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21st Century Science Denial

This series of articles was adapted from originals written in 2011 by Deborah Kopald MBA* in response to Felicity Barringer’s New York Times coverage of the anti-smart meter movement.

Part I: Psychopolitical Paranoia
The day after I wrote a column, “Smart Meters a Dumb Idea,” the New York Times ran a very similar piece, “New Electricity Meters Stir Fears.” The article covered many of the points I had made in mine: smart meter opposition cuts across party lines from liberals to libertarians to the Tea Party; Maine and California have “opt outs” in place; and advocates oppose the meters on privacy and health grounds. The article’s author, Felicity Barringer, who is usually the Times’ media writer, wrote the Times’ Green Blog a couple days later. In her follow-up piece called “Are We Hard-Wired to Doubt Science?” Barringer questioned the rationality of some of the smart meter interview subjects from her previous day’s piece opining:

some very intelligent people I interviewed had little use for the existing (if sparse) science. How, in a rational society, does one understand those who reject science, a common touchstone of what is real and verifiable

On its face her statement appeared to make sense. As I have discussed, it never ceases to amaze me how people ignore decades of science on radiofrequency radiation and the scientific evidence linking cell phone use to brain tumors, cognitive effects, ADHD, sperm count decreases and tinnitus. Then I saw the context.

Barringer went on to argue:

The absence of scientific evidence doesn’t dissuade those who believe childhood vaccines are linked to autism, or those who believe their headaches, dizziness and other symptoms are caused by cellphones and smart meters. And the presence of large amounts of scientific evidence doesn’t convince those who reject the idea that human activities are disrupting the climate.

To Barringer, people who questioned the safety of cell phones were on the fringe and were gripped by an excessive paranoia that itself could be explained scientifically. She cited a consultant who studies “perception” of risk:

“Humans are hard-wired to reject scientific conclusions that run counter to their instinctive belief that someone or something is out to get them.”

Here are some things Barringer would have found out if she had investigated the rationales for peoples’ belief that cell phones are unsafe, and consulted actual scientists instead of someone who reduces people’s perception of risk to the fight-or-flight response. As early as 1962, G.E. Engineer Allen Frey showed that pulsed microwave radiation (emitted by wireless devices and antennae) affect cell membranes and can breach the blood-brain barrier, thereby allowing toxins to penetrate the specialized blood vessels that ordinarily protect the brain from toxins in the body’s bloodstream.

The U.S. wireless industry itself conducted a series of studies in the early 1990s that documented genetic damage at levels below the current safety limits set by the Federal Communications Commission. The industry studies also found a dose-response risk of acoustic neuroma with more than six years of cell phone use and a doubling of brain cancer risk.

These studies were discontinued after the wireless industry was informed of the results. At that time, biophysicist Henry Lai PhD and biologist N.P. Singh MD at the University of Washington also reported double-strand DNA breaks from cell phone radiation on animal cells. Their findings were confirmed in studies of human cells by biochemist Jerry Phillips PhD. There have been multiple studies since confirming DNA breaks in human cells from exposure to cell phone radiation.

Among the research work that points to safety hazards from cell phones:

• Independent studies conducted by Lennart Hardell of Sweden that suggest a 420 percent increase in brain tumors for people who regularly used cell phones before age 20 and a doubling of the risk of glioma or acoustic neuroma for adults on the same side of the head as the cell phone was used.
• A team led by Gursatej-Gandhi in India found genetic damage up to 10 times higher in the tissues of regular cell phone users than in the tissues of non-cell phone users.
• Agarwal et al. found that men who use a cell phone four hours a day or more experience a 59 percent decline in sperm count and a higher risk of testicular cancer.
• Divan et al. found that children who regularly use cell phones or whose mothers used cell phones when pregnant with these children had high rates of attention deficit disorder.
• Hutter, Moshammer et al. found that the risk of tinnitus doubled after four years of continual cell phone use.
• Salford et al. found that rats exposed for only two hours to GSM (European standard) mobile phones at levels 16 to 160 times lower than U.S. radiation exposure limits experienced the death of 2 percent of their brain cells.

It is disturbingly clear that Barringer herself is in fact the otherwise intelligent person who has “little use for science” whom she purported to describe. Instead of detouring into the political psychology and scientific underpinnings of paranoia, she should have examined the political forces (corporate interests) in this country that have caused science to be suppressed and policy to be perverted.

Part II: The Politics of Cell Phone Radiation
In Part I, I gave some snapshots of the cell phone science that The New York Times media reporter Felicity Barringer believes only exists in the minds of Luddites and the paranoid among us.

Here are some other recent events that should convince even the hardened skeptic that cell phones are a problem:

* In 2000, the German company T-Mobil commissioned an 86-page report, “Mobile Telcommunications and Health: A Review of the Current Scientific Research in View of Precautionary Health Protection,” that surveyed the literature and acknowledged negative health consequences of cell phone radiation.

* Congress held hearings in 2008 and 2009 on cell phone safety that featured testimony by scientists linking cell phones to brain tumors, acoustic neuromas, parotid gland tumors and impaired fertility among other negative health outcomes.

* In April 2009, the European Union passed a resolution stipulating that wireless transmitters should be kept away from schools, retirement homes and health care institutions and calling for awareness-raising campaigns to familiarize young Europeans with the health risks associated with wireless devices.

* In September 2010, the epidemiologist Devra Davis reported that cell phone companies had been denied reinsurance for health-related claims after the Austrian government-commissioned studies that found 200 to 400 percent increases in abnormalities of cell phone-exposed blood and showed that people’s test scores dropped after being exposed to 2G and 3G cell phone radiation.

* In the last five years, public campaigns in the UK resulted in 15 percent of people getting landlines who had previously been wireless-only households. Israel warned its citizens not to abandon their landlines, and researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology warned people not to use their cell phones more than six minutes per day because the brain has a “high risk of getting affected by radiation.”

The U.S. government officially has studied electromagnetic radiation at the lower power line frequencies and the armed forces have conducted classified studies on microwave and other radiofrequency radiation for decades. But official study of these frequencies has stalled in the US:

* In 1990, the EPA proposed classifying EMFs from power lines and household appliances as a Class B carcinogen as it had done with formaldehyde, DDTs, dioxin and PCB’s, but the effort was rebuffed politically.

* Shortly thereafter, our federal government stopped funding bioelectromagnetics research, but by 1999, authorized a study of cell phone radiation and other radiofrequency radiation (through the National Institute of Environmental Health Science’s National Toxicology Program) that only got started this year – 11 years after it was commissioned.

* The National Toxicology Program recently announced that the study, which had been commissioned because the Radiofrequency Interagency Working Group (a federal interagency working group including the FDA, FCC, OSHA the EPA and others) stated that existing safety limits for pulsed radiofrequency radiation were “not protective of public health,” could not be expected before 2014.

While the U.S. has dragged its feet, governments around the world have issued advisories on cell phones or other wireless technologies, while the FCC website claims the FCC relies on the FDA for information on the health effects of radiological devices, but the FDA doesn’t study them and gave the cell phone a free pass onto the market.

Also filling the void of the U.S. federal government are municipal and state governments and independent scientists. In July 2008, Dr. Ronald Herberman of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center wrote a memo to staff there advising restricted use of cell phones. In June 2010, the city of San Francisco passed legislation requiring point-of-sale radiation disclosure of cell phones (since put under injunction by the legal maneuvering of cell phone industry lobbyists), and similar legislation is pending in the state of Pennsylvania and Maine.

Two state governments have issued cautionary statements on other forms of electromagnetic radiation:

* In 1987, the New York Power Lines Project confirmed findings of epidemiological studies done in the 1970s linking childhood leukemia and brain cancer to electromagnetic fields from power lines.

* The California Department of Health Services released a report in 2002 that found that added risk of miscarriage, childhood leukemia, brain cancer and greater incidence of suicide was associated with exposure to electric and magnetic fields such as those that radiate from power lines and electrical appliances. Investigators found an “increased lifetime risk of childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease).”

Besides the National Toxicology Program, which will exist 15 years before its first study is done, the President’s Cancer Panel, appointed by George Bush, weighed in on the problem of electromagnetic radiation and proliferating devices saying, “. . . the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated,” and “It is vitally important to recognize that children are far more susceptible to damage from environmental carcinogens” and “. . . the most urgent issue that we need to address . . . is whether children or adolescents using cell phones (and other wireless devices) are at increased risk.”

* By 2011, the NIH found that talking on a cell phone for 50 minutes resulted in rapid glucose uptake in an area of the brain linked with judgment and impulse control. (The NIH was 10 years later than the Europeans to the cell phone-health effects-study party and almost 2 decades behind U.S. industry studies that have found links to tumors and DNA breakage from cell phones).

Later in the year, the Council of Europe (CoE) stated that immediate action was required to protect children from wireless networks and cell phones, and the World Health Organization (WHO) categorized the radiofrequency radiation coming from wireless devices and transmitters as a class 2b carcinogen, putting wireless emissions in the same category as diesel exhaust and DDT.

With public awareness of the scientific evidence of harm mounting, the only way that wireless companies can continue doing business as usual is to obscure the truth by denying independent science, cherry-picking the data and designing their own studies that omit key variables. The industry has correctly calculated that people will not notice that over 70% of independent studies show problems with wireless technologies while only 25% of industry studies do, and that the public will rely on what passes for journalism these days– a “he-said”, “she said” media that reports industry pronouncements verbatim as if they are equally valid to those of independent scientists, or indeed, even remotely truthful.

The rise and domination of wireless gadgets is only possible through a whole separate cottage industry of misinformation coupled with the public’s increasing technological addiction– an addiction that can best be summed up by ‘Morpheus’ of the Matrix movies, “You have to understand that many of them are not ready to be unplugged and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

Part III: Rise of the Machines
As for smart meters and other wireless devices, the U.S. has not pre-market safety tested any of them and has not conducted any studies on Wi-Fi, cell towers, or the "smart" grid, while 80 percent of international studies show negative health effects to those who live up to a quarter-mile from cell towers.

Before cell towers were rolled out, the peer-reviewed scientific literature showed sleep, cardiovascular, neurological and metabolic problems for people who lived near other microwave-emitting towers like tv broadcast and air traffic control towers, radar installations and even radiofrequency-emitting radio towers. In part, because the cell network relies on what are effectively two-way radio handheld devices to communicate with the towers, more microwave transmitters at closer intervals are required to run wireless networks than these older radiation-emitting transmission systems needed. Even more towers are required now that the government has permitted telecom companies to enable people to transmit not only phone calls wirelessly, but endless amounts of data and video, which should be transmitted by wire or cable instead.

Back in 1993, the California Public Utilities Commission had recommended siting towers away from schools and hospitals (by extension, that guidance should have included residences, since children and vulnerable populations also reside there). Independent scientists suggested that towers should be set at least a quarter-mile away-- the approximate distance for the power density to level off; by 2009, the EU stipulated that towers should be kept away from schools, hospitals and old-age homes.

The first question people should have asked themselves when Wi-Fi was rolled out is how does this radiation compare to a tower? A layperson with a rudimentary grasp of physics but an inquisitive mind would have understood that proximity to the transmitter is the larger factor in radiation exposure than total power output. Per the math (verifiable by measurement), ubiquitously Wi-Fi-ed institutions expose many of their inhabitants to more radiation than they would get picnicking close to a cell tower. Even with the relatively lower-powered Wi-Fi in homes, people’s cumulative exposure from regular use of Wi-Fi exceeds the exposure most of them are getting from most cell towers.

So why would anyone have permitted the ubiquitous rollout of a technology (Wi-Fi) that would expose many people to more radiation than they would get from even a cell tower that was poorly sited (not at a distance per early precautionary warnings)? While it is understandable that the public believes that anything that is legally sold has been properly vetted for safety, blame should squarely be laid at the feet of the managers of institutions--schools and private and public sector offices-- for deferring to their IT departments and not inquiring into the sense of exposing building occupants to microwave radiation all day.

In any event, many didn't notice the transmitters going on their rooftops and on the walls and ceilings of their offices, schools and public buildings or grasp the implications of bringing transmitters in closer to human environments. While cell phones obviously present the most intense exposures, people are not exposed to them continually; indeed a 2009 Swiss study showed that on average, people moving in and out of urban areas got more cumulative exposure from transmitters than from their cell phones. Nevertheless, cell phone use, as previously discussed, is linked with a host of problems from cancers, to concentration problems and headaches. It isn't hard to connect the dots and realize that extra cumulative radiation - indeed extra radiation that exceeds what people are getting from their daily use of a cell phone - presents a public health problem.

Smart meters, wireless meters that are like mini-cell towers placed on the side of people’s homes (in lieu of meter readers), are perhaps the most noticeable devices to be rolled out exposing the public to an involuntary continual stream of microwave radiofrequency radiation. The perceived involuntary nature of the exposure, sanctioned by the government ((and indeed a number of "environmental" groups like EDF (one of their trustees is married to a venture capitalist who is profiting handsomely from forced transmitter rollout), as is Al Gore-- an “Inconvenient Truth” if ever there were one)) and the Sierra Club, which should know better, adds to the grief that people get from having a smart meter forced onto the side of their homes.

The relative health impact of any device is going to depend upon how much and how often you use it/ are exposed to it and how close you are to it. People are focused on the smart meter because it creates a more obviously involuntary exposure, and depending on its relative location to the areas you frequent (bedroom, office), it can make you very sick, very quickly. However, many who are concerned about smart meters are using Wi-Fi, and in many cases, their cumulative exposure from regular use of Wi-Fi will exceed that of the radiation from the smart meter. In the most extreme situations (depending on its location), the smart meter could expose the house dweller to 100x as much radiation as their Wi-Fi router. In addition, the smart meter emits high-intensity spikes that are particularly disruptive to human physiology. Together these exposures are cumulative. Neither Wi-Fi nor a smart meter should be in or on your home if you want to protect yourself from excessive radiation exposure and/or if you buy the aforementioned concept that you shouldn't be dwelling near a cell tower. Either Wi-Fi or smart meter exposure will expose people on average to more cumulative radiation than their cell phone use will.

Again, if the smart meter is on the other side of your headboard, the smart meter could expose you to even more intense radiation than you would get from speaking on a cell phone; so the exposure could be worse than if you had a cell phone on by your head all night. Certainly, if France and India are telling their citizens not to use a cell phone more than 6 minutes per day, and only a half hour a day is linked with significant brain tumor increases, nobody should be forced to sleep with a smart meter on the other side of the wall. Per my last article, our government has no standards for continual exposure -- (the German government encourages people to limit their cumulative exposure and not install wireless, microwave-emitting technologies in their homes.) The answer to the question, “how far away is safe enough?” is that there is no safe level of exposure and that peoples’ individual thresholds for permanent harm will vary.

Certainly, it is better if the smart meter is farther away from you, but metal inside the home can create hotspots that expose people to even more radiation than the lax FCC limits, underscoring the point that there are no safe limits. In terms of the radiofrequency interference problem, people with pacemakers or other medical implants are told by utilities (only after being directly asked) to avoid the wall in the house where the smart meter is located. What is indisputable is that smart meters (and by extension the governments that are allowing them to be mandated) create levels of radiation in some people’s houses that are higher than ones already linked to statistically significant levels of disease from cell phones or cell towers.

The Precautionary Principle has been invoked by governments that have called for restricted use of wireless devices and infrastructure and is the rationale for moratoriums on smart meters. (Opt-outs don't do the Precautionary Principle justice as people still get passive radiation from their neighbors' smart meters and apartment building dwellers can be exposed to banks of meters which multiply the total amount of radiation). In any event, we are way beyond precaution at this juncture. This brings me back to Felicity Barringer’s New York Times columns. First, Barringer pointed out that opposition was growing to smart meters. Two days later, she dismissed opponents of smart meters and cell phones as anti-science hypochondriacs.

I emailed Elisa Boxer-Cook, a smart meter opponent in Maine referenced in the original article and Emmy-award winning journalist herself (she was formerly the main anchor of the ABC affiliate in Portland). Her reaction: "I am surprised and disappointed that The New York Times allowed something so clearly biased to be published, without vetting it for fairness and objectivity." Felicity [Barringer] interviewed me for this story … and it was extremely clear to me … that she had her mind made up … Her arguments here seem to be coming from the industry playbook: paint the opposition as anti-technology." Maine has since offered the option to opt out of smart meters.

Barringer's analysis of the smart meter opponents' "cultural resistance" to "the hierarchist status quo" is utterly beside the point. Besides the hotspots, the federal Interagency Working Group on Radiofrequency Radiation states that the safety limits on pulsed RFR (emitted by smart meters, Wi-Fi, phones and other wireless devices) are not protective of human health, and the cumulative effect of all the other proliferating sources of RFR is likely a problem. The National Academy of Sciences wrote a report in 2008 suggesting that dangerous hotspots could be created by all this radiation around metal - this includes not only furniture in our homes, but metal on our bodies including brassiere underwires, piercings, braces, jewelry, glasses, hair fasteners, belt buckles, shoes and medical implant devices. Norbert Hankin, a then-EPA official, stated over a decade ago that no long-term standards for exposure to radiofrequency radiation even exist. In the absence of standards for long-term cumulative exposure, why is the government subsidizing the rollout of a wireless smart grid? Indeed, why did the FCC announce that landlines would be phased out in certain areas, especially when Congress already held two sets of hearings questioning the safety of cell phones?

Besides the aforementioned technologies and cordless phones, Bluetooth and baby monitors (which are also adding to peoples' lifetime cumulative exposure to microwave radiation), the FCC has been promoting Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) to replace wired landlines and wired internet via DSL or cable modem. DAS are the next generation cell towers, and even though they are lower powered than most towers, their proximity to people’s homes means that they are exposing people to more radiation than cell towers. Government promotion of DAS is preventing the marketplace from being incentivized to use and develop safe, non 2b-carcinogen-emitting technologies that could be transmitting utility information by wire.

Besides the DAS fiasco, our other "smart" devices are turning into high-powered hotspots, further collapsing the distinction between a phone and a transmitter, and hidden transmitters are being put in city parks and bus stops. (Interestingly, the mayor of NYC has promoted 2b-carcinogen-emitting transmitters in parks while vigorously fighting public exposure to large portions of sugary soft drinks and smoking outdoors at the beach.) The smart meter is the transmitting device that evokes the most public outrage - and understandably so, since the government is effectively forcing them on private property, and the fact that they are exposing some people continually to more radiation than many people are getting from these other sources individually, if not cumulatively. If Barringer can't get the smart meter story right, don't hold your breath for The New York Times (or the rest of the mainstream media for that matter) to untangle the rest of the story of the Rise of the (microwave radiation-emitting) Machines.

Many scientists believe that exposure to radiation from wireless devices and transmitters is trumping smoking and second-hand smoking as a current public health crisis; some have publicly stated that this problem is more serious to human health than global warming. An analysis of the relative health impacts of these problems over time over the whole population is complicated and goes beyond the scope of this piece. It is viscerally apparent to those who have either gotten head cancers from their cell phones, or have developed electro-hypersensitivity -- a number that an advisor to the UK Health Protection Agency estimates to be about 10% of the population to date --from exposure to Wi-Fi, smart phones, smart meters, another source or from some combination thereof -- that wireless devices and transmitters are a clear and present danger.

Ironically, these technologies are being falsely touted as solving the global warming problem. ((Like smart meters, which do not reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) useage, smartphones are called “green” when in fact it was reported (by The New York Times!) that the data server farms used to house the data and make it available for on-demand wireless transmission creates more GHG than the pulp and paper industry it is supposed to be supplanting.))

For those still in disbelief that this oft-quoted newspaper could have gotten it so wrong, let me point out what happened the last time this country publicly recognized a health crisis caused by electromagnetic radiation. From the 1970's until 1987, Suffolk County, NY passed historic legislation protecting its county workers from video display terminals (VDTs); these data entry computer terminals were being used by clerks, airline reservationists and newspaper workers and were causing miscarriages, stillbirths and birth defects to pregnant workers. Other workers got eyestrain from VDT radiation. After Suffolk's Law and a report by Kaiser Permanente, the VDTs were yanked off the market and redesigned to be relatively safe...but not before the The New York Times wrote an editorial pooh-poohing the science, while simultaneously fending off a lawsuit by its own workers, who complained of ill-health from VDTs.

Unfortunately while VDTs were wired devices and could be redesigned to cancel out currents and magnetic fields, the current spate of problems cannot be fixed this way; wireless radiation radiates out into space and the current set of devices interact with an array of fixed transmitters. The only way to protect the public's health is to reduce exposure. The government needs to be told (repeatedly, apparently) to stop allowing its regulated utilities to mandate microwave radiation-emitting transmitters on people’s homes. Neither the government nor the Felicity Barringers and The New York Times' of the world will act in the public interest unless enough of us stand up to terminate the belief that our health is less important than the machines that are driving the corporate bottom line.

* Deborah Kopald (BA, Harvard; MBA, MIT Sloan School of Management) is an environmental health and public policy advocate who has authored numerous articles and a forthcoming book about electromagnetic pollution. She developed and oversaw the promotion of successful legislative initiatives at the local, and county and state levels in New York State, has addressed 35 offices of Congress, has appeared as an expert guest on television and radio programs, and has been an invited speaker at SUNY campuses, Rotary Clubs, parents groups, two county legislatures, the NY State Senate, the Association of Towns and various municipal governments. She received an award from Orange Environment in October, 2011 for her public education efforts and advocacy of transmitter-free zones.

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