In the 21st century, “show me the bodies” seems like a cruel and outdated foundation for public policy. Yet history is littered with examples — like tobacco and asbestos — where only after the death toll mounts is the price of inaction finally understood to exceed that of action.
In 19th century England, factory workers’ warnings about crippling lung disease in teenagers working with asbestos were ignored until evidence of the epidemic toll of factory work became overwhelming more than a half-century later. Modern parallels are very much with us. Lung cancer in a young Chinese girl who grew up in polluted urban environment and breast cancer in young women who kept their cell phones in their bras are stunning indications of modern risks where we cannot afford to wait for broader public impacts before reining in exposures.
In 1996, analyses I conducted with the World Health Organization showed that residents in seven out of the world’s 10 most polluted cities were in China where citizens were breathing dangerously polluted air. In 2013, a small girl in one industrialized zone bore the price of growing up breathing the equivalent of two packs of cigarette smoke a day. The Chinese government reported an extraordinary event — an eight-year-old living next to a heavily trafficked road developed lung cancer.
Polluted air has hit China big and hard. Rates of lung cancer have grown fourfold in the past decade. Stifling hazy air pollution in China has shut down airports and tanker traffic. It is not unusual for levels of dangerous ultra-fine particles of PM2.5 to reach 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, 40 times the World Health Organization’s advised level.
The show-me-the-bodies approach that China has taken with respect to both tobacco smoking and air pollution is proving costly and painful. The country faces a public health catastrophe of increasing rates of lung cancer in its youth. To clean the air for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings this month, the government shut down factories and pulled cars off the road. When that did not work sufficiently, they blocked access to data on air pollution. Tourism to the heavily polluted capitol city, Beijing is plummeting. American embassy personnel receive hardship pay for being stationed in Beijing. In order to maintain fitness, those who can afford to do so use electric treadmills in offices that use air filtration machines to clean the air. They also drive cars with special air filters, knowing that pollution inside vehicles stuck in traffic can be four to eight times higher than the surrounding air — 4000-8000 micrograms per cubic meter. The irony of this situation is clear. People are using even more energy in order to clean up the dirty air they’ve created by driving and producing electricity using coal.
The situation now posed by cellphones and wireless transmitting devices around the world appears eerily reminiscent of what has transpired with tobacco, asbestos and air pollution. A brave young 21-year-old woman from eastern Pennsylvania, Tiffany Frantz has come forward with the story of her own rare cancerous breast tumors that formed right under the antennae of the cellphone she kept in her bra for many hours a day for seven years. Normally breast cancer occurs in older women or younger ones with a family history of the disease. Tiffany is neither. More cases are being reported, and physicians like Lisa Bailey, breast surgeon and former chief of the American Cancer Society for California are deeply concerned. “Young women should not get breast cancer and certainly do not develop several distinctive tumors in the center of the chest,” she noted. “This is a wake-up call to keep phones off the body.”
Recent studies find that those who begin using cell phones as teens have four to eight times more brain cancer as young adults. The Cleveland Clinic reports that men who keep phones in their pockets have fewer and sicker sperm. Yale University studies show that offspring exposed prenatally to cellphone radiation have damaged brains and behavioral problems. Yet, these studies are strangely omitted from some official reviews on wireless radiation, like that recently carried out for Canada’s Safety Code Six.
Recently Facebook apologized to users for treating them like lab animals by not getting their permission to conduct a social experiment that used postings to manipulate their emotions — the results of which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The apology is overdue and well-taken. Missing altogether are apologies from major telecom manufacturers and Internet providers to people like Tiffany. Instead they continue to market cell phones and other microwave-radiating products especially to infants, toddlers and young teens and fail to provide clear notice that such radiation increases the risks of cancers, reproductive harm and a host of other health problems.
In fact, buried within most smartphones are warnings that the FCC’s thermally-based exposure levels can be exceeded the device is kept in the pocket or bra. For tablets the situation is even more worrisome — with up to four microwave-radiating antennae, tablets are tested to avoid heating an adult male body when kept at a distance of about eight inches.
Surely an industry that has grown more than any in human history can do better. We need software and hardware to limit direct microwave radiation into the brain and body. We need clear information on ways to reduce exposures — keeping tablets on tables not laps, downloading at a distance and then using them on airplane mode, and preferring wired over wireless connections. For towers, routers and other devices, we need a system to keep exposures As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) — just like diagnostic radiation; and we especially need a way to provide safety to children in schools and those who are especially sensitive to exposures.
Whenever possible, wired is better than wireless. As Verizon notes wired networks are faster, safer, more secure and also less costly.
Tiffany Frantz is sending us a wake up call. Let’s hope we hear it soon. The show-me-the-bodies approach cannot work for a technology developed less than a generation ago, that now finds the world with more cell phones than toilets or people. To demand ever more proof of harm now before taking steps to reduce dangers in the next generation puts us and our children in an uncontrolled, potentially disastrous experiment. Who’s going to apologize for that?
Follow Devra Davis, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DevraLeeDavis