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How Big Wireless War-Gamed the Science on Risks, While Making Customers Addicted to Their Phones

Web ExclusiveApril 05, 2018
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We continue our conversation with Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent and investigative editor, who co-authored a major new exposé, “How Big Wireless Made Us Think That Cell Phones Are Safe.” He discusses how wireless companies “war-gamed the science” by funding friendly studies and attacking critical ones; the potential dangers of the pending expansion of 5G with the “internet of things”; the role of the telecommunications industry officials turned federal regulators; and how companies deliberately addicted customers to this technology through the addition of social media.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report, with this web exclusive. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Part 2 of our look at a new investigation by The Nation headlined “How Big Wireless Made Us Think That Cell Phones Are Safe.” It reveals how cellphones were first marketed to U.S. consumers in the 1980s without any government safety testing. Then, a decade later, one of the industry’s own hand-picked researchers, George Carlo, reportedly told top company officials, including leaders of Apple, AT&T and Motorola, that some industry-commissioned studies raised serious questions about cellphone safety. On October 7th, 1999, Carlo sent letters to industry CEOs urging them to give consumers, quote, “the information they need to make an informed judgment about how much of this unknown risk they wish to assume.” Instead, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association reportedly tried to discredit Carlo’s findings, and had him physically removed from its premises during its annual conference in February 2000.

AMY GOODMAN: The Nation investigation notes Carlo’s story “evokes eerie parallels with two of the most notorious cases of corporate deception on record: the campaigns by the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries to obscure the dangers of smoking and climate change, respectively.”

For more, we continue with our interview with one of the authors of the new investigation, Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent and investigative editor.

So, Mark Hertsgaard, if you could reiterate, at this point, in 2018, as you evaluate the science or talk to the scientists who are evaluating it, what do you think is of most concern about cellphones? And then talk about ways to mitigate your—the effects of cellphones.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Sure. I want to emphasize I’m not a scientist. I’m a journalist and an author. But we talked to a lot of scientists. And our story does not say whether cellphones are safe or not. We looked at the industry disinformation and propaganda campaign that for the past 25 years has been convincing the public that these cellphones are safe.

And the way they’ve done that is to war-game the science, as they put it in an internal memo from Motorola. They’ve funded their friendly scientists. They’ve attacked critical science, independent science. They’ve put their own people onto advisory boards. All that said, that’s resulted in, I think, the message coming across from the mainstream media, frankly, that cellphones are safe enough, shall we say?

However, that point of view took a major hit just last week, the night before we released our story. There was a peer review by independent scientists of the biggest study that the United States government has had to date on cellphone radiation. This was a study by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, that’s part of the National Institutes of Health. The study was commissioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And it released some preliminary findings in February, and then those findings were peer-reviewed by independent scientists last week. And those independent scientists finally concluded that there was, quote, “clear evidence,” unquote, “clear evidence” that cellphone radiation can cause cancers.

And notably, those independent scientists upgraded the confidence level of that and other findings by this National Toxicology Program. So, what that seemed to do was to confirm the suspicions by outsiders that the National Toxicology Program brass, the people up at the top, were trying to downplay this study, because it was the very same data that had been released in 2016, and when that data was released in 2016, it came with a public health warning by the National Toxicology Program. And in 2018, back in February, they tried to downplay this. So it’s very significant that last week these independent scientists said, “Oh, no, there is clear evidence here that cellphones can cause cancer.”

Now, before you all worry out there that you’re having the equivalent of a cigarette habit, let me just say that the evidence is not yet definitive of how much—how high the risk is for cancer and genetic damages and other concern here. But it is definitely, it seems, a risk. If you look at the scientific data that is compiled by the National Institutes of Health, the actual studies that they catalogue there, the vast majority of them do indicate that there are health impacts of this technology, of this radiation, I should say, according to Henry Lai, a professor at the University of Washington, who’s analyzed all of this. And we talked with him in some detail.

So, there are things you can do. The main thing you can do as a consumer is to minimize your use of your cellphone. Use a landline telephone whenever you can. And if you must use a cellphone, always use earbuds, and use it for as little the time as possible. Don’t go on and on. Have your phone call and complete it. And in general, you want to try and minimize the risk.

That’s as—again, I am not a pediatrician. I’m not a doctor here. You can talk to organizations like the American Pediatrics Association, which, by the way, told the Federal Communications Commission five years ago that they needed to revisit this question because their standards weren’t adequate. The FCC has not done that. But you can talk to them. You can talk to a group called the Environment Health Trust, and they will give you more information on this.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s really interesting that you talk about the FCC and they haven’t done that, because the former head of the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, is—was Tom Wheeler. In 1999, then the president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, Thomas Wheeler spoke to ABC News’ 20/20. Listen carefully.

TOM WHEELER: I mean, I believe that the cellular phone is safe. Our industry has gone out and aggressively asked the question: Can we find a problem? And the answer that has come back is that there is nothing that has come up in the research that suggests that there is a linkage between use of a wireless phone and health effects.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was, yes, Thomas Wheeler, who was President Obama’s pick as FCC chair, speaking to Brian Ross on ABC. Mark Hertsgaard, can you talk about his role?

MARK HERTSGAARD: And that was a lie. That was a lie that Mr. Wheeler told. We spoke with Mr. Wheeler for this story. He gave us an interview but insisted on putting it off the record except for one statement that said that he followed the recommendations of the Food and Drug Administration, which had found no dangers from [cellphones]. But what he told Brian Ross in that story, that there had been—that they went out and aggressively questioned the science, “Was there a problem?” that part was true. But to say that they found no such evidence, that was an absolute lie. And I use the word “lie” deliberately. He knew perfectly well, by that time, that he had been told by George Carlo, the scientist, that there were serious questions, from their own $28.5 million research program.

And so, to me, the career of Tom Wheeler is an interesting illustration of a very old story in Washington, D.C., about how the regulatory agencies of the federal government get captured by the very industries that they are supposed to regulate. So, Wheeler left the industry and later went on to head the FCC for President Obama. And in the meantime, it’s gone the other way around. The FCC person, vice president at the FCC, I guess, or vice chair, rather, Baker, came to—now runs the trade association. And this is why the Harvard study on this, by Norm Alster, calls the FCC a captured agency. They have been captured by the industry they’re supposed to regulate.

And the single best example of that that I can give you is the FCC does not even independently test the radiation levels on these phones. They take what the industry claims, and just put it on their website. That is not good enough. Part of the reason that we’re down this road all the way we are so far is that we did not test cellphones back in the 1980s, before they went on the consumer market. And we’re about to make that same mistake again with 5G technology.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what 5G technology is?

MARK HERTSGAARD: Sure. “5G” means fifth generation. And that’s the next generation of the technologies that have been used for cellphones and wireless, going back into the 1990s. And where people might have heard of it most is, 5G technology is what will be required if we go to this thing called the internet of things. The internet of things is the idea of your smartphone being connected to your smart car and your smart household, so that all of your appliances, your cellphones, your computers, everything will be connected 24/7, so that you can—while you’re driving home, you can turn on the oven 25 minutes from home so that it’s nice and warm, and you can make your dinner when you get home. That seems like it’s a kind of a convenient idea perhaps.

But when we did the reporting on this, my colleague Mark Dowie went to the conference of the industry and saw—and we have this picture in The Nation magazine story—saw a picture of a baby, a doll, wearing a diaper, and at the crotch of the diaper is a little transmitter. So, this transmitter, under the 5G technology, internet of things, this transmitter will send a little message to mom or dad in the next room that, “Oh, the baby’s diaper needs changing.” Well, do we really need that? And do we really want to have radiation going from our baby’s crotch to our cellphones? Why don’t we just walk into the next room and check for ourselves?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In January 1993, David Reynard of Tampa, Florida, sued the NEC America Company. Speaking on national TV, Reynard said his wife’s NEC phone caused her lethal brain tumor. Let’s go to a clip from ABC News’s 20/20 investigation that aired in 1999 that begins with Reynard.

DAVID REYNARD: The tumor was exactly in the pattern of the antenna.

BRIAN ROSS: David Reynard went on to almost single-handedly create a national scare, when he filed a lawsuit and went public with his allegations.

DAVID REYNARD: Well, we’re suing the carrier. We’re suing the manufacturer.

BRIAN ROSS: There was great alarm on Wall Street. Even though Reynard’s lawsuit was later thrown out by a judge for a lack of reliable scientific evidence, it left the cellphone industry with a huge public relations problem.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Mark, could you comment on that and also the distinction, if there is any, in terms of possible risks, of using a cellphone to talk as against using it for email or for texting? Is there a difference, from what you’ve learned about possible risks?

MARK HERTSGAARD: That’s really where the industry—wireless industry’s propaganda campaign was launched, because, as Brian Ross’s report just showed, they had a huge public relations problem at that point. It was—there were congressional subcommittees beginning to investigate. The stock on Wall Street was tanking. And that’s when Tom Wheeler stepped up and immediately told a hastily gathered press conference, “Cellphones are safe, but we’re going to revalidate that with this new science.”

And that was how they then found George Carlo, the scientist who they hired to do that. And it’s interesting. George Carlo, I wouldn’t call him a whistleblower exactly, but he certainly did not work out the way that the industry had hoped. They had hired him because he seemed like, by his own acknowledgment in our interviews with him—he seemed like an industry guy. And they thought that because he had previously done studies in which he said dioxin was not terribly harmful in small quantities. Dioxin, of course, was behind the Love Canal and the Agent Orange scandals, one of the most toxic chemicals on Earth. He had also said that breast implants were not necessarily dangerous. So he seemed—George Carlo seemed like the kind of guy who would return a friendly verdict for the industry. And then he did not. And that is really where their ways parted. And Carlo eventually told the truth, wrote to Brian Ross and to us, and in a book, Cell Phone Radiation, if listeners want to check that out.

Now, to your question, Nermeen, about the differences, again, I’m not a scientist here. I’m a little uncomfortable talking about that. There are plenty of places where you can go to get good information on this. I’d recommend the National Environment Trust, is one. The American Pediatrics Association has also raised concerns about this. However, I do know this from sources that we’ve interviewed on this story, that you want to always wear earbuds, if you’re going to use a phone. You want to minimize your use of the phone. And yes, texting is better than a phone call, in terms of the amount of radiation you’re exposed to. And also, the moment of the connection of the call is when there is the biggest surge of radiation. That is, after you’ve dialed, and you hear it ringing, and then it connects to the other phone, at that moment, hold that phone away from you. The farther away it is from your skull, the less radiation that is going to be touching you. But again, the main thing is to just limit your use of all of this to the maximum extent that you can. Use landlines when you can. You know, the world still spun on its axis, we all had our lives, before there were cellphones. You can do it, folks.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the criticism of your piece. Dr. David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, wrote a piece for his blog Science-Based Medicine criticizing your report. His post is headlined ”The Nation indulges in fear mongering about cell phones and cancer.” In it, Dr. Gorski writes, “An article published last week in the Nation likens wireless telephone companies to tobacco and fossil fuel episodes in their tactics of spreading fear, misinformation, and doubt regarding the science of cell phone radiation and health. To produce this narrative, the investigation’s authors rely on unreliable sources and cherry pick scientific studies, ignoring the scientific consensus that cell phone radiation almost certainly doesn’t cause cancer, all the while disingenuously claiming that they aren’t taking a position on the health effects of radio waves.”

And Dr. Gorski continues, “The idea that the radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation used by cell phones and wireless networks is somehow causing horrendous health effects in humans, be it cancer (brain, breast, or other), behavioral problems, mental illness, or whatever is, like antivaccine pseudoscience, a claim not supported by evidence that just will not go away,” says Dr. Gorski. Your response to that, Mark Hertsgaard?

MARK HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Dr. Gorski, for providing such a illuminating illustration of the very kind of disinformation campaign we’re talking about here. We’re not scientists, but maybe he would revisit his blog post if he looked at what the peer review of independent, credentialed scientists just said last week about the National Toxicology Program’s finding. They said, quote-unquote, “clear evidence”—”clear evidence” that cellphone radiation causes cancer. We are not cherry-picking. That is exactly what the biggest study ever funded by the United States government has said about this. And it was not what the government agency was trying to say. The government agency was trying to retreat from that position. And it’s only because of peer-reviewed scientists on the outside that we know that. Go back and read our piece, and compare it to the good doctor’s blog. I’m very confident that our reporting stands up.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mark, I know you have to take your daughter Chiara to school. Congratulations on her 13th birthday today.


AMY GOODMAN: Does Chiara have a cellphone?

MARK HERTSGAARD: She has a cellphone that, I will say, her mother gave her, over my objection.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, boy! We’re not going there.

MARK HERTSGAARD: And we’re not going to go there. But she is limited on the cellphone and has—knows that you must always use earplugs and—earbuds, rather, and to limit the usage. So, we try and analyze it like that. And she has promised to watch this show and to read The Nation piece, and we’re going to revisit all that. I understand this is something that is in every household in America.

And by the way, we didn’t talk about this, but they also deliberately addicted their customers to this technology. Just like the cigarette companies, the tobacco companies, added nicotine to cigarettes, the wireless companies deliberately addicted people to this technology. They’ve admitted that. Sean Parker at Facebook talked about that in November. And they are now regretting that, some of those individuals. But the fact remains that this is a highly addictive technology. And they were told 20 years ago that this could cause cancer in kids, and they kept doing it. Think about that. Think about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s end with Sean Parker, who was speaking at an Axios event in Philadelphia last year, Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, who said Facebook was deliberately designed to hook users.

SEAN PARKER: That thought process was all about: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content. And that’s going to get you, you know, more likes and comments. And it’s a social validation feedback loop, that it’s like a—I mean, it’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. … It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other, with—you know, it probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, talking about how the site was deliberately designed to hook users. That does it for our interview with Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation's environment correspondent and investigative editor. We will link to The Nation's new investigation, which he co-wrote with Mark Dowie, headlined “How Big Wireless Made Us Think That Cell Phones Are Safe.” Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books, including Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

To see Part 1 of our discussion with Mark Hertsgaard, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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