Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family by Devra Davis, PhD is touted as a book about the issue of cell phones and health. It is instead a tract that conspiracy theorists will love that sheds no objective light on the often confusing scientific data in this area. The tag line on the jacket sets the tone: The TRUTH about cell phone RADIATION. What the INDUSTRY has done to hide it, and how to PROTECT your FAMILY. In the area of EMF and health, there are a certain number of studies that appear to find biological “effects”. This is perfect fodder for alarmists like Davis, who ignore the fact that virtually none of these “effects” have been reproduced in follow up studies. If you were expecting an objective review of the often confusing scientific data in this area, you should avoid this book.
Disconnect focuses almost exclusively on studies that support its alarmist conclusions while either ignoring or falsifying information about studies showing no harm. The quality of scientific studies varies greatly. Disconnect is highly selective and totally biased in discussing only studies that support its point of view, it rejects contrary studies accepted by the majority of mainstream scientists as the product of some vast conspiracy, and it completely misstates the findings of key studies that find no harm from cell phones. She interviewed only a relatively small group of dissident scientists who are outside of the mainstream. The book is completely lacking in objectivity.
Major Factual Misstatements
There are so many things wrong in Disconnect that it is difficult to know where to begin. We will start by reviewing a few of the most blatant examples of how it misrepresents key findings of some of the most important cell phone studies.
Early in Disconnect, Davis gets some facts on basic physics wrong. On P. 17 she states: Electromagnetic waves ability to travel depends on how long they are. The faster a wave oscillates and the smaller it is, the shorter the distance it can reach. Hello, did she check with NASA? The Voyageur 1 is the most distant man made object. After doing a Grand Tour of the outer planets in the 70s and 80s, its still operating at a distance of 17 billion km. Travelling at the speed of light, it takes 15.4 hours for its signals to reach earth. Its transmitter operates in the X band at approximately 5X the frequency of a cell phone, and at 19W or only roughly 100X the power of a cell phone. A first year physics student could tell her that all electromagnetic waves follow the inverse square law. The frequency has no effect on distance.
Interphone & cell phone use for 10+ years
Davis only discusses a handful of the thousands of studies that find no harm from either EMF or cell phones. She gets some critical facts about these studies completely wrong. A prime example is the claim by Davis that all studies that have looked at cell phone use for a period of more than 10 years have found an increased risk of brain cancer. P 193 But when you look at those few studies that included people who had used phones for a decade or more, the results show that heavy cell phone use causes brain tumors. If you consider all of the studies that have been published, most of them have not followed people for a decade. But if you examine only those studies that have analyzed people for a decade or longer you find one thing: Every single one of them shows that long-term heavy use of cell phones has increased the risks of brain tumors.
This is totally false; several important studies find no harm. All of the studies that Davis refers to are a particular type of case control study. The case control studies she cites are considered much less reliable because they depend on memory to assess past exposure. People diagnosed with brain cancer and healthy controls respond to a questionnaire in which they are asked to remember how much they used their cell phones. Recall is known to yield different estimates than actual phone records. In addition, because people who have had cancer have heard about the potential link to cell phones, they are more likely to err by reporting higher exposure than controls. Therefore such studies are subject to a limitation called recall bias. Davis does not even mention this key weakness.
Most of the 10 year plus studies that Davis refers to were the work of a single Swedish researcher, Dr. Lennart Hardell. His methods have been widely criticized. Most of the others were components of the Interphone study (* 12). Some of the individual components of Interphone were released prior to the final comprehensive report. Contrary to Davis claim, not all of these found increased cancer risk for 10+ years. The final conclusion of the Interphone study is important: “Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.” In the text, the authors discuss the considerable evidence for recall bias that they found during the study. The overall conclusion of no increase in risk is the key finding.
Misstating Key Danish cell phone study
One of the most important studies on cell phones was a Danish study of 420,000 cell phone users (*13). It was a cohort study, not a case control study. Exposure was assessed based entirely on actual cell phone records. It also used actual medical records to verify the diagnosis. Such studies do not suffer from any recall bias. Because it is based on objective data, it carries much more weight than memory based case control studies. While this particular study has other possible limitations, it is one of the few that is based on actual hard data.
Davis gets most of the major facts about this key study completely wrong. For example on Page 193 she says it included only two cases that had used a phone for a decade. The real number of users for a decade or more was 53,204 (42,549 for 10 – 14 years, 10,655 for 15 21) years. No increase in brain cancer or any other illness was reported for any class of cell phone users including the long term users.
On P 182 She says: All of us have cell phone bills that provide detailed records of our use; and most of these can be accessed online. These were not used in this study, or in any study of the industry to date. This is also false. In the U.S. this information is private and confidential and to date has not been available to interested researchers. The Danish study used cell phone records to establish the number of years of use of a cell phone for each of the 420,000 individuals in the study. The authors obtained the approval of the required Danish government agencies such as the Danish Data Protection Board to protect the privacy of the information. The study was entirely based on record linkage.
Brain cancer trends & her unpublished result
Another example of a major falsehood in the book is the section she calls My Unpublished Result. She says: Papers showing no increase in the overall brain cancer rate adjusted to the entire population have been published, while those taking a more sophisticated look at growing rates of brain tumors in young persons remain under review. Davis claims she has unpublished results showing brain cancer is increasing in young adults. Technically these time trend data may have limitations. For example, in the 70s and mid 80s new technology led to apparent increased rates of brain cancer, due to better diagnostic equipment.
However, since the mid 80s, which happens to coincide with the introduction of cell phones, overall brain cancer incidence rates have been constant. Contrary to what Davis claims, at least 4 studies (* 14, 15, 16, 17) have been published for brain cancer by age group. None shows any significant increase for any age or sex group that can be linked to cell phones. For example, another Danish study (* 17) looked at incidence rates by age group in 5 Northern European countries. No significant change in brain cancer rates were found for any age group. A recent US study came to a similar conclusion (* 15). In science, unpublished results rank lower that self published articles, which are at least published.
Brain cancer is one of the rarest forms of cancer. For example it ranks at #15 in Canada. There are more that 4 billion cell phones in use worldwide. The absence of any change in the incidence of brain cancer is the simplest evidence against any connection with cell phones. Davis mangled commentary on these brain cancer studies are the most blatant examples of the many misstatements in Disconnect.
Bad science and sowing confusion
Defending scientific misconduct
She devotes a whole chapter of the book to defending Dr. Hugo Rudiger, who was found guilty of scientific fraud; the most serious offense in science. Rudiger had published a couple of papers purporting to show that cell phone radiation can damage DNA. If true, this would be quite serious. A couple of other scientists reviewed the data in his paper and found compelling statistical evidence that critical parts of the data were cooked (Lerchl et al. *6 ). An attempt to reproduce Rudigers experiments found no DNA damage (Speit et al. *7 ). The University of Vienna held two inquiries and found that Rudiger was guilty of scientific misconduct and recommended that the papers be withdrawn. Davis spins these damning facts into an elaborate whodunit claiming that Rudiger was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy and frame-up. This is simply not credible.
Davis devotes another chapter to the assertion that cell phone radiation affects male fertility. On P. 140 she states: A report from researchers (*8).garnered headlines around the world, such as Cell Phones Lower Sperm Count. On P. 141 she continues with The Cleveland researchers referred to their results, in the customary voice of science, as preliminary, and duly called for more research. Despite this caution, she proceeds to tie together a handful of disparate sperm studies to back up her sensational claim that cell phones reduce male fertility.
She ignores the fact that all of the studies she cites have been criticized for poor methodology, and some have failed attempts at replication (9, 10). In its 2009 assessment Health Effects of Exposure to EMF, the European SCENIHR (5 P 32 – 33) had this to say: The authors reported (*8) that reduced sperm quality was associated with duration of daily exposure to mobile phones assessed by interview and with duration of use of mobile phones assessed by questionnaire. However, possible confounding due to lifestyle differences (associated with differences in the use of mobile phones) may have biased the results of both studies. Davis sums up her case with this bold claim on P. 146 We must remember that we live in a world in which some continue to believe evolution itself is a sort of preliminary theory.
SAM the standard head
Davis devotes large sections of the book to SAM (specific anthropomorphic mannequin), the model head that was developed by international standards bodies (IEEE and IEC) and is used by cell phone manufacturers to test and certify compliance with RF exposure safety limits. This limit, which is known as the SAR (specific absorption rate), is set at 1.6W/kg averaged over 1 gram of body tissue in the US and Canada (2 W/kg averaged over 10 gram of body tissue in countries adopting the ICNIRP guidelines). She states P 74 In coming up with ways to estimate exposures from cell phones, scientists in 1996 relied on a fellow named SAM, which stands for Standard Anthropomorphic Man (sic). SAM is not an ordinary guy. He ranked in size and mass at the top 10 percent of all military recruits in 1989 weighing more than two hundred pounds, with an eleven-pound head, and standing about six feet two inches tall. P. 75 These standards were set in 1993 and based on SAMs big brain, not for the much smaller heads of children, of women, or other adults.
She implies that regulators and the industry have callously continued to use SAM as the reference, without considering the issue of smaller heads. This is simply not the case. The IEEE 1528 standard for SAM was published in 2003. Dozens of studies have been published comparing the SAR exposures of SAM to various sizes of heads including those of children. Many of these studies have concluded that SAM absorbs more energy than any human head, and is therefore a conservative model for certification tests. For example in Beard et al. 2006 (*11) conducted an international study by 14 laboratories: The results show that when the pinna SAR is calculated separately from the head SAR, SAM produced a higher SAR in the head than the anatomically correct head models. Also the larger (adult) head produced a statistically significant higher peak SAR for both the 1- and 10-g averages than did the smaller (child) head for all conditions of frequency and position. In addition, it should be noted that the established SAR limits have a safety margin of 50X.
The fine print
Davis devotes an entire chapter to the so called warnings in fine print in the user manuals for cell phones. On P. 217 she says: The HTC Droid Eris cell phone from Verizon contains a Product Safety and Warranty Information booklet. On page 11 it is recommended that no part of the human body be allowed to come too close to the antenna during operation of the equipment.To comply with RF exposure requirements, a minimum separation distance of 1.5 cm must be maintained between the users body and the handset. Davis further states: A reader might think it was just a matter of complying with a silly rule that government had produced.
Well yes actually, such a procedure is called for in government regulations (FCC OET Bulletin 65 Supplement C, IEEE Standard 1528 and IEC 62209-1). When cell phones were first developed, they were quite bulky and could not fit into a shirt pocket. They were often carried in a holster and were always used with the phone held to the ear. The original testing standards were written at that time to reflect this. Todays ultra slim iPhones and Blackberries can be carried in a shirt pocket much closer to the body. They are tested and comply with SAR limits when held to the ear (or pinna in technical jargon). However, if the phone is used while near body such as in your shirt pocket, the SAR limit may be exceeded if it is closer than the required test distance of 15 to 25 mm. This is not considered to be a safety issue, since the SAR limit has a 50X safety margin (according to the new IEEE C95.1-2005). It is a technical compliance issue.
Davis implies that cell phone companies have included these fine print warnings as a potential defense in liability lawsuits from brain cancer patients. There is no record of this defense ever having been used in any of current liability suits and none of these lawsuits has yet succeeded. The separation distance is for body worn and not for the head position and therefore is irrelevant to brain cancer.
Disconnect completely ignores the fact that each of the public health organizations of the industrialized world does regular expert reviews of the scientific literature on EMF and health. Virtually every one of these expert reviews has come to the same conclusion as the World Health Organization that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. This conclusion is echoed by the expert reports of the public health organizations of virtually every industrialized country including the American Cancer Society, Health Canada, and the European SCENIHR (* 1 – 5).
Instead, Davis implies that there is a massive worldwide conspiracy to cover up data, and disprove or dismiss the alarmist studies. The book is full of anecdotes about data that was altered, or disappeared, funding that was cut off, and alleged threats. This is the stuff of a Hollywood conspiracy movie. Such a massive conspiracy, involving virtually all the worlds most prestigious health science organizations, is simply not plausible.
Davis and other EMF alarmists are attempting to do an end run around the mainstream scientists responsible for public health standards. They even have their own self appointed organization with the impressive sounding name: International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS). The goal of alarmists is to scare enough members of the public about the dangers of EMF in order to sway politicians to do their bidding. Davis was one of the organizers of a conference held in Washington, DC on Sept. 15, 2009 timed to coincide with Senate hearings on cell phone safety. Such tactics have already achieved some “success” in Europe and a few other countries where politicians have ignored the advice of their own scientists to impose new restrictions on EMF.
Disconnect is a good example of the kind of material used by the EMF alarmist movement. Virtually all the alarmist studies that Davis cites used a poor methodology and/or have not been replicated in follow up studies. In fact, most have been refuted by far more comprehensive and rigorous studies. In many cases, serious flaws have been found with studies that show harm. It is at odds with the conclusions of mainstream expert groups such as the SCENHIR (* 5 P 8): It is concluded from three independent lines of evidence (epidemiological, animal and in vitro studies) that exposure to RF fields is unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in humans. Disconnect is designed to bamboozle and scare the lay reader, not to inform.
About the Author
Lorne Trottier is a co-founder of Matrox Ltd. and holds B. Eng., M. Eng., and Doctorate (honoris causa) degrees from McGill University. He has had a lifelong passion for science and technology and believes in the importance of combating pseudoscience. He is President of the Board of the Montreal Science Center Foundation, and is also a board member of a number of science outreach organizations including the NCSE, CFI Canada, and The Planetary Society. Trottier sponsors the annual Trottier Symposium at McGill University that deals with a variety of science topics of interest to the public, such as Confronting Pseudoscience. Trottier also maintains a web site on the subject of EMF and Health.
This article has been published in different forms at Skeptic North and EMF & Health. The current post is based upon these two previous posts, but has been significantly edited and altered for SBM.
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