Friday, February 26, 2010

Electromagnetic Sickness Examined by LA Times

The LA Times has a pair of articles about the health risks associated with electromagnetic fields (EMF): They're rather thoughtful. The longer article starts by trying to claim that there's a "debate" and that experts "disagree," but then proceeds to present the factually accurate view that there are some researchers and outsiders who challenge the increasing preponderance of research that backs up the lack of a link between EMFs and health effects.

I particularly like this researcher and his statement:

In the opinion of Ken Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who has studied EMFs since the early 1970s, if such fields were any sort of health threat, scientists wouldn't have to sort through the outer limits of statistics to find trouble. "There would be terrible effects all over the place," Foster says. As no obvious catastrophe has shown itself, "I would tend to think there's nothing there."

That's where I keep coming back to Occam's Razor related to EMF exposure. People who claim effects say that there are tens of millions of more people obviously suffering from effects, but the research (described quite well in the second LA Times article) doesn't back this up.

I would argue that electrosensitivity has been well and truly put to bed, and that means that the effects should show up in cancer studies, given the use of cell phones for longer than 10 years by a significant population. That's not showing up in general work, nor in studies like Interphone, which I wrote about a few days ago.

One set of analysis of a segment of the Interphone work showed a possible correlation between use of a cell phone for more than 10 years and, in those people who had certain kinds of brain tumors, the tumor appearing on the same side of the head as those who used a cell phone mostly on that side of the head.

But the researchers in that study noted quite clearly that there's a recollection bias. If you have a tumor next to your right ear, and researchers say 10 years or longer ago did you mostly use a cell phone on your right side, the expectation is that people tend to say they used the damaged side of the head.

I remember the concerns in the early 1990s about ELF/VLF (extremely and very low frequency) EMF produced by CRT-based computer monitors. Studies abounded that showed risks, especially from Sweden, but when you read the studies you found that exposing chicks to radiation at huge multiples of what normal exposure was, or that retrospective studies asked people detailed questions to correlate usage at old video display terminals (VDTs) and miscarriage, without eliminating other risk factors. The research was basically garbage, no link was ever found, and there were no bulges in epidemiology related to CRT use. It was forgotten.

I expect in time the same thing will happen here. With no smoking guns for cancers, no long-term health effects found, and electrosensitivity isolated again and again from the presence or absence of EMF, in 10 years we won't be talking about this at all.

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