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BLOG: April 2009
EMF health threat and the politics of status quo
Is it by accident that all major international health organizations, part of the scientific community, governmental bodies and, of course, the industry, all find themselves on the same side - that for preserving the status quo for non-ionizing EMF exposure safety standards - and against the rest of scientific community and concerned public, demanding official reaction to the piles of evidence of non-ionizing radiation being a health threat at the common levels of exposure?
Not really. The status quo proponents may have different motives, but they all share this common goal, combining their powers and influences into a formidable opposition to the safer standards. Very much like EMF,
this force is invisible, but
very efficient and,
The industry, of course - whether it is a part of electro-distribution, mobile/wireless, electric appliances, electronics, or any of many other branches based on the use of electromagnetic force - will do all in its power to prevent additional expenses and constraints due to more stringent regulations, let alone eventual downsizing due to public concerns and accelerated replacement by alternative technologies.
Governments, on their part - aside from being very much directly influenced by industry's lobbyists, at least in this country (USA) - have to protect economic stability and growth, and are generally reluctant to risk placing them under considerable constraints without being literally forced to.
Clear scientific and public indications of the harm from non-ionizing EMF to the wellbeing of general population, obviously didn't count as big enough reason for them to risk economic downturn.
In addition, they are likely to bear responsibility for compensating millions of people if standard EMF exposures are proven detrimental to health.
Mainly for these two reasons, governments around the world that did impose significantly more strict safety limits for public (and occupational) EMF exposure can be counted on the fingers of one hand (still with fingers to spare).
As for the scientific community - whose members also mainly populate international organizations involved in determining safety limits for EMF exposure (ICNIRP, IEEE) - it is divided in two camps.
One consists of those that are against any changes because they have interest in preserving existing order - whether due to it being part of their legacy, reputation or beliefs, or because they are dependant (employed by the industry or government), because they are influenced, manipulated, or simply paid by the proponents of status quo (scientists are still only humans).
In the other scientific camp are those free, willing and capable of pursuing the truth.
This gross polarization within scientific community, in addition to the mechanisms of athermal biological effects of non-ionizing EMF being still only partly understood, is a
major reason for the inconsistency in study results.
Probably the majority of studies that haven't found significant link between "safe" EMF exposure levels and adverse health effects, or significant biological effect of such exposures, are due to the lack of knowledge with respect to the actual mechanism leading from EMF-caused biological interference to adverse health effects. It makes designing properly controlled study much more difficult.
The rest of "no effect" studies are simply poorly designed judging by what we already know. And, every once in a while, they are
purposely designed with a bias
often as a follow-up to a positive-result study, or studies, that have received wider publicity.
Such practices, of course, are not limited only to the EMF safety arena. One recent example is a study of studies on the efficacy of pneumococcal vaccine for adults.
On the EMF safety battlefield, this has likely happened just before the last confirmation of the official safety guidelines in 1998 (Linet et al., National Cancer Institute, 1997), and again after a 2004 study by a research team from Karolinska Institute (Sweden) has arrived to the conclusion that long-term (over 10 years) use of cell phone increases the risk of acoustic neuroma (benign brain tumor).
Due to enormously widespread use of cell phones, this news was highly publicized. It was also followed by a string of studies (Lönn et al. 2005, Schoemaker et al. 2005, Schüz et al. 2006, Takebayashi et al. 2006, Lahkola et al. 2007), with no increased risk found neither for neuroma nor other common brain cancer forms (although usually with some form of "more research is needed" follow-up phrase).
In 2007, a review of 18 studies by Dr. Lennart Hardell (Örebro University, Sweden) and group of researchers has found that the data shows long term cell phone users having 20% higher risk of malignant glioma, with the risk doubled for tumors on the side habitually exposed during phone use (ipsilateral exposure), as well as 2.4 times increased risk of acoustic neuroma. But they had to filter out relevant data since the "no-risk" studies have not combined all the compounding factors, such as heavy use, use over 10 years and longer, or they lacked/disregarded data on tumor size and/or latency, side of brain actually exposed to radiation, or some other important factor.
More specifically, risk ratio for 14 participants that used cell phone over 10 years in Lönn et al. was 1.8 (due to the small sample, 95% confidence interval - or interval within which the actual ratio is expected with 95% probability - was 0.8-4.3), Schoemaker et al. was limited to "regular users", Schuz et al. (the 20-year Danish study) had only 32 participants and no data on latency or laterality of tumor with respect to cell phone use, and Takebayashi et al. also was limited to "regular users".
One doesn't have to wonder for long, as to why is there so many shortcomings in the design of these studies, nearly all biased toward underestimating the risk.
But that is not all; a large Japan-based multi-study international project called "Interphone", after somewhat lengthy period of consolidation between two opposing groups of scientist participating in it, has reported that they found no increased risk of brain tumor for cell phone users, based on novel approach that attempted measuring SAR levels in the tumor area.
Long before its conclusion, this study was portrayed in the media as a decisive step toward resolving the cell phone radiation vs. cancer risk controversy. Was it up to that task? Let's take a closer look at how the studies were conducted (from detailed analysis of 10 - out of 13 - Interphone studies by Lloyd Morgan). Here are some of the main flaws they somehow let slip in:
∙ use of cell phone by control groups that should have remained unexposed
∙ treating unexposed tumors (i.e. outside the radiation plume within head) as exposed
∙ too short latency times (for known cancer initiators, like ionizing radiation, smoking, or asbestos, latency times are 20 to 40 years)
∙ biased definition of "regular user" (at least 1 cell phone use a week for at least 6 months in a year)
∙ general policy limiting age of participants to 30-59 age (the rate of adverse effects is highest under 30 years of age)
∙ controls exposed to cordless phone radiation, walkie-talkie, amateurs radio, situated in proximity of TV/radio transmitters, etc. treated as unexposed
∙ exclusion of lymphoma and neuroepithelial brain tumors
∙ exclusion of tumor cases due to death
∙ short cancer diagnosis eligibility time (2.8 years vs. 6 years in Hardell et al.)
∙ not fulfilling blindness requirement (interviewers and controls aware of study purpose)
∙ too small sample size for statistical significance (18 average)
This many flaws, nearly all biased toward underestimating the risk, cannot possibly be accidental. The risk underestimation by design of Interphone studies was so effective that it produced the risk ratio for cell phone users below 1, indicating that cell phone use is
Or led to paradoxical conclusion that the cancer ratio is lowest for users with highest exposures or longest period of use (over 10 years), while the risk becomes significant for highest exposures and longest period of use combined.
But the lack of respect for the facts, logic and common sense is not exactly a news when it comes to the side maintaining that we're just fine exposed as we are to non-ionizing radiation. Best example is probably set by the ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection) itself, which in its 1998 Guidelines states, among other, the following facts:
"Many studies have suggested that the transduction of weak electrical signals in the ELF range involves interactions with the cell membrane, leading to cytoplasmic biochemical responses that in turn involve changes in cellular functional and proliferative states." (p501)
"There are numerous reports in the literature on the in-vitro effects of ELF fields on cell membrane properties (ion transport and interaction of mitogens with cell surface receptors) and changes in cellular functions and growth properties (e.g., increased proliferation and alterations in metabolism, gene expression, protein biosynthesis, and enzyme activities) (Cridland 1993; Sienkiewicz et al. 1993; Tenforde 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996). Considerable attention has focused on low-frequency field effects on Ca++ transport across cell membranes and the intracellular concentration of this ion (Walleczek and Liburdy 1990; Liburdy 1992; Walleczek 1992), messenger RNA and protein synthesis patterns (Goodman et al. 1983; Goodman and Henderson 1988, 1991; Greene et al. 1991; Phillips et al. 1992), and the activity of enzymes such as ornithine decarboxylase (ODC) that are related to cell proliferation and tumor promotion (Byus et al. 1987, 1988; Litovitz et al. 1991, 1993). However, before these observations can be used for defining exposure limits, it is essential to establish both their reproducibility and their relevance to cancer or other adverse health outcomes. This point is underscored by the fact that there have been difficulties in replicating some of the key observations of field effects on gene expression and protein synthesis (Lacy-Hulbert et al. 1995; Saffer and Thurston 1995)." (p502).
This is of crucial importance. The existing safety limits for ELF (extremely low frequencies, range of radio wave frequencies below 300Hz in the WHO classification) were - and still are - based on the assumption that
the only significant
biological effect possible with these
This, however, requires fields an order of magnitude (into hundreds of times) stronger than common exposure levels.
Now, the Guidelines author themselves are presenting ample evidence of much weaker fields interfering with very basic processes at the cellular level. Is there any doubt of the right course of action:
reduce the safety exposure limits below these levels,
or as much as is realistically possible to enforce - which would still be a drastic reduction?
Instead, ICNIRP decides that it can not use the information of weak non-ionizing radiation interfering with and/or damaging bio-cells for determining safety limits
because it is only "suggestive", and not "convincing".
Playing with words. Not even symbolic tightening of the safety limits ensued.
What this attitude clearly shows, is that ICNIRP, in accord with majority of the world governments and, of course, the industry, have higher priorities than protecting public health and wellbeing. And they still have it their way, masking their disregard for the scientific evidence and growing EMF-related public complaints by their formalistic spins.
More on the subject of the EMF pollution battle next.