A Critique of Disconnect
By Lorne Trottier
Disconnect is an alarmist and conspiratorial account of the issue of cell phones and health. The tag line on the jacket sets the tone: "The truth about cell phone radiation. What the industry has done to hide it, and how to protect your family". Far from sticking to the facts, Disconnect totally misrepresents key findings of some of the most important cell phone studies. If you were expecting an objective review of the often confusing scientific data in this area, you should avoid this book.
Disconnect focuses almost exclusively on studies that support its alarmist conclusions while either ignoring or falsifying information about studies showing no harm. Virtually all the alarmist "studies" that Davis cites used a poor methodology and/or have not been replicated in follow up studies. In fact, most have been refuted by far more comprehensive and rigorous studies. In many cases, serious flaws have been found with studies that show harm. She interviewed only a relatively small group of dissident scientists who are outside of the mainstream. The book is completely lacking in objectivity.
Disconnect completely ignores the fact that each of the public health organizations of the industrialized world does regular expert reviews of the scientific literature. Virtually every one of these expert reviews has come to the same conclusion as the World Health Organization "that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields". This conclusion is echoed by the expert reports of the public health organizations of virtually every industrialized country including the American Cancer Society, Health Canada, and the European SCENIHR (* 1 - 5).
Instead, Davis implies that there is a massive worldwide conspiracy to cover up data, and disprove or dismiss the alarmist studies. The book is full of anecdotes about data that was altered, or disappeared, funding that was cut off, and alleged threats. This is the stuff of a Hollywood conspiracy movie. Such a massive conspiracy, involving virtually all the world's most prestigious health science organizations, is simply not plausible.
Major Misstatements in Disconnect
There are so many things wrong in Disconnect that it is difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps the most devastating criticism that can be made about Disconnect is that it totally misrepresents key findings of some of the most important cell phone studies. We will review a few of the most blatant examples.
Early in Disconnect, Davis gets some facts on basic physics wrong. On P. 17 she states: "Electromagnetic waves ability to travel depends on how long they are. The faster a wave oscillates and the smaller it is, the shorter the distance it can reach." Hello, did she check with NASA? The Voyageur 1 is the most distant man made object. After doing a Grand Tour of the outer planets in the 70's and 80's, it's still operating at a distance of 17 billion km. Travelling at the speed of light, it takes 15.4 hours for it's signals to reach earth. Its transmitter operates in the X band at approximately 5X the frequency of a cell phone, and at 19W or only roughly 100X the power of a cell phone. A first year physics student could tell her that all electromagnetic waves follow the inverse square law. The frequency has no effect on distance.
Defending scientific misconduct
She devotes a whole chapter of the book to defending Dr. Hugo Rüdiger, who was found guilty of scientific fraud - the most serious offence in science. Rüdiger had published a couple of papers purporting to show that cell phone radiation can damage DNA. If true, this would be quite serious. A couple of other scientists reviewed the data in his paper and found compelling statistical evidence that critical parts of the data were "cooked" (Lerchl et al. *6 ). An attempt to reproduce Rüdiger's experiments found no DNA damage (Speit et al. *7 ). The University of Vienna held two inquiries and found that Rüdiger was guilty of scientific misconduct and recommended that the papers be withdrawn. Davis spins these damning facts into an elaborate whodunit claiming that Rüdiger was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy and frame-up. This is simply not credible.
Davis devotes another chapter to the assertion that cell phone radiation affects men's fertility. On P. 140 she states: "A report from researchers (*8)….garnered headlines around the world, such as Cell Phones Lower Sperm Count". On P. 141 she continues with "The Cleveland researchers referred to their results, in the customary voice of science, as preliminary, and duly called for more research." Despite this caution, she proceeds to tie together a handful of disparate sperm studies to back up her sensational claim that cell phones reduce male fertility.
She ignores the fact that all of the studies she cites have been criticized for poor methodology, and some have failed attempts at replication (*9, 10). In its 2009 assessment Health Effects of Exposure to EMF, the European SCENIHR (*5 P 32 - 33) had this to say: "The authors reported (*8) that reduced sperm quality was associated with duration of daily exposure to mobile phones assessed by interview and with duration of use of mobile phones assessed by questionnaire. However, possible confounding due to lifestyle differences (associated with differences in the use of mobile phones) may have biased the results of both studies". Davis sums up her "case" with this bold claim on P. 146 "We must remember that we live in a world in which some continue to believe evolution itself is a sort of preliminary theory."
SAM the "standard head"
Davis devotes large sections of the book to SAM (specific anthropomorphic mannequin), the model head that was developed by international standards bodies (IEEE and IEC) and is used by cell phone manufacturers to test and certify compliance with RF exposure safety limits. This limit, which is known as the SAR (specific absorption rate), is set at 1.6W/kg averaged over 1 gram of body tissue in the US and Canada (2 W/kg averaged over 10 gram of body tissue in countries adopting the ICNIRP guidelines). She states P 74 "In coming up with ways to estimate exposures from cell phones, scientists in 1996 relied on a fellow named SAM, which stands for Standard Anthropomorphic Man (sic). SAM is not an ordinary guy. He ranked in size and mass at the top 10 percent of all military recruits in 1989 weighing more than two hundred pounds, with an eleven-pound head, and standing about six feet two inches tall". P. 75 "These standards were set in 1993 and based on SAM's big brain, not for the much smaller heads of children, of women, or other adults."
She implies that regulators and the industry have callously continued to use SAM as the reference, without considering the issue of smaller heads. This is simply not the case. The IEEE 1528 standard for SAM was published in 2003. Dozens of studies have been published comparing the SAR exposures of SAM to various sizes of heads including those of children. Many of these studies have concluded that SAM absorbs more energy than any human head, and is therefore a conservative model for certification tests. For example in Beard et al. 2006 (*11) conducted an international study by 14 laboratories: "The results show that when the pinna SAR is calculated separately from the head SAR, SAM produced a higher SAR in the head than the anatomically correct head models. Also the larger (adult) head produced a statistically significant higher peak SAR for both the 1- and 10-g averages than did the smaller (child) head for all conditions of frequency and position". In addition, it should be noted that the established SAR limits have a safety margin of 50X.
The "fine print"
Davis devotes an entire chapter to the so called "warnings" in "fine print" in the user manuals for cell phones. On P. 217 she says: "The HTC Droid Eris cell phone from Verizon contains a Product Safety and Warranty Information booklet. On page 11 it is recommended that no part of the human body be allowed to come too close to the antenna during operation of the equipment….To comply with RF exposure requirements, a minimum separation distance of 1.5 cm must be maintained between the users body and the handset". Davis further states: "A reader might think it was just a matter of complying with a silly rule that government had produced."
Well yes actually, such a procedure is called for in government regulations (FCC OET Bulletin 65 Supplement C, IEEE Standard 1528 and IEC 62209-1). When cell phones were first developed, they were quite bulky and could not fit into a shirt pocket. They were often carried in a holster and were always used with the phone held to the ear. The original testing standards were written at that time to reflect this. Today's ultra slim iPhones and Blackberries can be carried in a shirt pocket - much closer to the body. They are tested and comply with SAR limits when held to the ear (or pinna in technical jargon). However, if the phone is used while near body such as in your shirt pocket, the SAR limit may be exceeded if it is closer than the required test distance of 15 to 25 mm. This is not considered to be a safety issue, since the SAR limit has a 50X safety margin (according to the new IEEE C95.1-2005). It is a technical compliance issue.
Davis implies that cell phone companies have included these "fine print" warnings as a potential defense in liability lawsuits from brain cancer patients. There is no record of this "defense" ever having been used in any of current liability suits and none of these lawsuits has yet succeeded. The separation distance is for body worn and not for the head position and therefore is irrelevant to brain cancer.