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Electromania 5

A couple of weeks ago on, I was telling my colleague John Horgan about my trip to the Sandia Crest antenna farm to see if I would get a headache from the microwaves. Bill Bruno, the Los Alamos physicist and anti-wireless crusader, had proposed the experiment in a comment he appended to this story in the New Mexican. Try as I might I could not detect any aftereffect. The reason, Arthur Firstenberg (the other big Santa Fe wireless foe) told me in an email is because weaker levels of microwaves are, paradoxically, more harmful than stronger ones. Electromagnetic homeopathy!

During my discussion with John, I placed my own cellphone on top of my microwave meter and asked him to give me a call. (You can watch the video here.) As in previous experiments, the needle leapt to the top of the scale before reclining. The gyrations may look alarming on camera, but what I was measuring was a minuscule amount of energy flux. Then again, the Firstenberg effect would predict that the greatest danger comes when the needle hardly moves at all.

I was reminded of all this on Monday afternoon when the long-delayed Interphone study, the largest yet on the epidemiology of cell phones and brain cancer, was finally published. More than 5,000 brain tumor patients in 13 countries were asked to recall in detail how often they had used their mobiles during the last 10 years. Then the data were compared against those of a symptomless control group.

The results were so murky that for four years the researchers argued over the meaning. In the end, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded, as has almost every previous study, that there is no correlation between the amount of time spent talking on a cell phone and brain cancer. In fact, weirdly enough, regular users had a lower risk of getting brain cancer than people who didn’t use cell phones at all. Maybe the phones were acting, through some spooky new physics, as handheld radiation therapy machines, nipping tiny malignancies in the bud. More likely, the authors concluded, the result is an artifact caused by unreliable data, sampling bias, or random error.

There was also another puzzling anomaly: Among people who reported that, over the years, they had spent as much as 12 hours a day (!) with a phone against their ear, the risk of a tumor called glioma jumped all of a sudden by 40 percent. Or so it appeared. Maybe people with brain cancer, desperate for an explanation, were prone to overestimating the severity of their cell phone habit. Maybe their memory or their reason was impaired by the tumor. When you dig into the details, there was so much room for error that it’s questionable whether the study was worth the $25 million cost.

Even if the effect should turn out to be real, it begs to be put into perspective. Glioma is exceedingly rare. A person’s odds of being diagnosed with the cancer is one in 30,000 or 0.0033 percent. A 40 percent increase would make that 0.0046 percent

“If there was a large and immediate risk we would have seen it,” Anthony Swerdlow of the Institute of Cancer Research told Clare Murphy of BBC News.

	Whether it is worth doing more research, that is a question for
	society [he continued]. These are expensive studies, and there are
	many other things in the world that should be investigated.

	It is society which has to answer the question of how long you
	continue to investigate something that does not have a biological

In fact another, even bigger investigation is already under way. The Cohort Study of Mobile Phone Use and Health, or COSMOS, plans to monitor 250,000 volunteer cellphone users for 30 years. Final results are due in 2040. Please stay tuned.

Related posts: The Electromania Archives

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review