Over the course of two years, the National Toxicology Program cell phone study investigated the effects of cell phone radiation on rats and mice. The results released in February tell us a lot. But about what, exactly?
What Is The National Toxicology Program Cell Phone Study?
The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services. The program was given funding to carry out a long-term animal study, in an attempt to assess the true health impacts of radio-frequency radiation in living beings.
Rats and mice in the study were exposed to radio-frequency radiation for a total of around nine hours per day, over a period of two years.
The NTP found some evidence of carcinogenic activity.
In particular, the report found a large increase in one type of malignant heart tumor in male rates, and an increase in heart tissue damage in both male and female rats. The same results did not apply to mice. Increases in other types of tumors, including brain, prostate, liver, and pancreas were statistically significant. Though the NTP says that, despite rigorous study conditions, these cancers could not be conclusively attributed to the cell phone radiation.
Because technology moves faster than health studies can keep up with, the NTP cell phone study only tested with 2G and 3G frequencies. It’s worth noting that telecommunications companies are meanwhile already rolling out 5G technologies, which remain untested.
What the NTP Cell Phone Study Really Tells Us.
So how can the NTP study be interpreted? Well, that depends entirely on whom you ask.
“Cell Phones Cause Cancer” says an NBC News affiliate in Lexington, Kentucky. “Cancer Risk From Cellphone Radiation Is Small,” says the New York Times.
This mass of conflicting news headlines highlights a real truth: the NTP cell phone study tells us more about the state of the industry than about actual science or health.
CNN hits the nail on the head with their news headline: “Cell phone radiation study finds more questions than answers.”
The Economy of Doubt
In 1969, the battle over the health effects of tobacco and cigarettes was still quite young. Some doctors and public health officials were starting to sound the alarm about the risks of smoking. But others, even doctors, disagreed, explaining there was no solid proof that cigarettes were harmful.
It was that same year that an executive of Phillip Morris wrote what has subsequently become an infamous memo:
“Doubt is our product,” the memo read, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”
The tobacco industry didn’t set out to prove that cigarettes were healthy, or even just benign.
Instead, their primary strategy — and one that worked effectively for decades — was to cast doubt on the legitimacy of science. Because doubt is an effective weapon to fight facts.
This same strategy has been employed by other industries, too, casting doubt on everything from DDT to climate change. It seems the same thing is happening now with cell phone radiation and electromagnetic fields. Consumers are wondering, with good reason, if their cell phones might be harmful, and yet reports like the NTP cell phone study fail to provide any real answers.
While it may not have been the intention of the NTP to muddy the waters further, their inconclusive study simply adds to the doubt. And the more doubt there is, the harder it is for real scientific fact to break through and enter the public consciousness.
The Changing Tide
When science is cast in doubt, broad social understanding of health issues is delayed. And the regulations needed to improve health and safety are delayed.
But these are only delays: in time, the tide eventually changes.
That’s slowly but surely starting to happen with electromagnetic radiation. Awareness of the health risks of radiation exposure is dramatically increasing — as are governmental and regulatory responses.
As just two recent examples, France is looking to ban all cell phones in schools, and the California Department of Public Health has issued a warning to its citizens to stop carrying their phones in their pockets and sleeping next to them at night.
While public awareness of health risks still has a long way to go, these examples, along with a host of others, show that this tide is changing — and the tipping point isn’t far away.
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