If one were to ask Congress for a written transcript of the Feb. 2, 1993, Capitol Hill briefing on alleged health risks from portable wireless phones, the reply would be that it doesn’t exist.
The omission speaks volumes-figuratively and literally-about the state of government oversight of pocket telephone safety. Today, with wireless industry-funded radio frequency bioeffects research floundering and 45 million wireless pocket phones in use, oversight is overlooked in Washington. It barely exits. The reasons for lax oversight are unclear and puzzling at best, troubling at worst.
Congress is, by nature, a reactive institution. Lawmakers tend to respond to crises. Are lawmakers waiting for another one, like January 1993?
Some groups are paying attention, though. There are the trial lawyers, whose clients claim pocket phones cause brain cancer and that manufacturers didn’t warn consumers about potential health risks from the devices.
It also is alleged in one lawsuit that the wireless industry conspired with the industry-funded research group-Wireless Technology Research L.L.C.-to cover up a cancer link.
A federal-state jurisdiction issue has put several health-related lawsuits on hold in Illinois.
Environmentalists, consumer activists and the Communications Workers of America are watching, too. Some are doing more than watching.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), then-chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee and regarded as a consumer advocate, called the hastily arranged cellular phone safety briefing in the midst of a media frenzy in early 1993 that followed H. David Reynard’s declaration on national television that his wife’s fatal brain cancer was caused by cellular phone usage.
The judge dismissed the case for lack of scientific research on pocket phone bioeffects.
Colin Crowell, an aide to Markey, today explains the phantom transcript as a result of a parliamentary nuance. Though the standing-room-only event in February 1993 had all the trappings of a hearing-lawmakers, industry officials, regulators and reporters-it really wasn’t a hearing. That’s because time didn’t permit Markey to give then-minority Republican panel members the required advance notice of the meeting.
So, instead, the gathering was deemed a “briefing.” Having that status, no congressional stenographer was on hand to record the proceeding despite national attention given to the cellular cancer scare at that time.
Individuals providing information to the subcommittee that day were Thomas Stanley, then chief engineer of the Federal Communications Commission; Robert Cleveland, top RF policymaker at the FCC; Mays Swycord, then a top RF scientist and Food and Drug Administration official and now a Motorola Inc. employee: Dr. Richard Adamson, the National Cancer Institute; Dr. David Klefman, the Environmental Protection Agency; Dr. Stephen Cleary, professor of Physics and Biophysics, Medical College of Virginia; and Dr. Quirino Balzano, top RF scientist at Motorola.
Apparently animated by what he heard, Markey directed the General Accounting Office to investigate the state of research on biological effects from RF radiation emitted by portable cellular phones.
GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, came back in November 1994 with a report that found existing research was insufficient to determine whether pocket phones pose a public health risk.
GAO recommended that industry and federal government RF bioeffects research proceed.
What has transpired since then is a story about how Congress and federal regulators largely tuned out after the media clamor died down.
Where is Markey today?
When contacted for comment on industry-funded RF research and on a recent RCR story about an internal Motorola memo detailing a media strategy to downplay University of Washington research on single- and double-strand DNA breaks in rats exposed to low-level 2 GHz microwave radiation for two hours, Markey aide Crowell indicated an interview with the congressman could be arranged.
Markey, according to Crowell, was unaware of the troubled state of WTR, created by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association in early 1993 and funded by carriers and manufacturers to the tune of $25 million through May 1998.
Crowell said he needed background documents from RCR to brief Markey in advance of an interview.
But after an initial meeting between RCR and Crowell, something odd and yet unexplained happened. Markey’s office abruptly stopped returning phone calls from RCR. The interview on the Motorola memo and wireless cancer research did not take place.
Markey, for his part, has been a good friend of the wireless telecom industry in recent years. He played a key role in efforts to deregulate the industry and to secure privacy protection for wireless subscribers.
The wireless industry has reciprocated with an assortment of individual contributions under $2,000 during the 1990s. Markey does not accept political action committee money.
Overall, the Massachusetts Democrat took in $31,950 in 1991-1992 and $81,500 in 1993-1994 from individuals associated with telecom and hi-tech firms, according to Federal Election Commission figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
While Crowell says Markey took heat for calling the cellular phone briefing in early 1993, one leading RF scientist-who asked not to be named-suggested the briefing worked to the industry’s benefit because it helped defuse the issue, at least enough to enable cellular stocks to regain temporary lost ground.
Another big industry booster, current House telecommunications subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), said he believes pocket phones are safe despite the lack of RF bioffects research on them.
In fact, Tauzin said he’s worried junk science is perverting public policy and plans to introduce a bill to subject government-funded scientific research to independent peer review.
But he added, “The industry should be constantly examining its products (for safety).”
Tauzin, like Markey, gets modest financial campaign aid from the wireless industry.
John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, could not be reached for comment.
FDA, the one agency that has tried to keep tabs on WTR, has proven to be a paper tiger. In its defense, FDA cannot control how WTR spends its money-the $25 million industry committed for the five-year program. To date, $15 million spent during the first four years has produced one epidemiology study but no bioeffects research.
Elizabeth D. Jacobson, deputy director for the Science Center for Devices and Radiological Health at FDA, declined to be interviewed for this series.
Indeed, Jacobson-despite being the top federal regulator of wireless phone safety-has maintained a low profile during the WTR program even as reports surfaced that industry-sponsored research was in trouble with legal and funding problems.
However, Jacobson has at times dealt forcefully with industry and WTR in private. She criticized CTIA’s Wheeler in a July 1993 letter for making press statements about industry-funded cellular cancer research that displayed “an unwarranted confidence that these products will be found to be absolutely safe.”
Jacobson also said in that letter that readers of CTIA press material might “wonder how impartial the research can be when its stated goal is `a determination to reassure consumers,’ and when the research sponsors predict in advance that `we expect the new research to reach the same conclusion, that cellular phones are safe.”‘
Earlier this month, Jacobson-citing WTR funding problems and after consultation with other federal agencies-urged WTR Chairman Dr. George Carlo, an epidemiologist with no previous RF bioeffects training-to redirect research to give lifetime animal RF exposure studies highest priority.
Jacobson also recommended that WTR replicate previous studies that found single- and
double-strand DNA breaks and increased tumors in rats dosed with low-power microwave emissions.
Carlo, hoping the remaining $10 million of the original $25 million will cover two more epidemiology studies and some cell culture work, said he cannot conduct lifetime rat studies (lasting four to five years and costing $10 million or more). But he is examining whether he can substitute a six-month RF exposure study on genetically altered, cancer-prone mice.
But an FDA official said the so-called “transgenic mice” are not an acceptable substitute for lifetime rat RF exposure studies.
That FDA appears conflicted in dealing with WTR and CTIA may have something to do with the history of WTR.
Originally, FDA was to take the lead role in a government-industry research initiative on RF bioffects in the early 1990s. But Carlo and CTIA President Thomas Wheeler nixed the idea at the 11th hour.
Still, the bottom line is WTR has unraveled on Jacobson’s watch.
When it comes to investigating claims linking childhood leukemia to electromagnetic fields of power lines, the federal government has spared no expense. Under the Energy Power Act of 1992, the government put up $32.5 million for the industry to match.
There is nothing of that magnitude in the federal government for RF bioeffects research, even though some scientists might consider the cellular cancer question more compelling than power line EMF allegations.
Industry money is there. The federal government took in $22 billion from the auction of mostly digital paging and pocket phones during the past three years. But there is no plan to use any of that revenue for RF research.
Meanwhile, the European Union is working with wireless carriers and vendors to set up a $30 million RF bioeffects research program on pocket phones.
“There is no evidence of any health risk emerging from mobile phones,” the EU said late last year, “but the results of present research are inadequate to draw firm conclusions on this issue. Further research is needed”-echoing what the GAO report said two years earlier.
There was a time during the 1980s that EPA seriously considered setting federal RF safety guidelines, but the initiative was scratched for funding and policy reasons.
Nevertheless, EPA last summer stopped the FCC from adopting industry-crafted RF exposure guidelines that EPA said did not adequately protect consumers and workers from possible health hazards.
Stricter RF guidelines adopted last August by the FCC incorporate EPA recommendations, but there is still debate over whether the guidelines protect against long-term, non-thermal bioeffects from pocket phones.
It’s 1997 now, and the consuming public knows little more about wireless phone safety than it did when David Reynard made the earth shake four years ago. Environmentalists, organized labor, consumer activists and trial lawyers are about to let out a loud roar.