NYT Buries Lead, Muddies Water on EMF Health Issue

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July 25th, 2015

As I explained in an earlier blog post, I believe potential risks associated with our ever-more-intensive use of wireless devices, and the expanding body of research suggesting such risks do exist, are being unwisely ignored in our rush to enjoy the benefits of these technologies.

As that earlier post suggested, I see a need for:

1) A much-expanded program of research focused on understanding and mitigating EMF-related health risks, especially for vulnerable populations;

2) A fact-based and respectful discussion of research and public policy issues related to such risks.

Given my interest in this subject, I thought I might learn something useful from a recent NYT article by Carol Pogash entitled Cellphone Ordinance Puts Berkeley at Forefront of Radiation Debate. But, as I read the piece, I discovered that it used a mix of questionable journalistic practices to convey a different and dismayingly biased message, one worthy of a headline more like “Crazy Berkeley Radicals Once Again Deny Science by Legislating Onerous Anti-Business Regulations Based on Unfounded Sky-Is-Falling Cancer Claims.”

The first set of warning lights flashed when I read Pogash’s lead paragraph:

Leave it to Berkeley: This city, which has led the nation in passing all manner of laws favored by the left, has done it again. This time, the city passed a measure — not actually backed by science — requiring cellphone stores to warn customers that the products could be hazardous to their health, presumably by emitting dangerous levels of cancer-causing radiation.

While the first sentence may be true (I can’t tell without some independent research, since Pogash doesn’t cite any other “left-favored” laws passed by the city), it’s worth noting because it sets an effective perceptual frame for communicating the “Crazy Fact-Denying Berkeley Radicals Are At It Again” message. And it is especially potent in that regard when followed by two much more egregious statements in that paragraph. These claim that the Berkeley ordinance:

• is “not actually backed by science” and;

• warns customers that cellphones “could be hazardous to their health, presumably by emitting dangerous levels of cancer-causing radiation.”

It seems to me that, after reading the first paragraph,  uninformed readers might reasonably assume that the ordinance’s disclosure requirement made unsubstantiated claims that cellphone use will expose users to “dangerous levels of cancer-causing radiation.”

While launching a piece on the Berkeley ordinance this way may have been fun to write (it is, after all, entertainingly written), I was surprised and disappointed to see that it survived the Times’ editorial process. I found the “presumably” phrase particularly egregious in that regard, since Pogash’s “presumption” had no relation to the actual content of the ordinance, though many readers would not have known it when they read the lead paragraph (or possibly even after reading the whole article).

In her second paragraph, Pogash retains her dismissive tone by referring to the new Berkeley law as the “so-called” Right to Know ordinance, whose provisions she cites partially and in pieces, rather than in whole.

After reading these first two paragraphs, it seems reasonable to me that uninformed readers would assume that the ordinance and its requirements made some extreme statements about health risks, including some direct reference to increased cancer risk. All the more so after Pogash begins her third paragraph by focusing readers’ attention back to her preferred angle on the story, the “there’s no definitive proof of cancer risk” straw man.

Even supporters of the ordinance acknowledge that there is no definitive scientific link between cellphones and cancer, although they argue that it may take years for cancers to develop. The American Cancer Society says that cases of people developing cancer after carrying cellphones may be coincidental or anecdotal.

In the second part of that paragraph Pogash somewhat grudgingly acknowledges the actual content and purpose of the ordinance by adding that:

But some supporters are undeterred, noting that there are similar warnings in the fine print of cellphone manuals, and that the Berkeley warning is carefully written to reflect that language, albeit with additional cautionary words.

But right after doing that she jumps back to a poorly documented and superficial “debunking” of claims regarding potential links between cellphone use and cancer, which takes up the bulk of the remaining column inches devoted to the piece.

What she does not make clear is what Larry Lessig, who supported the Berkeley city council with pro bono legal services, explained in a blog post published shortly after the ordinance was passed:

The City of Berkeley requires that you be provided the following notice: To assure safety, the Federal Government requires that cell phones meet radio frequency (RF) exposure guidelines. If you carry or use your phone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra when the phone is ON and connected to a wireless network, you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF radiation. This potential risk is greater for children. Refer to the instructions in your phone or user manual for information about how to use your phone safely.

Those safety recommendations advise consumers not to carry their cell phone against their body.  

Here’s Apple’s statement:  To reduce exposure to RF energy, use a hands-free option, such as the built-in speakerphone, the supplied headphones, or other similar accessories. Carry iPhone at least 10mm away from your body to ensure exposure levels remain at or below the as-tested levels. Cases with metal parts may change the RF performance of the device, including its compliance with RF exposure guidelines, in a manner that has not been tested or certified.

Likewise, here’s the Blackberry statement: Use hands-free operation if it is available and keep the BlackBerry device at least 0.59 in (15mm) from your body (including the abdomen of pregnant women…

And Lessig points out that what Pogash dismisses as a “so-called” Right to Know ordinance is, in fact, addressing a clear lack of and desire for the information it contains among the city’s residents:

In a poll we commissioned before the ordinance was finalized, we found:

74% of Berkeley residents carry their cell phone against their body.

70% said they didn’t know that cell phones were tested assuming they would not be carried against the body.

80% said they might change their behavior if they knew knowing that “radiation tests to assure the safety of cell phones assume a cell phone would be carried away from your body”

85% said they had never known or read any of the manufacturer’s recommendations.

82% said they would want this information made available to them at the time they purchased their cell phone.

So there is a gap between the existing safety recommendations and what the citizens of Berkeley know. And the purpose of this ordinance is to close that gap: to give the citizens the information they need to make a judgment about how best to use their cell phones.

Pogash ends her piece with a short paragraph that finally links back to the article’s headline and the actual purpose of the Berkeley ordinance:

“We’re not intending to challenge the science of cellphones,” Mr. Lessig said. “We’re just making people aware of existing regulations.”

Talk about (deeply) burying the lead….

With regard to the article’s quote-dependent effort to dismiss evidence of health risks related to cellphone use and other EMF exposure, I’d recommend this recent blog post responding to the NYT piece from UC Berkeley professor Joel Moskowitz, an advocate for the ordinance and for more EMF health-impact research, and Director and Principal Investigator in the School of Public Health’s Center for Family and Community Health.

In addition to comments and links from Moskowitz, his post also includes a letter addressed to Pogash and Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan written by Drs. Lennart Hardell and Michael Carlberg. According to its co-authors, who Moskowitz describes as “arguably…the leading epidemiologists in the world who study brain tumor risk from wireless phone use,” the letter was intended to “correct some of the false statements” in Pogash’s article.

In my own email to Sullivan, I suggested that NYT reporters (preferably science reporters) do some real homework before writing about the state of research on health impacts of cellphone use and EMFs in general:

I’d…recommend this article about a recent conference in Europe on this subject, which includes a number of new studies that shed new light on this important subject. If you want to write about the science, I suggest you have your science reporters review these studies and interview the scientists that conducted them (as well as others representing a range of views).

I’d also recommend reviewing this list of studies on EMF health impacts, which notes which ones show such impacts and which ones don’t. Though there is a lot we still don’t understand (and, in my view, should keep investigating), there’s already a lot of research out there showing harmful impacts. Unfortunately, articles like Carol [Pogash]’s encourage people to ignore rather than try to understand it and take appropriate precautions (which seemed to be the goal of the sensible and moderate Berkeley ordinance).

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3 thoughts on “NYT Buries Lead, Muddies Water on EMF Health Issue”

  1. Cynthia Franklin says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write about the biased article published by the New York Times. It seems likely that the wireless industry is concerned about their chances of prevailing in their lawsuit against the Berkeley cell phone right to know ordinance….leading them to put political pressure on the Times’ management staff to print this propaganda piece that supports their case.

  2. Leo Krashanoff says:

    I too thank you for your article. I think the NY Times is more concerned about the possibility of losing the advertising revenues from the large cell phone companies more than they are concerned about their subscribers health.

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