In recent years, we’ve seen episodic waves of hysteria over reports of brain tumors and other cancers allegedly caused by cell phones and WiFi. If I had to trace this legacy of electromagnetic fear back in time, I would credit a 1979 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology and a series of articles in the New Yorker (under the “Annals of Radiation” subheading) by Paul Brodeur in the 1980s and early 1990s. In one piece, Brodeur reported on
a link between childhood-cancer & magnetic fields from power lines.
In another, he discussed “the epidemiological & experimental data” that linked video-display terminals to birth defects.”
Brodeur wrote two related books. The first was published in 1989 and titled, Currents of Death: Power Lines, Computer Terminals, and the Attempt to Cover up their Threat to Your Health. The next one came out several years later and was called, The Great Power line Cover-Up: How the Utilities and Government Are Trying to Hide the Cancer Hazard Posed by Electromagnetic Fields.
In his 1993 Businessweek review, John Carey wrote of The Great Power Line Cover-Up:
A little knowledge of this controversy, or even a close perusal of the book, turns up enough inconsistencies, dubious interpretations, and selective reporting to cast immense doubt on the whole argument–and to reveal Brodeur as more zealot than journalist.
A long-time writer for the New Yorker (late 1950s to mid-1990s), Brodeur is also the author of a 1978 book called, The Zapping of America: Microwaves, Their Deadly Risk, and Cover-up. What was zapping us? In an interview with People magazine at the time, Brodeur asserted:
Radars of all types, FM radio and TV transmitters, millions of CB radios and, of course, microwave ovens.
Those fears appear to have ebbed (though I still occasionally meet someone who refuses to microwave food). But the power lines are causing cancer meme has persisted, fed by periodic media reports and crusading public health professionals, such as David Carpenter, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany, who links “magnetic field exposure” to brain tumors Leukemia, and neurodegenerative diseases. A 1995 PBS Frontline investigation of the issue features parents convinced that high voltage power lines had sickened their children. Brodeur and Carpenter were interviewed in the segment and each talked up the medical hazards of “magnetic fields.”
For an excellent dissection of the great power line and cell phone scare, read this New Republic piece by Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the American National Institutes of Health. In the last three decades, over a hundred studies conducted in many countries have looked at the association between magnetic fields and cancer, and the evidence is not there, he said. “Multiple organizations, including the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, all cast doubt on the links, suggesting further research,” Emanuel wrote.
The U.S. National Academies of Science has found
no conclusive and consistent evidence shows that exposures to residential electric and magnetic fields produce cancer, adverse neurobehavioral effects, or reproductive and developmental effects.
Of course, none of this prevents a certain element of society from exploiting the issue for monetary gain. And the true believers, led by Carpenter, have just released a massively deceptive report (actually an update) that the Science-Based Medicine blog has methodically dismantled.
Oddly, science journalists appear to have shied away from probing this long-running saga. If they did, revisiting Paul Brodeur’s influential role in the whole affair would be unavoidable. Perhaps that is reason enough to stay journalistically clear of electromagnetic fields. (I’m kidding.)
But given the recurring nature of this story (with cell phones and WiFi being the latest variant), it’s unlikely science journalists will be able to stay away from it. If the epidemiological studies keep coming and activists keep whipping up public fear, there is a need for critical analysis. Unfortunately, some media that are more accustomed to trumpeting environmental and public health concerns than critically examining the merits of them, will not help in that department. For example, here’s a 2008 Mother Jones story:
The list of conditions that researchers have associated with electromagnetic radiation includes trouble focusing, fatigue, headaches, sleep disturbances, and Alzheimer’s.
So far, no one has been able to explain exactly how these seemingly benign waves could lead to cancer, much less this laundry list of medical woes, and for that reason, few scientists are willing to say for sure that cell phone use will make you sick—or that it won’t.
Actually, there is one good explanation that seems to explain why some may feel they are falling ill because of power lines or WiFi signals. A new study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research has found:
Media reports about the adverse effects of supposedly hazardous substances can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms following sham exposure and developing an apparent sensitivity to it.”
The researchers used a BBC documentary on the alleged dangers and health effects of electromagnetic fields. Participants watching the documentary–who were led to believe they were being closely exposed to a WiFi signal (they weren’t)–exhibited symptoms associated with exposure to electromagnetic fields. (I’ve previously discussed this Nocebo effect with respect to Wind Turbine Syndrome.) Those most symptomatic were also found to have pre-existing anxieties and sensitivities that made them more susceptible.
The finding led researchers to ask in the title of their study:
Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling?
They need not be, the authors conclude:
If inaccurate media portrayals of novel technologies or substances can produce adverse effects on the wellbeing of vulnerable members of the public, one obvious implication is that journalists should endeavor to provide more accurate reporting. Calls from scientists for better science and health reporting are nothing new, however and any change is likely to come slowly. In the meantime, we can only urge scientists working in these areas to stay engaged with the media to ensure that stories about the potential health impact of new technologies are adequately informed by the best available evidence.