Opinion, Opinion But Where is the Science?

June 27, 2010

I was distressed reading Maureen Dowd’s opinion piece in the NY Times today entitled “Are Cells The New Cigarettes?”  As of 8:25 am PDT this morning 6/27,  the most e-mailed.  (It was 8th about 45 minutes earlier).  The gist of the article is that because industry resisted the enactment of the new San Francisco ordinance requiring that cell phone retailers post “specific absorption rates” then Gavin Newsom is onto scandal.  She writes:

“Since our bill is relatively benign,” Newsom said, “it begs the question, why did they work so hard and spend so much money to kill it? I’ve become more fearful, not less, because of their reaction. It’s like BP. Shouldn’t they be doing whatever it takes to protect their global shareholders?”
So now we have Exhibit No. 1,085 illustrating the brazenness of Big Business.
They should be sending Mayor Newsom a bottle of good California wine for caring about whether kids’ brains get fried, not leaving him worried about whether they’ll avenge themselves in his campaign for lieutenant governor.

I want to spit nails.  This is not about whether “kids’ brains get fried”.  Or Newsom’s or Dowd’s brains for that matter.  For if they were busier understanding the underlying science instead of spouting opinion based on perceptions of political motives, they might be doing some good for Newsom’s constituents and Dowd’s readers in understanding how nature works.  Turn to Bob Park who writes weekly on science in What’s New.  From his most recent Friday newsletter, on a recurring theme:

Ten years ago a group in Denmark published a beautiful epidemiological study of cell phones and brain cancer in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute:  Johansen C, Boice JD Jr, McLaughlin JK, Olsen JH. Cellular telephones and cancer — a nationwide Cohort  study in Denmark. J Natl Cancer Inst 2001;93:203–7.   The study was based entirely on existing public records: the Danish Cancer Registry, mobile phone charges, death records, subscriptions, etc.  The conclusion was unequivocal: There was no correlation between cell phone use and the incidence of brain cancer.  It was nice to have that fact confirmed, but it was not a surprise.  I was invited to write an editorial on how scientists should respond to the cell phone/brain cancer question, for the same issue of JNCI JNCI, Vol. 93, No. 3, 166-167, February 7, 2001.  Cancer agents act by creating mutant strands of DNA.  In the case of electromagnetic radiation, there is a sharp threshold for this process at the extreme blue end of the visible spectrum.  Albert Einstein explained this with the photoelectric effect in 1905, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1921.   Cell phones operate at a frequency about 1 million times lower than the ultraviolet threshold and hence cannot be a cause of cancer.  It’s important to recognize that it’s not the intensity of radiation that makes it a cancer agent, but the frequency.

In other words, SAR is irrelevant.

So worry about the real dangers of cell phones, for example texting while driving which does cause deaths.  These are preventable with application of the ubiquitous GPS:  cell phone in motion, texting disabled.

And worry more about spreading and promoting scientific illiteracy.