New York Times’ Exposé of CDC’s Retraction of Warnings about Cell Phone Radiation
Jan 13, 2016
According to Microwave News, "Senior officials at the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into deleting the cautionary language that appeared on the CDC web site in August 2014. In response to external pressure from NCRP, CDC changed its fact sheet and retracted its precautionary recommendation, "Along with many organizations worldwide, we recommend caution in cell phone use.”
Microwave News reported that the NCRP last reviewed the radiofrequency health literature and issued exposure guidelines 30 years ago so the advice provided to CDC was obsolete. Moreover, the NCRP chairman of the board who led the effort to pressure CDC has a serious conflict of interest as he has served for many years as an expert witness for the cell phone and broadcast industries.
In June 2014, the CDC issued a public warning about the potential health risks from cell phone radiation, “We recommend caution in cellphone use.” The warning included a statement regarding the potential risks to children from cell phone use. Ten weeks later, the CDC withdrew the warning.
The Times obtained more than 500 pages of CDC internal records which revealed considerable disagreement among scientists and other health agencies about what to tell the public.
Even though the CDC had spent three years creating the new warning, the agency was unprepared for the publicity it received. For example, a public official from Vermont raised the potential liabilities for schools and libraries that allow use of cellphones and wireless technology.
Some CDC officials argued that the Agency should just state that other nations, including Austria, Canada, Finland, Israel, and the United Kingdom, warn their citizens about cell phone radiation.
A CDC spokesperson told the Times that the cellphone industry did not weigh in before the new warnings were released. Does this imply that the industry "weighed in” after the warnings were published given that they were abruptly removed?
Dr. Christopher Portier, former director of the CDC National Center for Environmental Health, disagreed with CDC’s decision to retract the warnings. He believes there is sufficient evidence for parents to be cautious about their children’s cell phone use, and that parents should be warned. Dr. Portier was among 31 international experts for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) that declared cell phone and other wireless radiation a possible cancer-causing agent.
In spite of divided scientific opinion, the European Environment Agency and other European governmental agencies have called for a precautionary approach, “There is sufficient evidence of risk to advise people, especially children, not to place the handset against their heads.”
Dr. Elisabeth Cardis who directed a major cell phone study for the WHO stated, “If there’s a risk, it’s likely to be greater for exposures at younger ages, simply because the skull is thinner and the ears are thinner in children than in adults. Basically your phone is closer to your brain.”
The cellular industry has rejected health concerns and sued Berkeley, California which passed a cell phone law last spring requiring local retailers to inform their customers about safety information mandated by the Federal Communications Commission.
The Times article concluded, “‘Some organizations recommend caution in cellphone use,’ the agency’s guidelines now say. But the C.D.C. is not one of them.”
Electromagnetic Radiation Safety and Microwave News originally reported on this controversy in August, 2014.
Microwave News posted a piece which poses important questions about the Times article.
Jan 2, 2016
An Open Letter to The New York Times from Raymond R. Neutra, MD, DrPH:
Dear Mr. Hakim:
Thanks for your interesting article on CDC's reversal on its advice with regard to the possible ways to use cell phones.
I am exasperated about four aspects of my public health colleagues' behavior:
First: the misleading way that some have characterized the volume and quality of data pertaining to possible hazards "there is NO evidence of a hazard" really means "the many studies suggesting a hazard do not meet my unstated criteria for entering them into evidence."
Second: their unhelpful way of characterizing their willingness to certify a causal link between cell phone use and cancer. How would we react to a TV weather reporter who said "I can't say for sure that it will rain tomorrow, but I can't say that it won't rain either." What we have come to expect is a statement like “After considering the evidence we certify that there is a 40% chance of rain tomorrow." This second statement allows the girl wearing a satin Prom Dress to bring an umbrella just in case, and the person wearing a tank top, shorts and flip flops to leave his umbrella at home.
Third: The unspoken assumption that the government can only share causal judgments with the public if it is absolutely certain. The government has all kinds of information about ways of using cell phones that could drastically lower exposure. Some parents would take precautionary actions if CDC was 20% sure of a hazard, others would take action only if CDC was 90% certain. They have a right to take informed action. Why is CDC not packaging their judgment in ways that the public can use?
Fourth: CDC's lack of transparency in revealing the stakeholders who complained about their first statement and their reasoning in rephrasing it. My exasperation is influenced by being a co-author of a text book on quantitative decision analysis in medicine and from heading up a decade-long policy project about magnetic fields from power lines at the California Department of Public Health.
Raymond Richard Neutra, MD, DrPH
Dr. Neutra retired in 2007 as Chief of the 200-person Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control after 27 years in the California Department of Public Health. He received his medical degree at McGill University in 1965 and his doctorate in epidemiology from Harvard School of Public Health in 1974. He has taught epidemiology at the Harvard Medical School and School of Public Health and University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Schools of Medicine and Public Health. He is author and co-author of more than 100 articles and co-authored a text book on quantitative decision analysis in medicine. Between 1994 and 2002 he was in charge of the Electric and Magnetic Fields Program in the California Department of Public Health, a seven million dollar policy-relevant research program. It asked the question "How certain must we be of how much EMF-related disease before we move from the status quo to cheap or expensive avoidance of magnetic fields?"
Jan 4, 2016
Environmental Health Trust posted a piece which documents the changes CDC made to its cell phone radiation warnings after receiving input from industry-funded scientists.
Danny Hakim. “At C.D.C., a Debate Behind Recommendations on Cellphone Risk." New York Times. Jan 1, 2016. A version of this article appears in print on January 2, 2016, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline, "At C.D.C., Evolution Of Advice On Phones." http://bit.ly/cellphoneNYT
Electromagnetic Radiation Safety. Press Release. "CDC Issues Precautionary Health Warnings about Cell Phone Radiation." PRLog, Aug 13, 2014. http://bit.ly/1Rf32LF
Electromagnetic Radiation Safety. Press Release. "CDC Retracts its Precautionary Health Warning about Cell Phone Radiation." PRLog, Aug 20, 2014. http://bit.ly/1SQEU1m
Microwave News. "CDC Calls for Caution on Cell Phones, Then Gets Cold Feet: First Federal Agency To Acknowledge Risk Soon Backs Down." Aug 16, 2014; Updated Aug 20, 2014. http://bit.ly/1OBLaf3
Microwave News. "New York Times Looks Behind CDC Reversal on Cell Phone Risks. Jan 1, 2016. Updated Jan 2, 2016. http://bit.ly/1TvL8nj
Environmental Health Trust. "Information The New York Times Left Out of its Exposé on CDC's Retraction of Cell Phone Radiation Warnings." Jan 4, 2016. http://bit.ly/EHTCDC
CDC Freedom of Information Request. CDC Changes in Cell Phone Warnings. 518 pp. http://bit.ly/CDCFOIA
Martyn Warwick. "The signal and the noise: the cancer v. cellphone debate grinds on." Telecom TV. Jan 4, 2016. http://bit.ly/1VFlqht