The concerns are not new: exposure to radiation from cell phones and the wireless infrastructure has been believed to increase the odds of cancer in a person. But modern mainstream thought goes that, with moderation, those microwaves are generally safe.
However, as the transition begins from legacy network technologies to 5G grids, which rely heavily on high-frequency waves from more transmitters covering the same area, there’s now renewed cause for skepticism.
A new piece in The Nation magazine reports that the wireless industry has cultivated and used its capital and political power to downplay research findings that point to higher cancer probabilities akin to how tobacco and oil companies obfuscated evidence of the negative effects of their products to human health and the environment.
The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association had seeded more than $28 million to scientists in the radio wave field in 1995. The Wireless Technology Research project was started after a 1993 lawsuit against a phone OEM alleged that one device owner had died from a brain tumor caused by her device’s radiation. George Carlo was chosen to direct WTR. He was perceived as a safe bet since he had led industry-funded studies related to breast implants and Agent Orange and found minimal health risks associated with both products.
Indeed, Carlo had moved slowly on the program as mobile phones grew popular with consumers and urged that one professor be fired in 1999, accusing Henry Lai of the University of Washington for not following protocol on his study — Lai countered by claiming that WTR had modified his experimental recordings.
Disconnected from the personal scuffle, Carlo had eventually concluded to the CTIA board of directors in 1999 that:
The risk of rare neuro-epithelial tumors on the outside of the brain was more than doubled […[ in cell phone users…[There is] correlation between brain tumors occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head…
“[The] ability of radiation from a phone’s antenna to cause functional genetic damage [was] definitely positive…”
CTIA president Tom Wheeler — later on the FCC chairman late in the Obama presidency — immediately launched into a press campaign discrediting Carlo, challenging the source material’s lack of peer review and, at the CTIA conference in 2000, whisked Carlo in and out with the help of two bouncers, preventing him from addressing the media.
“[The CTIA] would do what they had to do to protect their industry,” Carlo said to The Nation in an interview, “but they were not of a mind to protect consumers or public health.”
Later on in the decade, Lai decided to look into 326 studies on biological effects on human health and found 56 percent of the papers concluded that effects were present. When accounting for funding sources, 67 percent of independent studies found an effect while only 28 percent of industry-backed research affirmed.
The wireless industry has also been painted to be protective of its interests over children’s health risks from radiation. The FCC, which has been led on by the companies it is supposed to regulate, declined to tighten radiation Specific Absorption Rate limits in 2013 on advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics. General radiation exposure to children is extra risky as waves can more easily permeate the rapidly developing brain within the smaller skull. Furthermore, a later study had found that peak SARs could be as high as 40 watts per kilogram, 20 times the EU’s set limit. It didn’t help that companies were basically allowed to self-report SAR figures.
In 1999, the World Health Organization was found to have taken money from Motorola, other companies, groups and consortiums through the former employer of its then-director Michael Repacholi. The WHO issued a statement that year that said:
EMF exposures below the limits recommended in international guidelines do not appear to have any known consequence on health.
Two industry groups also diverted $4.7 million or about 20 percent of the budgeted funds for the WHO’s Interphone study in 2000. Ten years later, the study ultimately found increased risks to heavy and long-term phone users and little to no effects for light users. Yet, the CTIA stated to the media:
Interphone’s conclusion of no overall increased risk of brain cancer is consistent with conclusions reached in an already large body of scientific research on this subject.
In 2011, the WHO convened scientists to act on the Interphone conclusions. Three wireless trade associations were signed on as “observers” and sent two representatives to the meeting debating the carcinogenic risk classification of cell-transmitted radiation. It had also tried to prevent one professor from being included in the conference as his studies had found increased cancer risks. In the end, while some in the cadre advocated for a Category 2A listing (“probable carcinogen”), the group placed a Category 2B classification (“possible carcinogen.”
WHO insiders say that the organization could reevaluate that classification this year pending the final report of the US National Toxicology Program. Initial filings are positive on the correlation between wireless radiation and tumors. The study’s designer has explicitly said that “there is a carcinogenic effect.” Media reports on that study and various others (including those from Pocketnow), taking industry cues, were headlined “Don’t Believe the Hype,” and “Seriously, stop with the irresponsible reporting on cell phones and cancer.”
The ongoing worry now is that the bulk of 5G network testing is occurring on high-frequency bands. While Sprint and T-Mobile have promoted their 2.5GHz and 600MHz licenses as a potential carrier of 5G deployment, respectively, AT&T and Verizon — the nation’s largest carriers — are doing in the high range above 24GHz. High-frequency bands will either need more power or more cell sites to ensure blanket coverage, especially in dense urban areas.
While the body of evidence is not conclusive as to the quantitative effects in specific use cases, there is growing agreement in the scientific community that mobile phone use increases cancer risk. There’s plenty of good to account for in how the wireless industry has helped the internet become a change agent in the 21st century — this very site wouldn’t be here to serve the vibrant hardware geek niche we enjoy hosting. But how we approach these health implications as mobile enthusiasts is just as important. It may be healthy to keep that sense of skepticism attuned as a media consumer.
The full story from The Nation magazine along with links to associated studies can be found below this article.