Cell Phones And Cancer
The Australian Newspaper
May 5, 1997
Journalist: Stewart Fist

Last week, either deliberately or accidentally, the media was manipulated to largely ignore some very disturbing news about Australian research conducted over four years into cellular phones and their potential to cause tumors.

The results were to be announced in Adelaide through a video-conference, but journalists who know about this stuff were not invited – and nor were the some of the researchers who did the work. Nor were hospital oncologists, or other prominent research scientists actively working in this area.

Then, two days before the official release, on the anniversary of the Port Arthur Massacre, details were leaked to the Hobart Mercury. This effectively killed the interest of the national newspapers – which is why you didn’t read about this last week.

The story is this. Telstra funded research to investigate claimed links between GSM digital cellular phones and cancer beginning four years ago. The scientists finished their evaluation work in the middle of 1995, and the results were dribbled out to the press two years later.

The research had turned up probably the most significant, direct and obvious links between cellular phones and cancers yet found anywhere. This was one of the most carefully controlled and extensive studies of this kind ever done, and normally it would have been a page one news story.

Dr Michael Repacholi, the organiser of the funding, left to take up a job with WHO in Geneva, and the work was carried on by Professor Tony Basten of Sydney University, Dr Alan Harris of Walter & Eliza Hall, and statistician Val Gebski of the NHMRC.

Because of Telstra’s involvement, the three scientists who had conducted the research over these years had insisted on a carefully designed research protocol, supervised by the National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to ensure absolute independence and validity.!

This was a mouse study. They looked at 200 mice, half exposed to cell-phone radiation, and half not. The mice were subject to GSM-type pulsed microwaves at a power-density roughly equal to a cell-phone handset at a handspan distance, transmitting for two half-hour periods each day.

The experiment was conducted as a blind trial, using absolutely identical equipment, conditions and handling procedures for the two groups. Dr Harris, who conducted the autopsies, never knew the identity of each mouse to ensure that prejudices couldn’t influence results.

Yet over 9 to18 months, the exposed mice had 2.4-times the tumour rate of the unexposed. This was later adjusted down to a more confident 2-times claim to remove some unrelated kidney problems.

The researcher say in interviews that these findings are very important and highly significant. They go a long way towards answering long-standing questions about the potential biomedical effects of radio waves on humans.

The historical motivation for such research, as Dr Harris explained, was to resolve the question whether “radio fields (in contrast to X- and Gamma-rays, ultraviolet and atomic radiation) can directly cause t! he changes in genes responsible for cancer development”.

A significant increase in a form of B-cell lymphoma was evident early in the experiment, and the incidence continued to rise over 18 months, which tends to suggest that the effects are cumulative and time-related.

It means that the longer these mice use a cell-phone, the more likely they are to have cell damage. But these mice only live two-years, so what does that tell us about 80 year old mice?

The implications of the B-cell (rather than the normal T-cell) lymphomas here, is that B-cell effects are implicated in roughly 85 percent of all cancers. They are a key factor in the immune system which fight bacterial infections and cancers.

Like all good scientists, those involved in this study tend to down-play sensational findings, and are desperately trying to hose down any attempts by the media to headline their stories: “Mobile phones linked to cancer”. So they will always comment only on their own study, and deal with it in isolation (not in the context of other research). This plays into Telstra’s hands.

Their press release makes the point that these findings “must be put in context.” And this is where most of the confusion arises – because commentators like myself are more interested in the full research context and complexion what this study brings to the accumulation of evidence.

These results now add greater certainty to many other disturbing research findings involving DNA breaks and microwave exposures which we can’t ignore.

Attempts have been made by the industry to hose down the findings with what is called “The Hockett Defence’ (named after the chief Tobacco Institute scientist) who advised his executives to repeat endlessly, “men aren’t rodents”. As one of the scientists commented to me; “but DNA is DNA”.

His point is that, at the level of disruption of normal cell-growth processes (which are fundamental to cancers), animal and human cells act pretty much alike. And, if this anti-mouse criticism were valid, it would wipe out 150 years of medical, environmental and pharmaceutical science in one hit.

One fire-extinguishing comment being made by an Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association spokesman is that these mice were specially bred to be susceptible to tumors. He implies that this is highly significant.

But if you were to experiment on non-susceptible mice (life span two years) it would be hard to test the effects of fifty years of cell-phone exposure. Do you want to wait fifty years to see if cell-phones are safe?

Anyway, the significance isn’t in the actual numbers of mice with tumors – but in the fact that the exposed group had twice as many.

In a letter to a newspaper last week, the Association spokesman also threw up other fallacious offerings. If you accepted these criticisms, you’d only have one form of valid scientific experiment – strap cell-phones to the heads of 200 orangoutangs, and see what tumours they produce after fifty years of chatter.

What makes this study especially significant is that the honesty and integrity of both the procedures and the scientists are beyond doubt. If your inclination in such matters is towards corporate conspiracy theories, it must be pointed out that the findings were in no way advantageous to Telstra – which is why they have fought so vigorously to suppress them.

However Telstra did have a confidentiality clause in place which prevented the scientists from revealing their findings for a number of years – until last Wednesday, and then only after Telstra had got first go. I find this disturbing. Both the scientists and Telstra are publicly funded.

Telstra also had a three month preview of the report before publication in which to train and activate the industry’s fire-fighters globally – this report went around the world in minutes, and was a key segment on CNN TV News last Tuesday. The American cell-phone association actually issued advice about countering evidence in the research before any journalist in Australia officially heard any results.

Globalisation, brings with it collusion in media manipulation.

The conduct of this experiment actually raises new questions also about the potential for cell-phone handset radiation to effect people nearby (passive exposures). The antenna was further away from the mice than would be normal with a handset, and so their exposure was conducted in the ‘far field’, rather than the near-field (less than one wavelength).

Near-field biological effects are thought likely to be different from far-field, although the biomedical implications are not clear. Also, in close proximity, most of the energy transfers from the handset to the head by induction rather than just radiation, and this can raise the energy transfer by a factor of four. So the mice were exposed to much less localized energy than a human brain or eye would experience.

And the total mice exposure period is very much less than can be expected from human use over a lifetime, yet the research shows that these effects are cumulative over time. That’s why it is so disturbing.

Until late 1996, most governments (Australia leads again here!) and all cell-phone companies have been claiming that the safety of their product has been proven. They say that the only possible biological effect of radio absorption is localized body heating.

The most obvious message from this research is that these old claims are totally wrong. Yet it is on this basis that the exposure standards are still set.

Nothing done in the last few years with the exception of the Lai-Singh work in Seattle (showing DNA breaks after two hours of microwave exposure) has more obviously established that cell-phone safety has not yet been proved. And these two studies reinforce each other.

And quite obviously, biological populations (of mice and men) differ in susceptibility, so, while radio emissions may only effect a small percent of the population, it may be devastating to large numbers of individuals. This has been ignored by the industry and by governments – and we need to know what causes susceptibility.

Prof. Tony Basten concluded his release with the statement “For the time being, at least, I see no scientific reason to stop using my own mobile phone”, but this is largely irrelevant. At his age and in his occupation, the potential dangers from increased phone use are probably minimal.

The real question is: Would he buy his teenage child one?