The National Toxicology Program is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Formed in the 1970s, the program's stated mission is to identify chemicals or other agents that could pose a threat to public health.
The NTP is currently conducting a multi-year, multi-phase, $25-million rodent study looking into health harms associated with the kinds of radiofrequency radiation (RFR) emitted by your phone. In a surprise move last year, the NTP chose to publish "partial findings" after concluding the first phase of its study. In its summary of those findings, the report states: "These studies found low incidences of malignant gliomas in the brain and schwannomas in the heart of male rats exposed to RFR of the two types . . . currently used in US wireless networks."
Speaking to the media after his program published its report, NTP associate director John Bucher said, "Overall we feel that the tumors are, in fact, likely to be related to the [RFR] exposures." Bucher had to clarify this point several times because, after soliciting expert comment on his program's findings, some reviewers took issue with the study's design and conclusions.
"The results of our studies are far from definitive," he made a point of saying. But, he added, there have been a lot of "internal discussions" about the study within the NTP, and "70 to 80 percent of the people that look at this study feel that there is a significant association between radiofrequency radiation and the tumors."
At that time, the media coverage of the NTP's report tended to adopt one of two narratives: that the findings were confirmation wireless technologies are dangerous, or that the findings were flawed and not applicable to the way people use their devices.
Recalling all this a year later, Bucher says, "People took very different things from the same findings and the same call." He says this illustrates how strong the "biases" are when it comes to cell phones and human health, and that a lot of outlets covering the NTP's findings missed the point.
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So what is the point? Many people in the "cell phones can't hurt you" camp have long argued that, because the kind of radiation a phone emits doesn't heat tissues or cells, there's no biological mechanism by which that radiation could cause you harm. Bucher says his group's findings, if they're validated with follow-up research, would kneecap this argument. "We need a lot more information to understand any effects on human populations," he says. "We'll use these findings to put together research programs to follow up on this."
Basically, he and his colleagues are trying to determine if Colonel Mustard's wrench exists. If it does, it'll be up to others to figure out if that wrench is capable of bludgeoning someone—or in the case of cell phones, tens of millions of someones.
If it surprises and dismays you to hear that, no, experts didn't conduct all this research before allowing tech companies to fill your life with their awesomely powerful, helpful, hopelessly addictive wireless devices, you've got a legitimate gripe. "We're in the midst of a grand experiment that's being performed without our informed consent," says Allan Frey, a (mostly) retired neuroscientist who spent decades studying the ways radio waves and human biology interact.
"The way I got into microwave stuff," Frey says, "is I was looking at it as a potential tool for understanding how nervous systems works." Back in 1975, he published research that demonstrated certain forms of microwave radiation could "open up" gaps in the blood-brain barrier. "This barrier exists to keep heavy metals and things like that out of brain tissue," he says. "So opening that barrier could lead to all sorts of neurodegenerative and developmental problems."
Since his pioneering work, others in Europe and the US have substantiated many of Frey's findings and added to them evidence that electromagnetic radiation could theoretically damage DNA, sperm, and otherwise disrupt the body's internal workings in ways that could cause or contribute to diseases of both the mind and body. The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer looked at the evidence and chose, back in 2011, to classify radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as a possible human carcinogen (note for context that there are 298 other things classified that way, and that this is a less-certain designation than the "probably carcinogenic" list, which includes the consumption of red meat and very hot liquids).
"The most compelling evidence of harm has to do with the brain and malignant and non-malignant tumors," says Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California, Berkeley. "But we have studies showing evidence of damage to reproductive health, neurodevelopmental disorders in offspring—particularly ADHD—liver damage, DNA damage."
Moskowitz says developing fetuses, newborns, and children may be most at risk, but most parents are oblivious and many school systems are moving ahead and installing powerful wireless networks and transmitters with little regulatory oversight, thanks in large part to the telecom industry's successful lobbying of the FCC and FDA. "We have radiofrequency safety standards that most of the independent scientific community thinks are meaningless, when we really need to be warning people about the risks and showing them how to protect themselves until we can do more research and adopt standards that are truly safe," he says. (If you want to dive into all of that, he thoroughly details all the latest research and regulatory issues on his blog.)
Frey backs up many of Moskowitz's claims. Frey also says the Cold War is partly to blame for having a chilling effect on honest scientific inquiry and study into the risks of radiofrequency radiation: "Back in the '60s and '70s and '80s, people had a lot of concern about radar and radiation, but the military needed to install radar towers for communication and to see incoming missiles and planes," he says. "So there was an organized, well-financed effort to block research funding and disprove or discredit any research showing that there may be biologic effects or harm from electromagnetic exposure."
The real tragedy, he says, is that there are almost certainly wireless frequencies and "modulations" that would allow us to keep all our gadgets without risk. "But in this country, the science on all this was not allowed to proceed in a normal fashion, and so we don't have an evidence basis for knowing what's safe and what's not," he says.
To be clear, many experts who have looked at the existing research don't think that there's reason to be concerned. "I think the scientific evidence showing a connection between electromagnetic radiation and tumors is weak or none," says Larry Junck, a neurooncologist at the University of Michigan. Junck points out that there hasn't been a surge in tumors or brain cancers since the advent and widespread adoption of wireless phones, and the studies he's looked at that suggest a risk tend to have "methodological flaws."
In the NTP's rat study mentioned above, for instance, experts pointed out that female rats exposed to cell phone radiation actually lived longer than female rats who were not exposed. "Yet no headlines blared that cell phones extend life," wrote Aaron Carroll, a professor at Indiana University's School of Medicine, on his blog. Other experts reacted similarly, as Fast Company noted after the findings were released.
That's not to say experts like Junck don't totally rule out the risk of harm. But, Junck adds, "of all the things we have to be concerned about as a society, I would not put this at the top of the list, especially since we don't have a demonstrated mechanism that could explain a connection [between cell phones and brain tumors]."
Frey says he hears this argument a lot. "I always say, well, we used aspirin for a hundred years before we understood why it took away pain," he says. "Just because we can't conceive of something with our current knowledge doesn't mean the thing doesn't exist."
On the question of whether we should now be seeing spikes in tumor and cancer rates if cell phones really were a problem, the NTP's Bucher says the "latency period"—or the time it takes for those types of health issues to emerge—depends on a lot of factors, but could be as long as 20 years—meaning it's too early to breathe easy.
"It's the nature of science and toxicology that we're always playing catch-up," he says. "We don't have a grasp of all the different modulations and frequencies and their effects, so we just need a lot more information to understand everything." As Frey said, it's all a grand experiment, and we're the lab rats.
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