Last week we wrote about a report by the media outlet Tehelka which, in collaboration with Cogent EMR, conducted Electromagnetic Radiation surveys of Delhi and concluded that radiation levels are well above recommended levels. Analysis by Vaibhav on the forums demonstrated the flaws in the science on which the Tehelka report rested. As Vaibhav pointed out, EMR from cell phones is too weak to cause any structural damage to DNA. However, there could be other long-term effects of low intensity EMR exposure. In this second part I look at a few of the other many inconsistencies in reporter Rishi’s article and comments in the discussion with us on facebook.
Presented below are some of Tehelka’s statements/claims, followed by my analysis:
1. The defense of Cogent EMR: The reporter/representative provided a lot of info on how influential Cogent is, and dismissed Cogent’s involvement in quackery by saying:
Quote:“I did not write an article in any way connected to the products Cogent EMR Ltd sells. So their quackery or otherwise is not related to this article.”
This is strange, to say the least. Cogent has a lot of money to make, and their involvement in providing the data for this survey is a direct conflict of interest, to say the least. What is even stranger is this statement:
Quote:“I couldn’t find any other private concern that conducted EMR audits, and so would be apt for testing EMR levels throughout the city of Delhi. There were government agencies like SAMEER which did this. But why would a government agency undertake a survey which risked showing the government in a bad light?”.
So, it’s OK to trust a private company that has a direct conflict of interest and that makes money selling quack products that rely on distorting the data on the dangers of cell phone use, but it is not OK to trust a government agency designed to safeguard the public and made up of scientists from academia and research institutions, without any ties to industry? This logic sounds like it is designed to feed right into the conspiracy theory mindset.
2. This statement by the Tehelka reporter is just plain wrong.
Quote:“Microwave exposure at levels below the current FCC exposure standard can produce single and double strand breaks in DNA. “
As Vaibhav pointed out, microwave radiation is the non-ionizing kind. Nowhere near the levels that can cause nucleotide damage are found in the environment near residential areas, and all the studies show that EMR levels below the FCC guidelines do not cause nucleotide damage. This entire line of attack relies on the public’s ignorance about the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.
3. Fertility, the great fear of the masculine male:
Quote:“Dr. Agarwal – Director of the Clinical Andrology Laboratory and Reproductive Tissue Bank, and the Director of Research at the Center for Reproductive Medicine in 2006 found that using a mobile phone for more than four hours a day is associated with reduction in sperm viability and mobility of around 25 percent and can cause irreversible infertility in men.”
Now let’s look at the facts. The 2006 study was analyzed by Orac over at scienceblogs:
Quote:“This study has a number of shortcomings that make me take its conclusion with a huge grain of salt. Right off the bat, I note that it’s an observational study, and such studies are fraught with problems. Another huge problem with this study is that the men being studied are not a representative group by definition. After all, they are coming to an infertility clinic.”
Quote:A second problem is that the four parameters that showed a decrease are not independent. They are related, and in this study showed significant positive correlation with each other. If one goes up, all tend to go up, and if one goes down, all tend to go down.
The four parameters mentioned here are sperm count, motility, sperm viability, and percent normal morphology. It is possible that there were other more influential factors involved. Orac goes on:
Quote:However, these problems pale in significance with the single biggest problem of the study: the utter failure even to try to control for confounding factors other than age. Not only did the authors not validate cell phone exposure independently, but they did not examine the occupational history of the subjects or other potential exposures of radiofrequency radiation. The reason this is significant is that there could be a factor common to these men with decreased fertility that is the real cause of their problems that is also correlated with cell phone use.
Orac goes on to point out criticism of the study from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, on the point that the distance between the testicles and the handset when in use is too great for any significant effect.
Quote:“If you’re using your phone for four hours a day, presumably it is out of your pocket for longer. That raises a big question: how is it that testicular damage is supposed to occur?”
This is Dr Allan Pacey.
Quote:He said mobile phone use may be a marker for other lifestyle factors known to affect sperm quality.
“Maybe people who use a phone for four hours a day spend more time sitting in cars, which could mean there’s a heat issue. It could be they are more stressed, or more sedentary and sit about eating junk food getting fat. Those seem to be better explanations than a phone causing the damage at such a great distance” he added.
All the above discussion is over the 2006 study. In 2008 the same team did another study, this time to observe the direct effect of EMR on semen. They placed semen 2.5 cms from a cell phone on talk mode. They claim that this is the average distance between a phone in the trouser pockets and the testicles. Firstly, this is an exaggeration. Secondly, this is hardly the natural conditions. People do not usually walk around talking on cell phones that are in their pocekts 2.5 centimeters from their testicles. Also, our semen is not exposed as it was in the experiment. Finally, although they did notice that “Semen exposed to radiofrequency electromagnetic waves emitted from cell phones had higher levels of damaging free radicals, lower sperm motility (the ability of the sperm to move and swim) and sperm viability”, they also conclude that “There were no significant differences in DNA damage between the exposed and unexposed groups.” This directly contradicts the claims made by the Tehelka reporter (and by Cogent EMR) that cell phone EMR can cause DNA damage. If these studies are accurate, we must face the possibility that something else is going on, given that biological systems are complex and there are many things that we may be yet to understand. But the effects and the dangers are yet to be conclusively demonstrated. If there is any truth to the claims, it’s legitimacy is being affected by the hyperbole, poor fact-checking, blatant promotion of falsehoods and evident omissions of fact that Tehelka is resorting to.
4. Henry Lai and his unavailable meta study: The reporter states:
Quote:“I would like to bring to your notice a study by Dr. Henry Lai, biophysicist at the University of Washington [Video – http://www.blip.tv/file/3283837 – (2:30 min onwards – till 4:45 min) ]. Dr Lai reviewed 350 studies (175 industry funded and 175 non-industry funded) and found that about half showed bio-effects from EM radiation emitted by cell phones. But when he took into consideration the funding sources for those 350 studies, the results changed dramatically. Only 25 percent of the studies paid for by the industry showed effects, compared with 75 percent of those studies that were independently funded.”
The video clip asks the question “Are cell phones dangerous, like cigarettes are?”. Ignoring the obvious hyperbole and false analogy, there are still some puzzling aspects that remain. For some reason the original study is impossible to find! There are numerous sources online mentioning the study, many of them linking to the other studies they mention, but not one of them links to the meta study by Lai. For example, this article links to all the other studies referenced, but not to the original source. None of the original lines, data, images etc from Lai’s study have been quoted. Just a vague citation. Of course, the study could be real, but the fact that it is not available to be read and replicated, is reason for suspect, especially since it is claimed to be such a seminal study. The reason why this is important is because it is vital that we carefully go through Lai’s sources and see what he considers an ‘Industry Study” and what he considers an ‘Independent Study’. Also, each one of these studies must be scrutinized to make sure what Lai’s criteria was when he interpreted the results of these studies. Meta studies are easily manipulated, and the fact that no one can find the original study is cause for suspect. Moreover, Lai’s original claims from the 90s seems to have been that cell phone use causes DNA damage. This part is rejected today by the scientific consensus. It seems that Lai is his own ‘industry’.
5. Non-existent group: The reporter claims that:
Quote:The Australian Health Research Institute indicates that due to billions of times more in volume electromagnetic radiation emitted by billions of mobile phones, internet, intranet and wireless communication data transmission, almost one-third of world population (about 2 billion) may suffer from Cell Phone Cancer by 2020. Even if 1% of it comes true it will have devastating consequences to so many people.
What’s interesting is that this story is a complete hoax! There is no Australian Health Research Institute, and the above words seem to be taken almost word for word from some sort of propaganda ‘press’ release: See here, here and here.
I did not have time to fact check all the claims made by Rishi, the reporter, but many of the other claims in the reports look suspect as well, especially given that the majority opinion among science-based medical researchers is that cell phone radiation is too weak to cause DNA damage- a claim that Tehelka refutes over and over. In the time that it has taken us to get around to fact-checking and reporting on this issue, Tehelka has conducted surveys in three other cities, Mumbai, and Bangalore & Chennai. As expected, they concluded their reports on a terrifying note. The push by Tehelka to blow up this issue has made it necessary for us to get involved in looking at the evidence from a rational and scientific perspective. This discussion began on the forums and has now been stepped up to a different level. Nirmukta is calling for the big guns to tackle this one.