Three books take on conventional wisdom about the health risks of electromagnetic fields
Reviewed by Kenneth R. Foster
By Devra Davis; Dutton, 2010; 271 pp.; US $26.95; 978-0525-95194-0
Zapped: Why Your Cell Phone Shouldn’t Be Your Alarm Clock and 1268 Ways to Outsmart the Hazards of Electronic Pollution
By Ann Louise Gittleman; HarperOne, 2010; 272 pp.; $25.99; 978-0-06-186427-8
Dirty Electricity: Electrification and the Diseases of Civilization
By Samuel Milham; iUniverse.com, 2010; 120 pp.; $12.95; 978-1-4502-3821-2
Edited by Paolo Vecchia et al.;
International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection; 2009; ISBN 978-3-934994-10-2; Available at http://www.icnirp.de/documents/RFReview.pdf
Risk Analysis of Human Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields
By Zenon Sienkiewicz, Joachim Schüz, Aslak Harbo Poulsen, and Elisabeth Cardis, report of the European Health Risk Assessment Network on Electromagnetic Fields Exposure; 2010; Available at http:/efhran.polimi.it/docs/EFHRAN_D2_final.pdf
Do you feel zapped, disconnected, electronically polluted by electromagnetic fields in your homes and workplace? Are you fearful of your electricity? These three books will feed your fears.
But are such fears justified? Public debates have been going on for more than a century about the possible health hazards of electromagnetic fields from power lines and radio-frequency energy from broadcast transmitters—and now cellphones. At the same time, health agencies have repeatedly reviewed the scientific literature and found no clear evidence of a problem. How can these totally different perspectives be reconciled?
Disconnect is the latest tome by Devra Davis, an epidemiologist with a variety of academic appointments on her résumé. Her previous books have excoriated other industries for the risks of their products, and in 2007 she founded an organization, Environmental Health Trust, "capitalizing on growing public interest" in them. In Disconnect she turns her attention to one of the "addictive delights of our technological age"—cellphones.
Davis writes in a popular style, personalizing her story with interviews with ordinary citizens who used cellphones and later developed brain cancer or other diseases. Her heroes are scientists who, she says, made breakthrough discoveries about the hazards of radio-frequency energy, only to be stymied by a cellphone industry that tried to stop their funding or disarm them by funding other scientists to cloud the issue with unsuccessful replication studies. Picking through the large scientific literature on biological effects of radio-frequency energy, Davis presents the case that "cell phones are not safe" and worries that half of the roughly 4 billion cellphone users throughout the world are under the age of 20.
In her less rigorous book, Zapped, Ann Louise Gittleman takes aim at electromagnetic fields of all sorts, from those emitted by cellphones to the much lower frequency fields associated with power lines. "You may be surprised—even shocked," she says, "to discover that on a daily basis you are exposed to some form of electromagnetic radiation that may be compromising your health." She describes the "electrosensitivity syndrome" that causes people to experience "a variety of often debilitating symptoms when they’re exposed to even low-level radiation."
Gittleman, who has a Ph.D. in holistic nutrition from the Clayton College of Natural Health and calls herself "the First Lady of Nutrition," says readers can "zap-proof" their lives by making "food and [food] supplements your radiation shield." Her "Zapped Diet" contains "the nutrients your body needs to help neutralize the stressful impact from EMF [electromagnetic field] side effects," and recommends honeybee food supplements (for its caffeic acid, a component of bee resin) and eating lots of walnuts. She provides links to activist organizations concerned about health effects of electromagnetic fields, and to homeopathic practitioners offering "internal EMF protection detoxification."
Samuel Milham, in his short professional autobiography Dirty Electricity, describes his longstanding interest in the possible health risks of environmental electromagnetic fields, which he clearly views as real. Milham is best known for his studies beginning in the 1980s linking electricity-related occupations and cancer risks (for example, being a ham radio operator and leukemia; using an electric typewriter and breast cancer). These studies provoked much discussion but had little influence on health agencies (lack of exposure assessment was a major problem). Over time, he became focused on "dirty electricity," which is his term for electrical noise on power circuits, typically from light dimmers or other appliances. This also had little influence on health agencies, including his own (the Washington State Department of Health, where he worked as an epidemiologist for over 20 years), but it has inspired numerous Web sites on the issue.
In 1992 and facing demotion, Milham retired at age 60 to begin a second career as an expert witness for citizens’ groups protesting power lines. Even now, nearly 20 years later, he carries a special meter with him to measure noise on power circuits, which can sometimes be reduced by removing fluorescent lights. But "few electricians understand or know how to deal with dirty electricity," he writes, and his letters to schools and hospitals warning of its dangers have frequently been met with silence—or sometimes with cease-and-desist letters by attorneys. "We cry Enough. Enough, Dr. Milham, Enough," one school board attorney ended his letter, the author reports.
In their very different ways, all three books tell the reader that electromagnetic fields, from power-frequency fields to microwaves, pose great health risks at exposure levels that an ordinary citizen would experience in daily life. But is it true?
Considered as scientific arguments, all three books leave a lot to be desired.
Disconnect, which has the most sustained argument for health risks of radio-frequency energy, is egregiously slanted. Davis picks and chooses her data, favorably describing a primitive 1975 study that claimed to show that radio-frequency energy disrupts the physiological barrier between blood and the brain, but not the better-conducted studies mounted in response to this report, mostly funded by government, that failed to confirm the original finding or the decades of controversy on this issue that followed without clearly identifying a real effect apart from obvious effects of thermal damage at high exposure levels (for a recent review, see http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.crhy.2010.09.001). She quotes disparaging comments by the researcher who conducted the 1975 study about a retired professor who is an eminent researcher in the field, but she does not interview the professor himself or present his views fairly. Disconnect lacks detailed endnotes, making it difficult for readers unfamiliar with this field to check her sources for themselves.
And there is a basic plausibility problem with Davis’s claim that an industry cover-up exists about health risks of radio-frequency fields. In Europe, in particular, national health agencies have mounted large interdisciplinary research programs in search of possible hazards of cellphones, managed at arms length from industry, including one I reported on, a 17 million (US $23 million) program in Germany that found no adverse health effects from cellphone radiation. Too many scientists have been involved with this issue for any industry cover-up to succeed even if one were attempted.
Gittleman, apart from her nutty (and delectable) nutritional advice, commits a number of scientific bloopers, saying at one point that ultrasound scanning devices "expose the fetus to 3.5 to 5.0 MHz electrical fields" and, elsewhere, that ionizing radiation "causes harm through heat." Gittleman profiles "electrosensitive" individuals, but she fails to discuss the numerous blinded trials that showed that these individuals are unable to determine when they’re actually being exposed to electromagnetic fields and react only when they think they’re being exposed (this literature was thoroughly reviewed in 2005).
Her view, that exposure to any kind of electromagnetic field at any exposure level is harmful and that this harm can be prevented by using nutritional supplements—is scientifically poorly defined and medically untested. And Milham’s professional anecdotes are hardly a sustained scientific argument.
|Outcome||Strength of evidence|
|Leukemia in children||Inadequate|
|Brain tumors in children||Inadequate|
|Brain tumors in adults||Inadequate|
|Breast cancer in adults||Inadequate|
|Other cancer (children or adults)||Inadequate|
|Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)||Inadequate|
|Other neurodegenerative diseases||Inadequate|
|Electrical hypersensitivity (EHS)||Lack of effect|
There is, of course, another side to the issue: expert assessments of the scientific literature that have been conducted by many health agencies over the years. The best of these reviews use a weight of evidence approach, assessing all relevant evidence and paying attention to the quality of studies and their relevance to health. And their consistent failure to find clear evidence of health threats from electromagnetic fields at real-world exposure levels stands in striking contrast to the views of Davis, Gittleman, and Milham.
The first of these is an exhaustive 378-page review [PDF] of the literature related to biological effects of radio-frequency energy, by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, an international standards-setting organization. The report describes a number of reported biological effects of low-level radio-frequency energy, including some in humans, but considers these to be "small and of limited functional consequence," and that electrosensitivity reactions "whilst real enough to the individuals concerned, are not causally related to EMF exposure."
The most recent contribution, a 28-page summary [PDF] of an expert assessment by four senior European scientists (all connected with health agencies or, in one case, a research institution) under contract from the European Commission, builds on work by a EU-funded network of health experts from seven European countries, an additional eight countries, and the World Health Organization to review the scientific literature on possible health risks of electromagnetic fields.
Typical of the approach of health agencies, and quite unlike Davis’s pick-and-choose approach, this European review weighed the scientific evidence for suspected health effects ranging from electrical hypersensitivity to cancer [see table, "Health Outcomes Associated With Exposure to RF"]. The review found "inadequate" evidence for a range of them, and evidence for "lack of effect" of such fields in provoking hypersensitivity reactions.
Davis, Gittleman, Milham, and other activists would no doubt find reasons to distrust these reviews, or those of other major health agencies with similar conclusions. Maybe these health agencies are wrong, after all. But scare stories hardly make strong scientific arguments. Intellectual honesty demands that these massive reviews be dealt with carefully and in substance.
So how can the great divergence between the views of Davis and like-minded individuals, and those of health agencies, be explained? Part of the reason might be cultural—the longstanding tendency of many people in Western societies to exaggerate the possible health benefits, and also possible health risks, of electromagnetic fields [see "Electrifying Society," IEEE Spectrum, February 2005]. The same could be said about health effects of nutritional supplements, in which Gittleman is a true believer.
Another may be the intrinsically messy nature of risk research, which has led, in the case of electromagnetic fields, to endless arguments among scientists and lay people about the significance of reported small biological effects of the fields that have no clear significance to health—and may even be, in some cases, experimental artifacts—but at the same time give a strong impression to many people that even weak electromagnetic fields have profound health consequences. Health agencies seldom proclaim anything to be "safe" but only that risks are unproven, which is scientifically more defensible but hardly reassuring to a public inclined to worry about low-level risks.
Readers are free to choose what to worry about, and which advisors to trust. For myself, the World Health Organization is the place to go for reliable advice (see its May 2010 fact sheet, for example) on controversial issues such as this. But some of the recipes in the Zapped Diet seem pretty tasty.
For more book reviews, see the full list.
About the Author
Kenneth R. Foster is a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, an IEEE Fellow, and a former president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology. In October 2010, he reviewed The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.