Is ‘junk journalism’ complaining about ‘junk science’ in The Baltimore Sun?

Is ‘junk journalism’ complaining about ‘junk science’ in The Baltimore Sun? The most efficient way to mislead an inexperienced reader is to write a story with a pinch of truth, a pinch of ambiguity and a dose of falsehoods or misrepresentations. (Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Science Blog on Radiation and Health by Dariusz Leszczynski) Is ‘junk journalism’ complaining about ‘junk science’ in The Baltimore Sun?

This is the way how Alex Berezow and Josh Bloom, of the ‘American Council on Science and Health’, wrote a recent story for The Baltimore Sun: Recommendation to limit Md. School Wi-Fi based on ‘junk science’. The story was written in context of the recent developments in the area of the use of wi-fi in schools:

“…The Children’s Environmental Health and Protection Advisory Council (CEHPAC), an agency within Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, has recommended that schools reduce or eliminate students’ exposure to Wi-Fi because it believes wireless signals might cause cancer…”.

Berezow and Bloom condemned the action of CEHPAC as:

“…This is pure, unadulterated junk science…”.

I disagree with this opinion and I turn the issue around asking:

Is the story of Berezow and Bloom pure, and unadulterated junk journalism?

Berezow and Bloom wrote “…Schools do not protect students from heat or light. So, why should they protect them from Wi-Fi, a weaker form of radiation?…”.

This single sentence contains several false and misleading statements.

It is false to say that schools do not protect kids from heat and light. Contrary to the statement of the authors schools protect kids from heat and light. Air conditioning systems are to protect from heat. Shades in the windows are to protect from the heat and from the excessive light as too bright light, when reading, can damage eyesight. These protective measures are so obvious that we even do not remember that these are not only for our comfort but also to protect health and well-being.

It is misleading to claim that heat, light and wi-fi are similar in way they act on our bodies. There are differences between light, heat and wi-fi, not only in the amount of carried energy. Authors forget to mention it.

In the course of evolution humans developed in an environment where light and heat are abundant – it all started in Africa. So, our bodies are well equipped to cope with heat and light. Furthermore, heat and light do not instantaneously penetrate deep into our bodies but heat and light penetrate only skin and thin layer of underlying tissue and it takes some time for heat coming through skin to warm up the whole body, and it is not because of the depth of heat penetration but because blood in skin capillaries warms up and warms up deeper lying tissues.

Wi-fi is different. Firstly, as radiation form that is used in wireless communication, it was not there when humans evolved. Furthermore, and this is the major difference with light and heat, wi-fi and radiation form other currently used wireless communication devices, penetrates deep inside our bodies, exposing cells that never earlier had contact with such radiation exposure and might have no mechanisms ready to cope with such “insults”.

Berezow and Bloom misleadingly claim that: “…there is no convincing epidemiological evidence to suggest that Wi-Fi signals cause adverse health effects…”.

This is serious misrepresentation of the research available on wi-fi. There are only few studies executed, less than thirty small studies on human subjects, and none of them is a large cohort or large case-control studies. Thus, in a devious way, this statement of Berezow and Bloom might be considered a “correct” – indeed, there is no epidemiological evidence… because research has not been done yet.

To assure readers, Berezow and Bloom provide a link to more information on epidemiology of cell phone radiation: “…According to the NIH’s National Cancer Institute, well performed studies that included over one million people showed no connection between cell phone use and cancer…”.

First of all we do not really know whether the biological effects of cell phone radiation and wi-fi radiation are in any way similar. These are two very different types of radiation, even though both belong to the so called radio-frequency radiation spectrum.

Furthermore, and very unfortunately, the information provided by the NIH, in the link quoted by Berezow and Bloom, is outdated and, even worse, it is a clear case of cherry-picking by NIH.

NIH page mentions only Interphone, Danish Cohort and Million Women epidemiological studies. Strangely, some important research is missing, even though the NIH’s page was updated as recently as May 2016, with the information about the partial results from the animal toxicology study executed by NTP. However, there is no word of studies from the Hardell group in Sweden, that were, together with the Interphone, the basis for IARC 2011 classification of cell phone radiation as a possible human carcinogen. Furthermore, the French CERENAT study, published in 2014, confirming results of Interphone and Hardell studies, is also missing.

What is the reason that NIH is cherry-picking scientific studies? Why the studies of very poor quality in respect of cell phone radiation effects, like Danish Cohort and Million Women study are “cherished” by NIH whereas case-control studies from Hardell and CERENAT are arbitrarily omitted?

Another false statement made by the authors is “…the only known health effects from Wi-Fi are due to psychosomatics…”. There are no published studies to scientifically back up this claim on wi-fi.

References to the nocebo effect for wi-fi or cell phone radiation or the so-called electromagnetic sensitivity (EHS) are clearly misleading. Nocebo is not, and it should not be misused as an “easy” way out of the problem of health effects of radiation emitted by wireless communication devices. I wrote about nocebo problem and EHS in my blogs on BRHP, e.g.:

“Nocebo effect” proves: Available EHS research is useless for decisions-making
BioEM2015: Plenary session on EHS

Quote from my blog:

“…In a study, by M. Witthoeft and G.J. Rubin, “Are Media Warnings About the Adverse Health Effects of Modern Life Self-Fulfilling? An Experimental Study on Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance Attributed to Electromagnetic Fields (IEI-EMF),” published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research (74, 2013, pp. 206-212), the authors claimed that the existence of nocebo effect provides the final proof that EHS is unrelated to EMF exposures. It is not so. The existence of nocebo effect proves neither lack nor existence of causal link between EHS and EMF. However, the nocebo effect proves that the research data collected in the to-date executed EHS studies is absolutely unreliable…”

EHS is not an imaginary problem. So far, it was studied by psychologists and methods used in such research were clearly insufficient to determine whether radiation exposures cause, or not, biochemical and physiological changes in human body. As long as we do not execute systematic and standardized research to examine biochemical effects of the radiation on human body, in acute and chronic exposures, that long we will be unable to reliably claim anything, neither danger nor lack of it.

In this time of scientific uncertainty, because of the billions of users, we should exercise precaution, whenever it is possible and feasible. For the cell phones we have scientific evidence to back up this approach (see figure). For the wi-fi the lack of any science, research has not been done, should be considered as good reason for precautionary approach (see figure).
And let’s remember, precaution is not to prevent the use of the technology. It is to use it wisely and to minimize radiation exposures at the time when science is haphazard and contradictory.

Access to the internet in schools can be easily achieved, and with better speeds, using wired connections. Wired internet should be the priority and the rule for schools. School’s wi-fi should be only for exceptional situations…

When reading articles on the possible health effects of wireless communication it is always necessary to look who is talking. There is a myriad of conflict of interest issues that might cloud the judgement of the writers.

Somewhat jokingly and sarcastically, it is possible to generalize that scientists from the academia have freedom to express their opinions, scientists from the government have some policy and political restrains and the scientists paid by the industry… well… their opinion is their boss’ opinion.

Is this the case for Berezow and Bloom? I do not know. However, they are part of the ‘American Council on Science and Health’ that is sponsored by the industry. One will not find this information in the financial statements available on the ACSH website. However, journalists Andy Kroll and Jeremy Schulman from the ‘MotherJones’ examined the issue of financial support of the ACSH by the industry and their findings are available in this article, published in 2013: Leaked Documents Reveal the Secret Finances of a Pro-Industry Science Group.

The financial link between the ACSH and the industry does not automatically mean that Berezow and Bloom purposefully misled readers but it is good and fair for the readers to know this context when evaluating the reliability of the story in The Baltimore Sun. Is ‘junk journalism’ complaining about ‘junk science’ in The Baltimore Sun?

About the author