Thursday, April 2, 2015

Wireless Technology Health Risks --The New York Times Fuels the Debate

We are increasingly surrounded at home, in the office, and in public by wireless devices that emit microwave radiation. These include Wi-Fi routers, laptops, and tablets, cell phones, cordless phones, wireless TV cable systems, smart meters, and baby monitors. Now corporations would like us to add wireless wearable technology to this mix. 

The biologic and the epidemiologic research increasingly suggests that many types of non-ionizing, electromagnetic fields (EMF) are producing harmful effects on us as well as animal and plant species. The weight of the scientific evidence produced in the last decade strongly supports the need for precautionary policy measures to be adopted immediately.

Exposure to EMF has been increasing exponentially.  If we continue to allow powerful corporations to manufacture doubt by co-opting journalists, scientists, and policy makers, we will all suffer the consequences of this global experiment.

On March 18, 2015, the New York Times published a column on their web site, "Could Wearable Computers be as Harmful as Cigarettes?" by Nick Bilton. The article has attracted more than 150 comments so far -- both pro and con -- on the New York Times web site, and more than two dozen web-based news sites have published critiques of this column (see below).

Newspaper editors typically write headlines for articles they publish. Perhaps, the original headline was too provocative as the editor changed the headline for the web version of this article the next day to "The Health Concerns in Wearable Tech."  A version of the article also appears in the March 19th print edition of the New York Times on page D2 with the headline, "New Gadgets, New Health Worries."

The New York Times should be commended for publishing the original column even though both sides of the debate about the health risks of wireless radiation can find fault. I hope that the controversy this article has stimulated does not discourage the Times from future coverage of this complex topic.

In my opinion, the backlash on web-based news sites has been disproportionate and bypasses the significant issues that  Bilton's column raised. Read the column and the ensuing media coverage (links below) and decide for yourself. 

Instead, the Times went into "damage control" mode and tried to distance itself from the original opinion piece. 

On March 19, Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor for the Times, published the following piece, "A Tech Column on Wearable Gadgets Draws Fire as ‘Pseudoscience’."

On March 21, 2015, the Editor for the Styles section of the Times appended the following statement to the opinion piece:
Editors’ Note: March 21, 2015
Editors’ Note
The Disruptions column in the Styles section on Thursday, discussing possible health concerns related to wearable technology, gave an inadequate account of the status of research about cellphone radiation and cancer risk.
Neither epidemiological nor laboratory studies have found reliable evidence of such risks, and there is no widely accepted theory as to how they might arise. According to the World Health Organization, “To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.” The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all said there is no convincing evidence for a causal relationship. While researchers are continuing to study possible risks, the column should have included more of this background for balance.
In addition, one source quoted in the article, Dr. Joseph Mercola, has been widely criticized by experts for his claims about disease risks and treatments. More of that background should have been included, or he should not have been cited as a source.
An early version of the headline for the article online — “Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?” — also went too far in suggesting any such comparison.
These arguments are similar to those employed by the CTIA--The Wireless Association: 
“The FCC, the FDA, the National Cancer Institute, and the World Health Organization have each evaluated the scientific research on wireless phones and each has found that the weight of the scientific research has not shown that wireless phone use causes any adverse health effects.” (CTIA, May 27, 2012).

On April 2, 2015, the Editor for the Styles section of the Times appended the following "correction" to the original opinion piece
Correction: April 2, 2015 
The Disruptions column on March 18, about health concerns stemming from wearable technology, referred incorrectly to research conducted by Dr. Lennart Hardell, a professor of oncology and cancer epidemiology at Orebro University Hospital in Sweden, that concluded that talking on a mobile or cordless phone for extended periods could triple the risk of a certain kind of brain cancer. The study was an analysis of two earlier studies that asked people with and without brain tumors to answer questions about cellphone and cordless phone use; it was not a longitudinal study in which patients were followed over time.    

I inserted quotes around "correction" because I don't see the problem with Bilton's description of Hardell's research in his March 18th article. The author did not allege that the research was based upon a longitudinal study:
"Analysis conducted by a group of European researchers and led by Dr. Lennart Hardell, a professor of oncology and cancer epidemiology at Orebro University Hospital in Sweden, concluded that talking on a mobile or cordless phone for extended periods could triple the risk of a certain kind of brain cancer." 

In sum, I believe the public deserves better from the New York Times -- namely a full, unbiased discussion of the research on the health risks of exposure to electromagnetic fields from wireless devices. 

Media coverage of the March 18th NY Times article by Nick Bilton

Support for the column

Ignorance drowns out precaution: NY Times tech columnist has hands slapped
Microwave News
The Conversation (Australia) (India)

Daniel Engber, Slate Magazine

Phil Plait, Slate Magazine (blog) 

James Cook, Business Insider 

Leah Finnegan, Gawker 

James Cook, Businessinsider India

Russell Brandom, The Verge

Dan Verel, MedCity News

Alexandra Ossola, Popular Science

Andrew Maynard, Risk Science Center
Tanya Campbell, Maine News Online