Popular Science or… Populist Science?

On Dec. 19, 2017, the ‘Popular Science’, in its Health section, published a story “Cell phones aren’t a public health risk, no matter what California says. This “possible carcinogen” isn’t going to give you cancer”. Reading this story written by Sara Chodosh one can wonder whether it was publication in the Popular Science or, rather, in a “Populist Science”.

How trustworthy is the Popular Science? The author of this story on safety of cell phones doesn’t even know (fact checking!) that coffee is no more classified as a “possible carcinogen”. IARC re-classified coffee in 2017.

If I am considered harsh in my evaluation of the article in the Popular Science, there are reasons why I am. Here are few questionable quotes from the article that, in my opinion, are either false or misleading:

  • “…there’s no evidence that cell phones are dangerous to your health. Period…”
  • “…The scientific consensus is that cell phones are safe…”
  • “…cell phones don’t pose a health hazard…”
  • “…IARC’s role is not to find the weight of the scientific evidence, it’s to list anything that might conceivably be a carcinogen, even if it very likely isn’t…”
  • “…cell phones cause brain tumors. If that were true, we would have seen a massive increase in brain cancer cases over the past decade as cell phone use has shot up. But in fact, we haven’t seen any increase…”

There is a comment suggesting that if radiation does not damage DNA then there is no problem.

  • “…non-ionizing form of radiation, so it doesn’t damage DNA…”

Well, this comment shows a complete lack of knowledge about the human biology and physiology. There is an enormous number of biochemical cellular processes that affect human health without the DNA damage. Not to mention that the numerous studies have indicated that cell phone radiation causes generation of the free radicals that have the capacity to damage the DNA…

Equally, against the scientific evidence, but in line with ICNIRP’s “interpretation”, there are claims that cell phone radiation can’t be harmful because it causes only negligible temperature increases. The large body of the scientific evidence showing non-thermal effects is ignored by the Popular Science, similarly like it is ignored by ICNIRP.

The Popular Science story includes a completely irresponsible statement:

  • “…go ahead and leave your phone in your pocket. Talk on it for hours. Heck, you could duct-tape it to your face if you so choose…”

Even cell phone manufacturers are not so irresponsible and advise to keep phone at some distance from the body because, when phone touches skin it is not in compliance with the current safety limits. Whether, and how, dangerous it might be we do not know for sure. Appropriate research is still missing.

Of course, there is also a “jab” at the IARC, the organization that classified cell phone radiation as possible carcinogen. The Popular Science seems to be eager to advance glyphosate supporters’ job:

  • “…most national and international health organizations agree that glyphosate is safe to use…”

The Popular Science story points out, and rightly so, that more or less precautionary health advice can be “generated” on the basis of the currently available science:

  • “…CDPH [California Department of Public Health] has simply drawn a more precautionary conclusion than most of the other agencies based on exactly the same data…”

It is certainly possible to be precautionary without forbidding this technology. Precautionary approach, in situation of the current scientific uncertainty about the health effects of the very prevalent technology, is the only responsible approach.

I think that the Popular Science should be embarrassed publishing such inaccurate, simply “populist”, story.

If interested what is the current state of the knowledge, see the cautious & unbiased evaluation of facts here: https://wp.me/pBbF9-WV. Listen to the lecture and decide for yourself what your opinion is.


19 thoughts on “Popular Science or… Populist Science?

  1. I am not satisfied with your answer. You have not explained why your alarmist claims regarding the results of INTERPHONE and CERENAT are not in agreement with the studies’ authors, who concluded that “An increased risk of brain cancer is not established from the data from Interphone” and “No association with brain tumours was observed when comparing regular mobile phone users with non-users” in CERENAT.

    With regard to your speculative claim that “all case-control studies have unreliable dosimetry causing underestimation of the effect” – big disconnect…! Because device power outputs are constantly changing unpredictably; and are not correlated with the crude exposure proxies used in the extant studies – we do not know how much or where bodies are absorbing radiation. Without reliable information on dose, we cannot conclude anything about any potential effects. Knowing the dose is vital to credible research. Case-control studies lacking this are of little use in making firm conclusions.

    For extant studies, this is something we know that we don’t know. And it is not appropriate to substitute our imaginations for the missing data.

  2. Yes, all case-control studies have unreliable dosimetry causing underestimation of the effect. I presented it in many of my lectures, most recently in Australia at the Griffith University in August 2017. When we have 4 same studies pointing to the same result and all of these studies underestimate risk – we cannot simply overlook this evidence as if it would not exist…

  3. DL – The sources I have consulted do not agree with your conclusions. They simply don’t match the facts. But, it really doesn’t matter. As one brilliant scientist once wrote – “Adding up two erroneous answers does not produce a correct answer.” This is true no matter how many studies with unreliable dosimetry are added to the equation.

    INTERPHONE (IARC Press Release # 200)
    A reduced OR for glioma and meningioma related to ever having been a regular mobile phone user possibly reflects participation bias or other methodological limitations. No elevated OR for glioma or meningioma was observed ≥10 years after first phone use. Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC said: “An increased risk of brain cancer is not established from the data from Interphone. However, observations at the highest level of cumulative call time and the changing patterns of mobile phone use since the period studied by Interphone, particularly in young people, mean that further investigation of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk is merited.”

    CERENAT (Coureau 2014)
    No association with brain tumours was observed when comparing regular mobile phone users with non-users (OR=1.24; 95% CI 0.86 to 1.77 for gliomas, OR=0.90; 95% CI 0.61 to 1.34 for meningiomas). However, the positive association was statistically significant in the heaviest users when considering life-long cumulative duration (≥896 h, OR=2.89; 95% CI 1.41 to 5.93 for gliomas; OR=2.57; 95% CI 1.02 to 6.44 for meningiomas) and number of calls for gliomas (≥18 360 calls, OR=2.10, 95% CI 1.03 to 4.31). Risks were higher for gliomas, temporal tumours, occupational and urban mobile phone use.

    HARDELL (Leitgeb 2015)
    “This synoptic analysis of all available epidemiological data on mobile phone use and glioma risk allows the following conclusions:

    Similar to the overall brain cancer results glioma data allow identifying two quite different data
    pools, one reported from one single group only with alarming results however, with an implausible pattern and an obvious offset which indicates a methodological difference rather than a biological effect. Interestingly, with increasing statistical power even this data pool converges towards lack of increased risk.

    The analysis of different dose-related parameters and the pattern of all pooled data do not support the assumption of a glioma risk of long-term and/or heavy mobile phone users.
    With increasing statistical power the risk estimates converge towards a reduced health risk. However, in lack of a convincing EMF interaction mechanism the indication of a reduced health risk estimate does not justify concluding on a causal relationship with EMF and a beneficial effect either.

    Apart from differences in detail, a look on all available data including SHG, IPS and ONS, consistently does not indicate an increased mobile phone glioma risk, neither short-term nor long-term. The available evidence is reassuring rather than alarming.


    Sage comment from DL: (referring to INTERPHONE & HARDELL)

    “We are dealing still with the two studies that are in part based on unreliable data. In both studies exposure of the subjects was evaluated retrospectively by asking what people remember. It means that both data-sets have the same exposure bias. Hence, the final analyses are as unreliable in both of the studies.
    The fact that the results of one unreliable study (Interphone) are being confirmed by the other unreliable study (Hardell’s re-analysis) does not make either of them more reliable. They both contain the same biases and, therefore, it can be expected that they lead to similar results. Adding up two erroneous answers does not produce a correct answer.
    So, let us stop crunching and re-crunching data from Interphone and Hardell. As a proverb says: “It is useless to flog a dead horse”.
    Let us agree that both data sets are biased and whichever way they will be re-evaluated the biases will not disappear, and the re-analyzed data will still be insufficient to make any scientifically reliable conclusions.”


  4. Tom, the journalist is clearly under-informed or biased. E.g. about the INTERPHONE she wrote: “…Additionally, three larger epidemiological studies, involving tens of thousands of cell phone users across 13 countries, found no link between use and cancers….”. This statement is incorrect. The first study published from INTERPHONE clearly said that using phone for 10 years or longer for 30 minutes per day leads to 40% increased risk of developing glioma. Study from Swedish HARDELL group says that in the same setting risk of developing glioma increases by 170%. Then there was study from France, the CERENAT, saying that risk increases by 100%. Finally, there was published re-analyzed of Canadian INTERPHONE data showing , yet again, that person using cell phone for 10+ years for 30 min/day increases risk of developing cancer by 100%. There is also study from INTERPHONE where analysis shows that gliomas locate to the part of the brain that is most exposed to radiation. So, journalists put all kinds of spin on the available data… I stop here… Thanks for the link to this pseudo-scientific analysis.

  5. When phones touch the skin, or body, or forehead (as seen in this Youtube video of a cellphone duct taped to a persons face while driving https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3ZyCnM2Uio ) or duct taped to their cheek as seen in this photo http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2014/03/20/article-2585163-1C7031AE00000578-670_306x549.jpg) the emissions could exceed SAR limits. This is factual, as documented by hundreds of SAR test report on cell phones released from France.

    Many people use phones in areas of low signal, streaming data and especially while traveling.

    Dr. Marc Arazi explained “Phonegate” at this blog post. https://betweenrockandhardplace.wordpress.com/2017/12/08/guest-blog-phonegate-the-health-and-industrial-issues-of-a-global-scandal-by-marc-arazi/

    Thank you for posting on this issue. We have quoted this blog post in EHT’s response to the Popular Science article: This can be found at https://ehtrust.org/retract-popular-science-article-cell-phones-arent-public-health-risk-no-matter-california-says/

    Unfortunately, the Popular Science article is being picked up by other news outlets.

  6. Pingback: Environmental Health Trust » Blog Archive Retract Popular Science article  “Cell phones aren’t a public health risk, no matter what California says” - Environmental Health Trust

  7. I am not satisfied with your answers. This remind that the real life is far from the unnecessarily convoluted explanations by engineers. Big disconnect… Phon itself, as it is tested in laboratory meets compliance requirements. However, how it is used in leads to non-compliance because human body is exposed to higher levels of radiation than the compliance testing allows. This is of course not automatically equal of higher health risk. But the phone, in spite meeting compliance requirements in ideal situation in laboratory testing, is exposing use to higher radiation levels than permitted. Phone is in practical use non-compliant when it touches the body of the user when kept in e.g. shirt breast-pocket.

  8. The user manual advice applies only to body-worn use. ‘Body’ in the sense used here, means the torso or trunk of a person – excluding head/neck and extremities. I hope you will find a straight and clear answer in the quotes below, which I have taken from the FCC document you have not read or perhaps not understood. All of this is common knowledge for those who know how (and why) compliance testing is done.

    The bottom line is, your “Phone touching the skin is not in compliance” claim is not correct.

    “Since 2001, Supplement C of OET Bulletin 65, Edition 01-01, (Supplement C) has recommended maintaining a body-worn device separation distance up to 2.5 cm (about one inch) during testing of consumer portable devices, since accessories such as holsters would normally be used to wear devices on the body and maintain this distance. Note that, in contrast to the body-worn testing configuration, for consumer portable devices intended to be held against the head during normal use, the device must be placed directly against a head mannequin during testing. Manufacturers have been encouraged since 2001 to include information in device manuals to make consumers aware of the need to maintain the body-worn distance – by using appropriate accessories if they want to ensure that their actual exposure does not exceed the SAR measurement obtained during testing. The testing data for body-worn configurations would not be applicable to situations in which a consumer disregards this information on separation distance and maintains a device closer to the body than the distance at which it is tested. In such situations, it could be possible that exposure in excess of our limits might result, but only with the device transmitting continuously and at maximum power – such as might happen during a call with a headset and the phone in a user’s pocket at the fringe of a reception area”

    “The manual should include operating instructions and advisory statements so that users are aware of the body-worn operating requirements for RF exposure compliance. This allows users to make informed decisions on the type of body-worn accessories and operating configurations that are appropriate for the device.”

    “Commission calculations similar to those in Appendix D suggest that some devices may not be compliant with our exposure limits without the use of some spacer to maintain a separation distance when body-worn, although this conclusion is not verifiable for individual devices since a test without a spacer has not been routinely performed during the body-worn testing for equipment authorization. Yet, we have no evidence that this poses any significant health risk. Commission rules specify a pass/fail criterion for SAR evaluation and equipment authorization. However, exceeding the SAR limit does not necessarily imply unsafe operation, nor do lower SAR quantities imply “safer” operation. The limits were set with a large safety factor, to be well below a threshold for unacceptable rises in tissue temperature. As a result, exposure well above the specified SAR limit should not create an unsafe condition.”

    “We also realize that SAR measurements are performed while the device is operating at its maximum capable power, so that given typical operating conditions, the SAR of the device during normal use would be less than tested. In sum, using a device against the body without a spacer will generally result in actual SAR below the maximum SAR tested; moreover, a use that possibly results in non-compliance with the SAR limit should not be viewed with significantly greater concern than compliant use.”

    For context, see: FCC-13-39A1 previously linked

    This is my final comment on this particular topic.

  9. Tom , you are beating around the bush instead of giving a straight and clear answer. Something doesn’t add up in your explanations…
    As I said, why manufacturers would print in booklets, provided with the cell phones, information to keep phone at a distance from the body? Why?

    Example of the advisory quotes from the booklets are provided in this my BRHP blog: https://wp.me/pBbF9-Ks

  10. DL – There isn’t time or space to explain this in a blog comment. The answers to you seek can be found through the links I have included in previously comments. You can get further details by studying the compliance report linked below:


    It is also important to understand that the MPE is not a precise demarcation point between safety and hazard. There is no one level above which exposures become hazardous to health; instead, the potential risk to health gradually increases with higher exposure levels. The FCC MPE indicates that permissible exposures are safe according to generally accepted current scientific knowledge. However, it does not automatically follow that exposures above the limit are harmful. The general population limit is set 50 times lower than the threshold level at which first behavioral changes in animals become apparent. For more details, go to the link below (read it all, with particular attention at page 90):

    Click to access FCC-13-39A1.pdf

    If you consult these sources, and still don’t see why your belief is mistaken; check with a local expert who can explain it in your own language. Finland is replete with such expertise.

  11. Cell phone is in compliance with the brain tissue but not with the touched skin tissue… That is why manufacturers specifically mention what is the distance that must be kept between users body and the phone, with the exception of hands and ear… Otherwise, why manufacturers would themselves “undermine” their own product by saying it should be kept at some distance away from the body? If there is no need for any safety or compliance warning then why manufacturers voluntarily provide it, by specifying distance that should be kept between the operating phone and the body?

  12. If you know how FCC compliance testing is done, you must know that it includes touching both ear and cheek with no separation from the device under test – contrary to your claim that ” Phone touching the skin is not in compliance.”

  13. Tom, I know how testing is done and… I doubt that “all bases are covered”. In respect of how much radiation goes into dummy’s liquid – possibly yes. But what is the meaning of it biologically – certainly not. Humans are not filled with uniform liquid… Read my second blog on BRHP where I discuss thermal and non-thermal effects in context of “dummy liquids”. It all might be fine for dosimetry people but biologically I am not convinced…

  14. DL – Sorry, you are mistaken with regard to FCC compliance testing. SAR testing uses standardized models of the human head and body that are filled with liquids that simulate the RF absorption characteristics of different human tissues. In order to determine compliance, each cell phone is tested while operating at its highest power level in all the frequency bands in which it operates, and in various specific positions against the dummy head and body, to simulate the way different users typically hold a cell phone, including to each side of the head. During testing, devices are set to their highest transmission levels and placed in positions that simulate uses against the head, with no separation, and when worn or carried against the torso of the body, with manufacture stated separations. A robotic probe takes a series of measurements of the electric field at specific pinpoint locations in a very precise, grid-like pattern within the dummy head and torso. All data for each phone placement are submitted as a part of the equipment approval test report for final authorization. However, only the highest SAR values for each frequency band are included in the final authorization to demonstrate compliance with the FCC’s RF guidelines. See a typical Apple compliance statement at the following link:


  15. Tom,
    1. I was talking about compliance with safety limits not about the safety. So, phone touching skin causes higher level of radiation being absorbed by the body than the compliance with the safety limits permits. Phone touching the skin is not in compliance.
    2. There are obvious exceptions. Hand and head. You have to keep phone in own hand and hand gets more radiation. But, hands are classified as extremities, parts of the body that are not vital, and such extremities can be exposed more. And hands are.
    3. As to keeping phone to your head. Indeed, some may misunderstand that phone should be kept away from the ear. But this is just misunderstanding stemming from the lack of adequate information from telecoms. Namely, phone can be kept touching ear because earlobe is classified as an extremity. Thus, it is OK to keep phone to earlobe because earlobe is permitted to get more exposure to radiation. Furthermore, earlobe acts as a “natural” spacer between the phone and the brain surface, so it makes cell phone compliant with safety limits.

  16. Sadly, this is the second article Sara Chodosh has written on this particular subject through Pop Sci. There was an earlier one published this year about the Italian Court’s ruling. However, this is the second time she’s gone against the advice of the manufacturer and told the public to duct tape it to your body. She writes with blind arrogance and a disturbing self-proclaimed entitled authority………

  17. DL – I don’t hesitate to say that this article is a little over the top. However, you are mistaken when you state “…when phone touches skin it is not in compliance …” – FCC compliance testing includes numerous use scenarios including full contact with ear and cheek. User Manual spacing advice refers only to body-worn device use. See Page 91, footnote 447 in FCC-13-39A1 which explains the compliance spacing requirement. So, while duct taping a phone to your head is clearly meant to be satirical; doing so would still be FCC-compliant use!

    Click to access FCC-13-39A1.pdf

    It states that “Some cell phone users apparently believe that certain devices need to be kept at least a specified distance (up to 2.5 cm) from the head during normal use to ensure compliance with our SAR limits. Such a requirement does not exist and would clearly be impractical.”

    It also states that the spacing is about compliance – not safety! Section 251 of the document tells us that “…a use that possibly results in non-compliance with the SAR limit should not be viewed with significantly greater concern than compliant use.”

    With regard to the issue of coffee – it hasn’t been well publicized that IARC walked back from their earlier classification, and the change wasn’t even updated on the FDA website. So, perhaps Popsci could be forgiven for getting this wrong. Despite this, the point made regarding the IARC classification is still germane to the discussion.

    Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Matthew 7:1-5 ESV

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