Junk Science Update: Fist-icuffs

Published June 1, 1999

International cyber-boxing is here. I know. I’ve just been hit below the belt by Stewart Fist, the (anti)technology columnist for The Australian.

Our match started with Fist’s March 16 column, “Cooking microwave research,” which took a couple of wild swings at the safety of cellular telephones. Fist’s recitation of the history and current state of the science of microwave radiation research was off the mark and biased.

Fist had three main points: there’s a conspiracy to keep research results secret; the research indicates microwave radiation may be harmful; and, in the absence of absolute proof that microwave radiation is safe, we should exercise the precautionary principle and minimize cell phone use.

Fist alleged a U.S. military coverup of microwave radiation effects, charging, for example, that for more than 10 years–until 1956–the military kept secret the finding that microwaves could be heard. But microwave hearing was mentioned as early as 1947, in a commercial advertisement of all places. Some secret.

According to Fist, a U.S. Air Force study, completed in 1984 and finding increased cancer among rats exposed to microwaves, was deep-sixed by the service and kept out of view until it was leaked in 1992. In reality, the Air Force published the study in 1984–in nine volumes. But when researchers examined individual cancers, no statistical difference was found between rats exposed to microwaves and those not exposed.

The increased rates Fist referred to occurred when all cancers were lumped together–something for which there is no scientific basis. Additionally, the increase was suspect because rats used as controls had less cancer than controls used previously. Significantly–and omitted by Fist–follow-up studies have reported no increase in cancer from exposure to microwave radiation.

Fist referred to studies by Dr. Sam Milham, a U.S. government epidemiologist who reported increased leukemia among amateur radio operators and workers exposed to electric and magnetic fields (EMF). What Fist omitted is that Milham’s findings are not definitive. They are only a small part of a much bigger picture. A more comprehensive review of the scientific literature on the biological effects of radio frequency radiation, including Milham’s findings, was conducted in 1994 by the U.S. General Accounting Office. That report concluded, “On the basis of present scientific knowledge, [there is] no reason to take regulatory actions on the use of portable cellular telephones.”

As for Milham, he is no impartial scientist. He has involved himself in EMF litigation on the side of plaintiffs alleging harm. This litigation has been unsuccessful. In a 1995 California case, a judge specifically noted that Milham’s statistical analyses were not credible.

Fist goes on to claim that “literally hundreds of studies have fingered long-term exposure to [radio frequencies] as potentially carcinogenic.” But where are they? They certainly can’t be found in the peer-reviewed/published scientific literature. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Published studies fail to report increased cancer risk with exposure to radio frequency radiation.

So where’s Fist going with his laughably off-base article? He wants Australians to implement the “precautionary principle”–a doctrine of “better safe than sorry,” where cell phone use is restricted until more research is complete.

To be fair, the precautionary principle is appropriate under some circumstances, such as seat belts. Riding in a car carries with it the very real risk of getting into an accident, regardless of fault. Wearing a seat belt may reduce your risk of injury in the very real, if remote, possibility of an accident. But this same rationale does not hold true for cell phones.

People have been exposed to microwave radiation for more than 50 years, and cell phones for 20 years. Despite an abundance of research in humans and laboratory animals, no credible evidence exists that anyone is harmed. If the precautionary principle were applied routinely to hypothetical risks, what would people allow themselves to do? Probably not very much.

In the end, Fist’s column was nothing short of pure alarmism based on an obvious bias against cell phones. So I remarked on the Junk Science Home Page that “‘Fosters Lager’ is Australian for ‘beer.’ ‘Stewart Fist’ must be Australian for ‘cell phone paranoia.'” That made Fist mad.

Fist dedicated his next column to me: “Research bought and paid for.” It’s about as accurate as, but more whiny than, its predecessor.

Fist falsely said I worked for an international public relations firm. He said I operated a business-funded think tank on the side. Actually, it was a U.S. government-funded think tank. Fist said one of my “claims to fame” was creating something called the Information Council for the Environment, a front organization for the coal industry that launched a $500,000 advertising blitz about global warming. But I’ve never even heard of such an effort, let alone directed it. Finally, Fist says that I was working with the Global Climate Coalition at the Kyoto global warming conference in 1997. That would be news to my family, who thought I was home with them.

I guess this is why Fist writes an opinion column: facts get in his way. But I look forward to Fist’s meltdown over this column. It’s time for Round 3 of this international cyber-boxing match.

By the way, where’s Don King?

Steven J. Milloy is publisher of the Junk Science Home Page (http://www.junkscience.com), an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and coauthor of Silencing Science (Cato Institute, 1999).