One of Australia’s leading experts on the causes of cancer has rubbished last night’s ABC Catalyst program on whether the wi-fi in mobile phones causes brain tumours as “biased” and perhaps even “deceptive”.

“My broad thoughts on the program is that it was scientifically bankrupt,” Professor Bernard Stewart told Crikey. “It was biased, and little short of misleading and deceptive.”

“My anxiety about this is that by even commenting on it, I’m giving it oxygen.”

Stewart is a co-editor of the World Cancer Report for the World Health Organisation and is the editor-in-chief of Cancer Forum, Australia’s leading journal on cancer research. He says the evidence on the potential cancer-causing properties of mobile phones and wi-fi necessitate vigilance, but not action. “Overall, the evidence available that mobile phones cause brain cancer — and there is no comparable evidence in respect to wi-fi — does not possibly warrant the level of concern that was indicated in the program. The evidence warrants continued investigation and monitoring, and that’s all.”

Simon Chapman, an emeritus professor in public health at the University of Sydney, is similarly scathing. He says he was approached to give comment to the program but declined because he believed it was an advocacy program interested in promoting the views of Dr Devra Davis, an American cancer epidemiologist visiting Australia. Dr Maryanne Demasi, the ABC journalist who did the program, tells Crikey that Stewart was similarly invited to be involved, but he declined. She says it’s “perplexing” that Chapman chose to critique the program on social media rather than on air, as he was invited to.

The program’s central theme — that it is too soon to know the full effects of wi-fi on our brains and that caution is warranted — goes against the mainstream scientific opinion in Australia, and against the position of government agencies on the issue.

The program relied heavily on the concerns of Davis, who was a member of a team of scientists that won the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007 for their work on climate change awareness. Davis says at the start of the program she initially laughed off concerns about the impact of wi-fi radiation on our brains. But the more she looked into the issue the more concerned she became.

Over half an hour, Davis raised numerous arguments as to why we should be more wary of the effect of mobile phones. She says studies show sperm samples exposed to wi-fi radiation are less healthy than those that are not. She says the legal warnings given by mobile phone manufacutrers themselves say we should limit exposure. She points to the role of lobbying and other pressure by mobile phone manufacturers in sweeping the issue under the rug. And while acknowledging there’s been no increase in brain cancer rates in the population at large, she says it can take 40 years for brain cancers to develop following initial exposure.

Davis and others in the program draw the parallel to the campaigns by tobacco companies to keep the effects of smoking unknown. But Chapman, who has devoted much of his life to countering the spin of tobacco companies, doesn’t put much stock in the analogy. The eternal scares over mobile phones, he says, are the domain of “essentially risk-phobic people”. Whole industries, he says, are built to cater to such fears.

“There are the people who make a living on praying on gullible people and coating their houses in special paint to stop radiation getting into the house, and selling you special mattresses and pillows and blankets. It’s complete clap-trap.”

Chapman also disputes Davis’ comments about brain tumours taking decades to appear, saying that although it may take decades for a peak in cases to appear, if there were problems with the wi-fi in mobile phones, we’d already be starting to see increased incidences of health problems.

Last night’s Catalyst episode clearly stated the view of people like Davis was a contrary opinion not shared by many of Australia’s peak health bodies. Davis is a respectable if relatively lonely voice.

Leigh Dayton, a veteran science reporter who worked at The Australian until 2012, tells Crikey science reporters do have a role in covering controversial positions in the scientific community, but the manner in which it is done matters. Scientific controversies, she says, can be presented as emerging issues, with appropriate weighting given to the various sides of an argument.

Dayton hadn’t watched the program, but when approached by Crikey to comment on the difficulties of reporting on such issues, she quotes Australian health researcher Peter Doherty, who said: “You don’t give equal time to Nazis”, implying that not all viewpoints are equally valid and deserving of equal weight.

There’s a long history and context around health scares concerning mobile phones, she adds, saying that any program on the issue surely has to delve into this.

“You have to be very clear that what you’re doing is taking a look at an area that’s controversial, and make a judgement beforehand on where you stand on it,” Dayton told Crikey. “It might have a significant impact on people’s lives.”

Demasi told Crikey this morning that the purpose of doing these type of stories was to encourage debate. “It’s the duty of scientists and science reporters to encourage critical thinking on issues which are not conclusive. Wireless technology is relatively new, and the science has not been fully explored. It’s in the interest of the public to be updated on the current debate.

“We cited the major case-controlled studies which have demonstrated a link between heavy use of wireless devices, mobile/cordless phones and glioma [malignant brain tumours]. It is not possible to perform randomised controlled trials in this area of science.”

Asked if there’s a role in science journalists reporting on areas of scientific disagreement, Stewart says there is. But he is wary of the cost.

“You can’t put a cash value on the stress and anxiety. You can, however, say that it should not be provoked unnecessarily.

“It is correct for parents to be anxious with respect to children’s safety … Anxiety in many cases is proper and justified. But there are matters where it’s not justified, and this is one of them.”

Peter Fray

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