In the 21st century, “show-me-the-bodies” seems a cruel and outdated foundation for public policy. Yet history is littered with examples—like tobacco and asbestos—where only after the death toll mounts is the price of inaction finally understood to exceed that of action. In 19th century England, women factory inspectorate workers’ warnings about crippling lung disease in teenagers working with asbestos were ignored until evidence of the epidemic toll of factory work became overwhelming more than a half century later. Modern parallels are very much with us. Lung cancer in a young Chinese girl who grew up in a polluted urban environment and breast cancer in a 21-year-old young woman who kept her cell phone in her bras are stunning indications of modern hazards where we cannot afford to wait for broader public impacts before reining in exposures.
In 1996, analyses I conducted with the World Health Organization showed that seven out of the world’s ten most polluted cities were in China, where citizens were breathing dangerously polluted air. In 2013, a small girl in one industrialized zone bore the price of growing up breathing the equivalent of two packs of cigarette smoke a day. The Chinese government reported an extraordinary event – an eight-year-old living next to a heavily trafficked road developed lung cancer.
Polluted air has hit China big and hard. Rates of lung cancer have grown fourfold in the past decade. Stifling hazy air pollution in China has shut down airports and tanker traffic. It is not unusual for levels of dangerous ultra-fine particles of PM2.5 to reach 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter – 40 times the World Health Organization’s advised level.
The “show-me-the-bodies” approach that China has taken with respect to both tobacco smoking and air pollution is proving both costly and painful. The country faces a public health catastrophe of growing increasing rates of lung cancer in its young. Tourism to the heavily polluted capital city, Beijing, is plummeting. American embassy personnel receive hardship pay for being stationed in Beijing. In order to maintain fitness, those who can afford to do so use electric treadmills in offices where air filtration machines clean the air. They also drive cars with special air filters, knowing that pollution inside vehicles stuck in traffic can be four to eight times higher than the surrounding air: 4000-8000 micrograms per cubic meter. The irony of this situation is clear. People are using even more energy in order to clean up the dirty air they’ve created by driving and producing electricity from burning coal.
The situation now posed by cellphones and wireless transmitting devices around the world appears eerily reminiscent of what has transpired with tobacco, asbestos, and air pollution. A brave young 21-year-old woman from eastern Pennsylvania, Tiffany Frantz has come forward with the story of her own rare cancerous breast tumors that formed right under the antennae of the cellphone she kept in her bra. Normally, breast cancer occurs in older women or younger ones with a family history of the disease. Tiffany is neither. More cases are being reported, including that of Chinese-American runner Donna Jaynes, (who is naturally in a very low risk category for the disease). Physicians like Lisa Bailey, breast surgeon and former chief of the American Cancer Society for California, are deeply concerned. “Young women should not get breast cancer and certainly do not develop several distinctive tumors in the center of the chest,” she noted. “This is a wake-up call to keep phones off the body.”
Recent studies find that those who begin using cell phones as teens have four to eight times more risk of brain cancer as young adults. The Cleveland Clinic reports that men who keep phones in their pockets may have lower sperm motility and viability. Yale University studies show that mice exposed prenatally to cellphone radiation develop damaged brains and behavioral problems. Yet, these studies showing that operating phones can damage the body, as well as case reports on Tiffany and others like her are strangely omitted from reviews on wireless radiation, such as that recently carried out by Canada’s Safety Code Six, or from the increasingly challenged International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection.
Overdue are apologies from major telecom manufacturers and Internet providers to people like Tiffany. They continue to market cell phones and other microwave-radiating products especially to infants, toddlers, and young teens and fail to provide clear notice that such radiation increases the risks of brain cancers, reproductive harm, and a host of other health problems.
In fact, buried within most smart phones are warnings that the FCC’s thermally-based exposure levels can exceed tested levels if the device is kept in the pocket or bra (which is why Consumer Reports recently advised people not to keep phones in their pocket). For tablets, the situation is even more worrisome – they can have up to four microwave radiating antenna. Tablets are generally tested to avoid heating an adult male body when kept at a distance of about eight inches. Developers never dreamed that millions of young children – including a third of all infants – would hold these devices close to developing brains and bodies. Despite advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics to avoid screen time before age two, babies are learning to swipe tablets before they can talk or walk.
We need software and hardware to limit direct microwave radiation into the brain and body. We need clear information on ways to reduce exposures—keeping tablets on tables, not laps, downloading at a distance and then using them on airplane mode, and preferring wired over wireless connections.
Tiffany Frantz and Donna Jayne are sending us all a wake-up call. Let’s hope we hear it soon. The “show-me-the-bodies” approach cannot work for a generation using a rapidly evolving technology on a globe that includes far more cell phones than toilets or people. To demand more clear proof of harm in this generation before taking steps to reduce those dangers in the next puts us and our children into an uncontrolled, potentially disastrous experiment. Who’s going to apologize for that?
Featured image credit: Air Contamination in Ningbo, Zhejiang, 2013-12-07 by 显 龙 – Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.