Friday, April 12, 2024

Authors at Oakland: A Celebration of the Book

Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill?,
by Brad Roth
Every year the Kresge Library at Oakland University hosts an event called “Authors at Oakland” where they honor publications by Oakland University faculty. This year was “a celebration of the book.” Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology was featured at a previous Authors at Oakland event, and this year I submitted Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? Two authors were selected to give a short talk about their book, and I was one of them. So on Wednesday, March 20 I spoke to an audience of OU librarians, members of the faculty senate library committee, and other interested professors and students.

The talk was not recorded but below is a transcript, as best as I can remember it.
Thank you for selecting my book Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? to be featured here at Authors at Oakland. My friend David Garfinkle once told me that any time a book has a title in the form of a question, the answer’s always “no.” That’s true for my book, and sums it up in a nutshell.

How did I come to write this book? In November of 2019, just before Covid arrived, I was asked to participate in a town hall meeting in Rochester, Michigan about the then-new 5G cell phones. I was to be the health effects expert. I thought I was going to give a short talk to a quiet and respectful audience. Little did I know what was in store. [At this point I showed about the first one and a half minutes of the video below.]

I discussed the hazards of 5G cell phone radiation at a town hall meeting in Rochester, Michigan in 2019. The audience was not convinced by my claim that the risks are small.
This experience got me to wondering why people believe things that aren’t supported by the evidence and what could I do about it? In response to the second question, I wrote this book.

The book covers several topics, but today I’ll focus on the issue that started it all: cell phones and cancer.

Not everyone agrees with me that 5G cell phone radiation is harmless. Devra Davis has written a book titled Disconnect, in which she claims to tell “the TRUTH about cell phone RADIATION, what the INDUSTRY has done to HIDE it, and how to PROTECT your FAMILY.” I disagree with her conclusions, but the issue shouldn’t be viewed as my word against hers. Let’s look at the evidence. That’s how science works.

The electromagnetic spectrum.
To start we need to discuss a little physics. Electromagnetic waves come in many frequencies, from extremely low frequencies like those produced by 60 Hz power lines, to intermediate frequencies such as from cell phones, to very high frequencies such as x-rays.
Quantum mechanics tells us that electromagnetic radiation is not continuous but comes in lumps called photons. The energy of a photon is proportional to its frequency. Very high frequency photons like for x-rays have enough energy that they can disrupt DNA, causing mutations leading to cancer. However, cell phones operate at a much lower frequency, on the order of a gigahertz (one billion oscillations per second), in the realm of microwaves. These photons have an energy of about 0.000004 eV (an eV or “electron volt” is a unit of energy appropriate when discussing single atoms or molecules). What should we compare that energy to? All molecules are bouncing around randomly, called thermal motion. The thermal energy at our body temperature is about 0.02 eV. A cell phone photon would be swamped by the thermal noise. Chemical bonds have strengths of several electron volts. A cell phone photon is far too weak to break bonds, so they can’t directly disrupt DNA and cause cancer like x-ray photons can. If they have any effect it must be an indirect one, such as affecting our immune system or suppressing our body’s ability to repair DNA damage.

A microwave oven.
(Consumer Reports, CC BY-SA 4.0,
licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Even though one photon can’t damage our tissue, you might be wondering what would happen if we deposited many, many photons into our body? Physicists have a word for that: “heat.” We know microwaves can heat tissue. You prove that every time you warm up your leftovers in your microwave oven. However, physicists understand how microwaves heat tissue very well, and can predict how hot tissue will get when exposed to microwaves. Cell phones don’t emit enough microwave radiation to significantly heat tissue. The Federal Communications Commission limits the amount of radiation a cell phone can emit to levels that don’t cause significant heating. Your cell phone doesn’t cook your brain. If microwave radiation represents a hazard to our tissue, it’s not only through an indirect effect but also a nonthermal effect.

Let’s now look at four types of evidence about the risk of cell phone radiation: 1) theoretical analysis, 2) cancer rates, 3) epidemiological evidence, and 4) laboratory experiments.

Asher Sheppard and his colleagues have analyzed every theoretical mechanism they could think of to determine if microwaves have a significant affect on our tissue. After an exhaustive search, they concluded that
In the frequency range from several megahertz to a few hundred gigahertz, the focus of this paper, the principal mechanism for biological effects, and the only well-established mechanism, is the heating of tissues.
I can imagine that you’re thinking “well, maybe those armchair theorists just weren’t smart enough to dream up the correct mechanism.” Perhaps, but the point I want to make is that the concern about cell phone radiation isn’t being driven by a theoretical prediction. Theory does not predict there should be an effect.
Cell phone use and brain cancer trends between 1976 and 2006.
(Data from Inskip et al.)
Now look at this plot of brain cancer trends. Back in the 1980s, when I was a graduate student, no one had cell phones. The use of cell phones has exploded since then. The data shown only goes out to about 2010, but if you extend the data to today essentially everyone has a cell phone. However, the cancer rate has been flat over those decades. And the brain cancer rate, in particular, has been nearly flat. If cell phones are causing brain cancer, it’s not a strong enough signal to show up in the cancer rate data.

Epidemiology studies examine large groups of people, some exposed to a hazard and some not, to compare their health. One of the first epidemiological studies is called the INTERPHONE study, and it did suggest a weak association of heavy cell phone use with cancer. INTERPHONE was a case control study; the researchers interviewed many people with brain cancer to determine their prior cell phone use, and compared these people to a control group without cancer. These studies are useful for getting data on rare hazards quickly, but they’re susceptible to biases, such as “recall bias” where a person with cancer who used their cell phone a lot will remember that clearly and perhaps regretfully while a member of the control group might not remember whether or not they even used a cell phone at all. A cohort study is a better type of epidemiological analysis. A large number of people, some cell phone users and some not, are followed for many years to see who gets cancer. Two large cohort studies—the Million Women Study in Europe and another study that involved essentially the entire population of Denmark—didn’t indicate a signal for an increased rate of cancer caused by cell phone use. A meta-analysis of many epidemiological studies by Martin Röösli and his coworkers concluded that
Epidemiological studies do not suggest increased brain or salivary gland tumor risk with [mobile phone] use, although some uncertainty remains regarding long latency periods (>15 years), rare brain tumor subtypes, and [mobile phone] usage during childhood.
Another large cohort study, called COSMOS, is now being carried out in Europe. When I was preparing this Powerpoint presentation, I thought I’d have to tell you that we’ll need to wait a few years until the results are published. Then, just this week, a preliminary report found that there’s no evidence that cell phone use is associated with higher rates of brain cancer. Some people might claim that there’s a long latency period between the exposure to cell phone radiation and the occurrence of cancer, and that a large uptick in the cancer rate will happen soon. Maybe, but as each year goes by that scenario becomes less and less likely.

The final type of evidence is laboratory experiments, such as studies using rats, mice, or cells in a dish. The evidence here is mixed; many experiments see effects and many do not. In fact, you could make a compelling case for or against cell phone health effects, depending on which articles you read. Unfortunately, the quality of these studies is also mixed.

Often scientists sometimes conduct a systematic review, weighing the pros and cons of the many experiments. For example, Anne Perrin and her collaborators reviewed the effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields on the blood brain barrier, and found that
recent studies provide no convincing proof of deleterious effects of [radiofrequency radiation] on the integrity of the [blood brain barrier].
But other systematic reviews have come to different conclusions, and I fear it’s difficult to draw definite conclusions from the experimental investigations.

Federal agencies—such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Disease Control, and the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health)—often conduct their own reviews of the evidence. My favorite is the National Cancer Institute, which was the agency that got the round of boos during that 5G town hall meeting I participated in. These aren’t bureaucrats conducting the review, but instead are our nation’s top cancer scientists. They concluded that
The human body does absorb energy from devices that emit radiofrequency radiation. The only consistently recognized biological effect of radiofrequency radiation absorption in humans that the general public might encounter is heating to the area of the body where a cell phone is held (e.g., the ear and head). However, that heating is not sufficient to measurably increase core body temperature. There are no other clearly established dangerous health effects on the human body from radiofrequency radiation.
So, the evidence from theoretical analysis, cancer trends, epidemiology, and experiments makes a strong case that there are no health risks from cell phone radiation. Impossibility proofs are difficult in biology and medicine, but to me the evidence is compelling that the electromagnetic waves emitted by cell phones are safe.

A final question is if we should believe the scientists. Should we trust the National Cancer Institute to provide a unbiased review, or are they trying to hide hazardous effects. I believe a conspiracy secretly carried out by hundreds if not thousands of scientists and medical doctors is absurd. In my book I wrote
Dangers arising from cell phone radiation strike me as unlikely, but not inconceivable. However, the claims that there exists a vast plot, with scientists colluding to conceal the facts, are ridiculous.
My book covers other topics besides just cell phone radiation. There’s a chapter on power line electric and magnetic fields causing leukemia, another on the Havana Syndrome, and others. My conclusion is that all these potential affects of electromagnetic fields are overblown.

Finally, in the acknowledgments section of my book I thank the Kresge Library for “assisting me with obtaining books and articles related to this research.” In particular, the interlibrary loan office here at Kresge Library has been essential to my research. I worked them pretty hard. You can’t write a book like this without a good interlibrary loan department.

Thank you. Does anyone have questions?

I must admit the biggest applause arose from my comment about the interlibrary loan office, but then the crowd was largely librarians. Overall Authors at Oakland was a wonderful event, and I deeply appreciate being invited to speak at it.

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