping expensive. Oh, and the publication of my book of course. Ahem!
Not so with cellphones. True, mostly people just worried a lot and continued to use them more and more. But in 2010, the San Francisco board of supervisors in a 10-1 decision required retailers to prominently post radiation emission levels on phones. The mayor had been a major proponent of the legislation. His name? Gavin Newsom. Yup, that Gavin Newsom.
Seven years later, the California Department of Public Health Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control issued an advisory on “How to Reduce Exposure to Radiofrequency Energy from Cell Phones.” It didn’t make that obnoxious Proposition 65 list of “known to the State of California to cause …” list, but neither was it particularly reassuring.
In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified all EMFs as
“possibly carcinogenic to humans,” although, as I noted recently in these pixels, if you know anything about the IARC, it’s a lot easier to list what it doesn’t declare possibly carcinogenic to humans. Your grandmother has probably been declared as possibly carcinogenic.
Still, a cottage industry of funding- and publicity-hungry researchers sprang up. “Every study that’s looked at brain tumors for more than 10 years all find a statistical [sic] significant risk for brain tumors,” claimed electronics engineer L. Lloyd Morgan, probably the most prominent cellphone activist. Yet exactly the opposite was proving to be the case.
To be fair, some studies did suggest a cancer risk associated with cellphone usage. But virtually all of them relied on phone users’ memories, and that makes them shaky.
First, you’re asking people to recall their cellphone usage seven years ago when they may not remember it from seven days ago.
Second, in what’s called “recall bias,” since people know the context in which they’re being surveyed, “those with brain cancer tend to over-report historical exposure,” Savitz told me. They’re searching for a reason they’re sick. By contrast, he noted a huge strength of the Scandinavian study was that “it doesn’t depend on recall or participation; it’s simple monitoring.”
So why did the San Francisco and California statewide officials ignore all this? They didn’t — rather, they selectively chose their experts such as University of California Berkeley professor (Uh, oh!) of psychology (Double uh, oh!) Joel Moskowitz. He was the lead researcher for an influential 2009 Journal of Clinical Oncology review that began with 465 studies, then chose to review only 23 of them. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit! Moskowitz says they chose those studies because “they employed more rigorous research methods.”
Of the studies ultimately used, the majority were by Swedish scientist Lennart Hardell, who has a long history of environmental activism. That’s how the epidemiological sausage is made and we have more recently seen similar tactics with COVID regarding masking and lockdowns. You choose what’s useful; dismiss the rest.
But these guys were always outliers and now the latest study in the rather influential Journal of the National Cancer Institute was a 14-year follow-up of over 776,000 British women and no matter how they analyzed, cut, and tortured the data to find any kind of connection to any kind of brain tumor, they could not. Those damned brains just refused to cooperate.
Enough, already! Time to move on. And indeed, we have. Now the fears are 5G! In short, it can’t cause harm — even as it can significantly increase your “experience” or whatever with World of Warcraft, etc.
And that I find worrisome.
Not only would I be the last person to say cellphones generally are benign; I was among the earlier journalists to warn of their dangers when used by vehicle drivers with my 2010 LA Times article “Texters, You’d Be Better Off Driving Drunk.” (That’s what Motorola got for refusing to put me on the payroll, hehe.)
In fact, like so many tools, cellphones have proved both godsends and the go-to tool in Satan’s toolbox. We are bombarded not with death rays but rather with social media and games and other apps that are expressly designed to addict us. Nobody “designed” alcohol. Laptops are Vicodin; cellphones are fentanyl. This is not the place to debate the perniciousness of the “The Black Mirror,” but yes, IMHO in many ways we were better off when they still flipped open and had no screen as was the case with the Motorola phone that set off the brain tumor hysteria. One to beam up, Mr. Scott!
Michael Fumento (www.fumento.com) is an attorney, author, and science journalist for over 35 years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Sunday Times, the Atlantic, and many other fora.