We’ve been documenting the development of wireless microwave devices and the independent science on its effects for the past 20 years. So we were delighted by a recent confluence of events: the release of the National Toxicology Program peer-reviewed study and the publication of an article in The Nation, “How Big Wireless Convinced Us Our Cell Phones Are Safe,” focused on how industry war-gamed the science.
Soon after, a major study was released in Italy that replicated the results of the National Toxicology Project study. Both found that the same rare cancers appeared in animal subjects exposed to both high and low levels of radio frequency-modulated electromagnetic field radiation.
We couldn’t resist interviewing Inverness resident Mark Dowie about all of it. Mark is a celebrated investigative reporter and historian, the author of many books, the winner of at least 19 journalism awards, a former publisher and editor of Mother Jones Magazine and the co-author with Mark Hertsgaard of the recent Nation article. Here is our conversation.
Jim: How did you decide to write this story?
Mark: [Mark] Hertsgaard, who’s the investigative editor of The Nation, asked me to do a big story on cell phones. I looked at the literature and found that cell phones have been beaten to death. It’s a shop-worn story, impossible to advance.
So I said, “I think the story is how industry has been war gaming science”—‘war gaming’ is their term, not mine—and gave him the history going back to military research that was done on microwaves during the Cold War, then up to the present, and how so much of it has been suppressed, classified, hidden and distorted by wireless defenders who tore pages from the playbooks of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, then used the same P.R. firms, the same law firms. All to do the same thing: manufacture doubt about the harmfulness of this technology. Hertsgaard said, “Okay. Let’s go with that.”
Jim: Did you find anything surprising that you didn’t expect?
Mark: Of course. Whenever you do a story like this, you’re bound to discover amazing things that were never exposed before, meet amazing people. But what really stood out to me was the lack of imagination in this industry. They literally did exactly what cigarette manufacturers did for 50 years, even hired the same people who had tried to make tobacco look safe, tried to make P.C.B.s look safe, tried to make all sorts of horrible things look safe. The very same people who had failed to make tobacco look safe were hired to make wireless look safe. That’s surprising to me. Get some imagination, guys. When people do that, I’m tempted to quote Sun Tzu from “The Art of War.” There’s only one sentence you need to remember from that book: “Don’t ever do the same thing the same way twice and you’ll win the war.”
Anybody who’s written intelligently about conflict repeats that adage—do things a little bit differently every time and you’ll win. It’s about the art of surprise. How can you surprise anyone when you go back to the same lawyers and flacks, who will just pull up same tired tactics?
Mary Beth: Folks in West Marin have been hyperaware of these issues since the growth of cell towers starting in the late 1990s. What should our area be aware of, in terms of the evidence and the science that you’ve uncovered?
Mark: I think we should feel blessed to live where we live. I don’t know whether you’ve ever done any of those searches, which you can do just with antennasearch.com. I did this once in downtown San Francisco, and found the location was being zapped by seven big towers. What have we got here? One up on Mount Vision with a very weak signal. That’s AT&T’s. Then we have Verizon over on Mount Barnaby. That’s pretty much it, where I am in Inverness. You?
Mary Beth: We have two towers at the Bolinas fire station, but we have 27 antennas scattered within four miles of our zip code.
Mark: Well, Bo is being zapped. You’re a laboratory.
Mary Beth: Did you look carefully at the results of the recent National Toxicology Program study?
Mark: Yes, I did. In fact, it was peer reviewed and announced while we were doing the story. It was a clear sign that telling and revealing science was beginning to pile up against the wireless industry.
Mary Beth: By that you mean?
Mark: Evidence. Evidence is accumulating. Five years from now, I might very well be sitting right here telling you, “Yes, non-ionizing radiation is a carcinogen.” But right now, I think that the most compelling fact is that a long-term heavy dose of pulsated non-ionizing radiation can break DNA strands, which is a precursor of cancer. And look, DNA is everywhere. It’s not just in humans. It’s in every living thing. Radiation is affecting the grass on your lawn. It’s affecting the bees, birds and trees.
Maybe this year, but certainly next year, the World Health Organization and its International Agency for Research on Cancer are going to reconsider their classification of cell phone radiation. They recently increased its classification from a 3 (“not classifiable”) to 2B—“possibly carcinogenic.” There are scientists at WHO who want to push it immediately to 2A—“a probable carcinogen.”
Jim: What about this onslaught that’s being conducted by the industry to foist 5G on cities and rural areas?
Mary Beth: Do you think that we’ll have to worry out here in West Marin about 5G, the soon-to-be-rolled-out fifth generation of wireless technology?
Mark: Not immediately. 5G is going to be the heart of so-called smart cities, smart cars, smart transportation, smart everything. That’s going to be concentrated in urban areas. Of course, one goal of the wireless industry is to overcome the so-called “digital divide,” which means people in the country aren’t getting the wonders of wireless that people in the cities are getting. There will be more wireless technology brought into the rural areas of the world, yes. But I still don’t think it’ll ever get to the point where it is in cities, where you’ve got the entire city driving itself on smart devices, and seven towers zapping one location at once. We focus on cell phones because we carry them around. Smart phones are everywhere, but just one of thousands and thousands of devices in the so-called “Internet of Things,” the collective product that will be served by 5G.
Mary Beth: How serious a health hazard do you think 5G could become?
Mark: I don’t think wireless will ever be a big, bad carcinogen like tobacco, where you can’t live a long life if you use it. I think it’s going to affect a small number of humans, the “power users” and screen-addicted children who are exposed all day. But the numbers are deceiving. Right now, there are a billion people in the world smoking tobacco. We know from long-term epidemiology that about 5 percent of them will get cancer every year. And about 1 percent of those people will die. That’s about eight million people in the world dying every year as a consequence of smoking—one half of 1 percent of all smokers, right?
If you take that low cancer death rate from tobacco and transplant it to cell phones, with its universe of six billion users, you get a significant number. Again, a very low rate—half of 1 percent. But crunch that number. It produces a huge number of cancers, 30 million worldwide, every year—about eight times the current global rate of new cancers. And that’s just from cell phones. Wireless radiation is almost everywhere, and it’s invisible, silent and odorless. You can’t escape it, as you can from second-hand smoke. We’re being zapped, unknowingly wherever we are, along with every other living organism on the planet.
Mary Beth: I’m sure you came across the fact that there are very small windows of exposure that have huge effects, right?
Mark: Say more.
Mary Beth: Harm from radio frequency-modulated electromagnetic fields isn’t only dose-dependent; it is also cumulative. Studies show there are some small windows of exposure, very tiny amounts that, because they are so similar to a bodily function frequency, really cause problems, especially with chronic exposure.
Mark: Yeah, that’s probably true. And it’s wave pulsation, not the waves themselves, which are virtually harmless, that appear to damage DNA and sperm, while compromising the blood-brain barrier.
Mary Beth: Who regulates the wireless industry?
Mark: The F.C.C., but they’re essentially powerless. They can set the standard absorption rates for cell phones and other radiation emitting devices, but they can’t spank anyone for exceeding the standard. They have no police power. The F.D.A. does and so does the E.P.A., but not over wireless products. That was taken from them by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a creation of Al Gore and to my mind the original sin against wireless regulation. The bill took all wireless regulatory power away from the F.D.A., C.D.C. and E.P.A. The E.P.A. can still shut down a factory if it’s causing a public health problem, but not if the origin is wireless. And the F.C.C. can’t shut down anything that is emitting dangerous levels of non-ionizing radiation. They can take a license from a broadcaster if someone says “shit” on the air, but they can’t take anything away from anybody who’s pumping excess radiation into the environment. Thank you Al Gore.
Mary Beth: Do you have advice for wireless device users?
Mark: Sure, I direct them to the fine print on their own phone, which few people have ever seen. It’s a vague, difficult-to-find, arcane warning, in very small print, about the standard absorption rate of the radiation from their device. Then I ask them: “You have children? You see your child sitting on the couch with their device over their lap? Yank it out of their hands. They’re zapping their reproductive organs.” Many studies show that sperm and ovaries can be permanently damaged by non-ionizing radiation. That might not lead to death, but it could create serious birth defects in their children. And Mary Beth, don’t carry your cell phone in your bra.
Mary Beth: (laughing) Of course not.
Mark: A lot of women do that. I have to tell you that I wrote a very cynical conclusion to this article that I expected The Nation wouldn’t run. I was right, they didn’t. But I just had to predict somewhere that if the suspected hazards of wireless radiation turn out to be real, and we keep “progressing” from one generation of wireless technology to another, and never stop to consider the possible consequences, 500 years from now only a very few, very rare humans who are not sensitive to E.M.F./R.F. radiation will have survived. The more important point that did stay in the article is that the objective we are all pursuing here, as activists and journalists, is informed consent. Like participants in a clinical trial, a community cannot give consent to new installations of anything until it is informed. That’s your job, and you’re doing it well. But it should also be the responsibility of industry, local government, elected representatives and the public utilities that are allowing their infrastructure to host radiation-emitting technology. And they are all either withholding what they know, outright lying about it or simply ignoring sound science and public health on their way to the bank. And, of course, informing consent should also be the responsibility of media, which is why I took on this assignment, with the intention of focusing on an industry that, by war gaming science and deliberately manufacturing doubt, may be creating a serious public health problem.
Jim Heddle and Mary Beth Brangan are co-directors of Ecological Options Network, or EON. They live in Bolinas.