Reuters, AAP and media reporting
on scientific research into
cellphones and health

by Stewart Fist

You cannot hope, to bribe or twist,

    thank God, the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
    unbribed, there's no occasion to.

  Humbert Wolfe, The Uncelestial City

When public relations isn't clearly separated from reporting, it's not a matter of bribery anyway. The dividing line between news and propaganda becomes blurred. In fact the sub-title of this column should be: "Why buy Internet stock for millions, when you can buy a press agency for peanuts."

These days press agencies offer services to public relations organisations to carry their releases around the world. For special cash consideration, the line between news and release is blurred by those who are supposed to protect the credibility of the media.

I offer as an example the fact that newspapers around the world have been carrying a good-news story this week (April 9 1999) that has made the cellphone industry break out the champagne. The story was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald under the headline:

The good news on mobile phones

Mobile phones are unlikely to cause cancer, damage the brain or cause memory loss. The findings are a relief for the half a billion phone users worldwide ...

Their rival, The Australian, on the same day headlined its version under the banner:

Think fast: mobiles ring a bell.

Contrary to fears that mobile telephones cause memory loss or even cancer, new research shows that they do not damage memory and have an unexpected effect; faster brain reactions.

What triggered this rush of electronic exuberance is a study by Dr Alan Preece at Bristol University in the UK, which showed that a cellphone similation, held against left side of the head, had no effect on simple memory tasks but appeared to improve reaction times by 4 per cent. I've had a draft copy of the report for some time, but considered it too inconsequential to bother writing about.

The subjects were given computer-based memory and reaction tasks over a total exposure time of about 25 minutes -- equivalent to one long phone call. Preece experimented on two groups of 18 university students and they generally showed slightly improved responses in the hit-the-button test. This is about the level of improvement people get from coffee.

But look at the global newspaper reporting! It all follows a predictable pattern.

  1. First they announce that this is good news, when clearly it is not. Good news would be that cellphones had no effect at all on brain functions. In fact, I find evidence of possible direct influences on the neurones of my grey matter, seriously disturbing. The cellphone industry has been telling us for years that no such direct action is possible.

  2. It completely ignores the fact that any possible stimulation of response times should also be viewed with alarm, given the well-known stimulatory effects of low-levels of arsenic and digitalis. These also kill you with high doses, and we have no idea what happens to regularly low-doses of digitalis taken over a life-time. I, for one, am not inclined to find out.

  3. Thirdly they announce that this research has established cellphone safety. I've now seen dozens of newspaper and magazine reports (most notably, the New Scientist and the UK Independent) which all make the same claim. The statements are generally phrase as statements that the Preece study, in some undefined way, proves that cellphones are "unlikely to cause cancer."

It does no such thing; Preece wasn't even looking at cancer causation or promotion. His whole study was carried out on a couple of dozen students in a few days, so these no-cancer claims are simply ridiculous and demonstrate the profound ignorance of whoever wrote them.

I'm not going to get into a biological discussion here, but I am interested in the pattern of reporting. Many of these newspaper articles were re-writes of a New Scientist magazine piece which was circulated by the press agencies. Unfortunately, the New Scientist believes it is a White Knight crusading against the proliferation of junk-science, and they have a disturbing habit of rewriting submitted copy to make it conform to their own in-house ideology. They did this with an article I was commission to write on the Adelaide Hospital research - the refused to publish a letter where I explained that the published article was not in alignment with my understanding, or with the evidence.

I don't write for them any more. And that arrangement is probably mutually agreeable.

The New Scientist's in-house philosophy is coloured by the fact that their sister publication is Electronics Weekly -- which, sees itself as an industry-promotion and support vehicle. Interestingly enough in the same week (April 12), Electronics Weekly reported that the UK government had decided to establish a committee to look at the problems raised by the Preece study. New Scientist didn't - instead it published an editorial saying that no further research was really justified.

Here's what the Electronics Weekly article said:
The government has responded to a call from Bristol-based researchers to take a closer look at the effects of mobile phone use. Tessa Jowell, the Minister for Public Health has instructed the National Radiological Protection Board to set up an independent expert working group to assess the current state of research into mobile phones. "To date there has been no consistent evidence suggesting risk to health, but there is continuing public concern about the possibility," said Jowell. "It would be wrong to ignore that concern."

So Steve Bush the writer from Electronics Weekly clearly understood the implications of the Preece report, even if the editor and writers of the New Scientist articles didn't.

The New Scientist headed their main feature story:

Get Your Head Around This ...

by David Concar

"Forget the hype--there's still no evidence that mobile phones will mangle your memories or give you cancer. But the microwaves they emit must be up to something. Meet the fast-growing worms and boozing rats that have the experts baffled...and discover why a phone call might make you quick on the draw.

I presume by "no evidence" he means that since the one, single Preece study on reaction times failed to turn up evidence of mangled memories or cancer -- and since no other research in the world is worth considering, other than that done in the UK -- we can all feel safe.

Quite frankly this is either the statement of a moron, or a journalist who hasn't the faintest idea what he is talking about.

However AAP transmitted a rewrite of this rubbish around the world where it was used in the world's newspapers. And, as a result, the various article on the Preece study managed to interweave and confuse news about the Bristol reaction times, with another study of nematode worms conducted at the University of Nottingham by Dr de Pomerai which,
"found that lavae exposed to microwaves grew more but wriggled less, leading scientists to conclude that the emissions were speeding up cell division."

In the original New Scientist article Concar's next paragraph says:
"The researchers now intend to examine mammalian cells to see if they divide more rapidly when exposed to microwaves--a finding that would raise fears about cancer."

This is entirely justified since cancer is just another name for sped-up cell division. If you suddenly found exposed worms growing much quicker than non-exposed, the natural assumption is that the exposure has sped up the cell-division process -- in other words, that it is likely to be a cancer promoter (as distinct from it possibly being 'a cause' -- but even this is blurred).

But what intrigues me is how the hell did AAP and other journalists managed to interpret this statement as proving that "Mobile phones are unlikely to cause cancer..."

New Scientist tried to hose down possible public panic by reporting de Pomerai as saying:
"As a proportion of life span, exposing a nematode worm to microwaves overnight is like exposing a human continuously for an entire decade."

This is not true, cells are cells and DNA is DNA whether they are human or animal. In a growing worm, the cells are dividing much more quickly than they are in an adult human, but you can't relate whole-of-life-spans to cell-division rates in this simplistic way Any promotion of cell-division rates by R/F exposures is highly disturbing. And apparently it never occurred to the New Scientist editors that humans might use cellphones for "an entire decade" or more either.

But I do agree that there's no need to panic. By God, however, there's an urgent need for further research, and certainly no further excuse for the media peddling spurious claims of proven safety.

The pattern of reporting

This isn't just an isolated example of reporter stupidity, or of the systematic worldwide distribution of misleading information about the status of cell-phone and power-line research. I've got a file full of fallacious information circulated around the world by the press agencies. Let me quote another published by newspapers around the world in May 1997.

Reuters headlined this:

Finnish study finds no health hazards in mobiles

and this was reproduced in Australia as

Mobiles safe, study finds, but they do heat brain

May 22 (Reuter) A Finnish study partly funded by the telecommunications industry has found mobile phones pose no health threat to phone users, although they do transmit heat to people's brains, researchers said Thursday.

The study by four Finnish institutes examined the effect of radio frequencies used by mobile phones on the brains of 19 people and found no health hazards. 'The results are so consistent that the tests are completely sufficient, Maila Hietanen, researcher at the state-funded Occupational Health Institute told a news conference."

I contacted Dr Maila Hietanen to ask how a Nokia-funded study on 19 university students could be "completely sufficient" to prove cellphones were safe. It transpired that she had only check for brain-waves changes (using and EEG) when a cellphone was switched on in the near vicinity.

Her reply gives some indication of the facts discussed at the press conference:
We actually had four sub-projects in Finland. My institute (FIOH) examined possible EEG changes of human volunteers, University of Kuopio performed the study on mice and cancer development, STUK (Kari Jokela) made some dosimetric test on fantoms, and the Technical Research Centre made theoretical calculations and simulations on radiation levels emitted by various antennas. [] DNA [effects] etc were not studied in this project.

[W]e had 19 volunteers, who were sitting relaxed, but not sleeping. The exposure was carried out by 5 various cellular phones, operated by remote control, so that the persons did not know when the phone on and off (without any speech or other sound signal). EEG was recorded during real and sham exposure, and no statistically significant differences were found.

Dr Hietanen was genuinely embarrassed that this misinterpretations of her work had been circulated globally. The Heitanen study was only one of a half a dozen similar brain-waves studies which have been done around the world, and about half claim to detect slight radio-frequency effects (some in sleeping only). The Preece study tends to confirm that such effects exist.

Power lines

Power-lines are also a parallel and related concern here. Within a month of the Finnish EEG study, another 'good news' story was also circulated by the press agencies;

Power-lines Don't Produce Cancer

which claimed that it had 'Proved power-lines were safe. This epidemiological research was done by Martha Linet for the US National Cancer Institute.

Linet created a list of 634 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and matched them to a similar number of kids without the disease. She and her staff then systematically measured the magnetic fields in all the homes to see if there was a statistical relationship between high magnetic levels and the disease.

This was one of about twenty similar statistical studies done in the last decade, mainly in Scandinavia and the USA, and the vast majority have reported a slight but significant link between EMF levels and the disease. However the wireline stories declared the Linet study to be the definitive one, ignoring all others -- and they claimed she had proved once and for all that power lines were safe. The New England Journal of Medicine then took up the cry and called for governments so stop funding power-line/health research -- a rare event, indeed.

When Linet's published report reached the scientists, however, it took about ten minutes to find holes in the methodology. Linet had arbitrarily applied a cut-off point of 0.2 microTesla on the magnetic field levels, and decided that any children exposed at higher levels were statistically insignificant. Normally in this kind of research, a cut-off of 0.3µT is applied, and when Linet's dismissed statistics were added back into the findings, it transpired that the NCI study confirmed the conclusion reached by most of the other studies.

In fact, the evidence supporting this position is now so compelling that the US government's National Institute of Health (NIH) spent a million dollars in 1997-9, both on research, and on funding a working group (called the NIEHS Working Group) to report on the matter. The 29 scientists and engineers came to the conclusion that power line exposures should be classified as a Group 2B carcinogen. In the language of cancer research, this classification groups low-level magnetic fields along with DDT as "a possible cause of human cancers".P>How was that reported around the world, I hear you ask?

Quite simply, it wasn't.

Vienna Report

In late October 1998 Reuters reported that "scientists from 10 countries in Vienna said they have no evidence that mobile phone use can cause cancer." (I only have the second-hand subbed report, not the original wire)

This followed a private meeting of 25 of the top independent research scientists (they need to get away from the activists), plus a few from the military, and also present was Dr Repacholi of the World Health Organisation. They ended up with a public statement signed by everyone but Repacholi (who won't sign his name to anything):

Mobile Phones and Health,
Symposium, October 25-28, 1998,
University of Vienna, Austria

Workshop on possible biological and health effects of RF electromagnetic fields

Vienna EMF-Resolution

Preamble: The participants agreed that biological effects from low-intensity exposures are scientifically established. However, the current state of scientific consensus is inadequate to derive reliable exposure standards. The existing evidence demands an increase in the research efforts on the possible health impact and on an adequate exposure and dose assessment.

Yet Reuters promoted the story as "scientists from 10 countries in Vienna said they have no evidence that mobile phone use can cause cancer." . This wasn't an idle group of unknown scientists, check out the list below of scientists wno signed the declaration.

How was that reported in your own newspapers? I bet neither Reuters or AAP bothered to carry it.


There is a pattern in the way cell-phone/health issues are reported in the media -- usually via stories distributed by Reuters and AAP. It goes something like this:

  1. They always have a headline announcing that "Cellphones are proven safe".. "Powerlines not a danger" ... or something similar. Sometimes this is the press agency line, but often it is written by the subs to mimic the AAP/Reuters 'good news head'.

  2. The report will usually combine a number of different research projects in a way that makes it impossible for the lay-reader to disentangle -- but it will peg the story on one particular report release, usually the most favourable one.

  3. It will treat the research data as evidence of the safety of the cell phone, no matter what the finding -- or how isolated the claim. If 60% of their human subjects died from prolonged brain damage via phone use, the reports would probably still gush "... but 40% of mobile phone users couldn't live without them".

  4. However if the research finds adverse effects, the report will always empasise that this work was done on animals or cells in a laboratory -- in unnatural conditions -- and that it must be replicated [But who is willing to pay for the replication?] . And it will always claim that the scientific consensus around the world is against the possibility that there can be any problems.

  5. It will always quote as a definitive statement the standard scientific disclaimer ("Ignore these findings") attached to the end of every report: "This finding should not be taken in isolation as evidence ... the study needs replication .... etc".
    These disclaimers are like the "Beware of the Dog" sign on the gate so that no one can sue you if your dog takes a nip. But reporters treat these routine disclaimer as if the scientist are saying: "Despite the bodies littering the yard, my Rottweillers are perfectly tame -- just ignore the evidence."

  6. Generally the reports will seek to confuse the potential exposure problems of cellphone towers (very low levels of tissue exposure, but 24 hours a day) with those of the handsets (for short period, but roughly a million times as much because of the antenna proximity).
    They will often claim that the reseachers "used exposure intensities thousands of times greater than those from cellphone towers" -- leaving the impression that the exposures were ridiculously high -- when, generally, they just matched those of handset users.

  7. Serious scientific findings will not be reported at all if they are opposed to the interests of the major advertisers. Specialist working groups which turn in adverse reports will just be ignored.

  8. Exposure standards will always be claimed as 'adequate' despite the fact than no one knows.

  9. The failure of replicated will be portrayed as a failure of the scientists who did the research. Relication, of cours, is an admirable aim, however it requires some industry-sector or company willing to fund replication of studies which have turned up adverse findings:
    • The cellphone companies aren't about to bolster the case against them.
    • ... or if they do, it will be done under a confidentiality clause, and we never get to hear the results.
    • The universities aren't in the business of funding replication work, because their reputations rest on the originality of their research projects.
    • Governments generally aren't keen on replication, because the cell phone companies are supposed to be doing this research funding themselves through the WTR and similar industry organisations. Their industry lobbyists tell them it is a waste of money anyway, and there are always more urgent priorities (I agree with this, actually!).
    • And we shouldn't forget that a lot of the more important findings probably have already been replicated -- but by the military. Often these results are widely known, even though they are not officially published.

  10. It is notable, however, that research which supports the case that powerlines or cellphones are safe, never need to be replicated. I've never yet heard any one call for a replication of a positive outcome, before it is considered newsworthy.



Stewart Fist, 70 Middle Harbour Road, Lindfield, 2070, NSW, Australia.
Tel: +61 2 9416 7458 Fax: +61 2 9416 4582. E-mail: