Research from the former Soviet Union that showed the damage caused by EMF radiation was blocked by the US government agency for 35 years—just as the mobile phone industry was starting.
Major research that proved radio waves, a form of electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation, could penetrate the skin, change biological processes and affect organs was kept classified by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for up to 50 years.
Throughout the 1970s, scientists in the US and in the former Communist USSR were investigating the harmful effects of radiation, which, at the time, was mainly being generated by radio and TV broadcasting, but which would shortly be harnessed by mobile devices and Wi-Fi technologies.
Most of the research evaluated the impact of the radiation on laboratory animals, and few of the studies, if any, were able to include people. Critics have argued that results on animals cannot be extrapolated to humans, whose skin is different and less absorbent, and whose organs may be better protected.
Most of the research was carried out as the nascent mobile phone industry was beginning to emerge. A prototype of the first mobile phone was trialed in 1973, and the world’s first commercial mobile network was launched in Japan in 1979.
Since then, the world’s mobile device industry has exploded, generating global revenues of over $1 trillion in 2020—and it has safeguarded those revenues by maintaining that its technology is safe and, at worst, causes mild skin irritation and possibly cataracts.
Is it safe?
Early research was showing that EMF radiation isn’t safe, at least not for animals. In one of the classified papers prepared in 1977, Russian physicist N. P. Zalyubovskaya showed that radio waves were causing “structural alterations” to the skin and internal organs and changing the blood and bone marrow in tests on laboratory rats and mice.
Unlike other researchers, she was testing the effects of millimeter waves, which use 30–300 GHz frequencies. This is the bandwidth harnessed by the superfast 5G network, which is being rolled out around the world and will deliver advanced computer technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI).
Zalyubovskaya also cites other researchers who had demonstrated just years earlier that EMF radiation at lower frequencies changes the function of the nervous and cardiovascular systems. She believed the increase in radio wave technology was causing a new disease that she described as “radio wave disease” but which today is better known as electrosensitivity.
But if animal studies can so easily be discounted, what was the CIA worried about, asks Aristides Tsatsakis, a toxicologist at the University of Crete, in a scientific review of the known adverse effects of 5G technology.
He writes, “What national security concerns caused the US authorities to classify these papers for 35 years? Other papers with similar findings were published in the USSR (and the USA) at that time, or even earlier, but many never saw the light of day.”1
Not in my town
Sixty mayors and officials around France are the latest to push back against the roll-out of 5G, the new superfast mobile network. They have signed a petition to prime minister Jean Castex that calls for a moratorium on building the network until its safety has been established.
They join a growing group of city officials around the world—including Rome and Florence in Italy, Portland, Oregon, and some Californian cities in the US, Bermuda, Geneva and Brussels—who are already blocking the network.
Citing the precautionary principle (see main story), they say they want absolute proof of the safety of EMF radiation before the new network is rolled out in their cities.
Not so wrong
Later attempts to raise the warning flag were quickly discredited. In 2000, physicist Bill Curry prepared a landmark report that concluded EMF radiation could penetrate into the brain and increase the risk of brain cancers known as gliomas. The higher the frequency—and the tipping point seemed to be in the bandwidths used for Wi-Fi and computer networks—the greater the penetration into brain tissue, he said.
But he got the figures wrong, other scientists countered. In fact, the higher the frequency, the weaker the signal becomes. Curry hadn’t taken into account the protective nature of our skin, which acts as a barrier against higher frequencies, said Christopher Collins at New York University.
The World Health Organization half-heartedly agreed with Curry, and classified EMFs as being “possibly carcinogenic,” or cancer-causing, but placed them in the same category as pickled vegetables, making them even less carcinogenic than red meat or coffee.
Proving Curry’s conclusion has been difficult, especially as most research into mobile safety is funded by the industry, but other research produced in recent months seems more definitive.
In one review, researchers established that radiation from cell phones is killing the insect population and is responsible for the recent decline in bees. EMFs interfere with the insects’ navigation systems, as many studies have already determined, but the researchers have also discovered the radiation disrupts their immune systems.
The evidence is overwhelming, says the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), which discovered 72 scientific papers out of the 83 they reviewed had concluded that the radiation was having a harmful impact on insects, especially bees, wasps and flies.
The radiation from mobile devices and Wi-Fi is causing the most damage. It triggers a biochemical chain reaction in the insects that disrupts their circadian rhythms and immune systems. It also disrupts their ability to navigate because it interferes with the magnetic fields the insects rely on.
The union, based in Germany, is pessimistic that anything will change. “It interferes with our daily habits and there are powerful economic interests behind mobile communications technology,” said NABU regional chairman Johannes Enssle.
In fact, the problem is likely to worsen with the introduction of 5G technology, which is around a hundred times more powerful than 4G and the earlier networks that had been monitored for the studies that NABU had reviewed.2
Cases of glioma, the type of brain cancer associated with intensive mobile phone use, have been rising in the USA, the UK, the Netherlands and Australia, states the pressure group PHIRE (Physicians’ Health Initiative for Radiation and Environment), which represents around 3,500 medical doctors.
Although correlation can’t prove causation, PHIRE claims in a new consensus statement that there is now sufficient evidence to show EMF radiation is causing a wide range of health problems, from Alzheimer’s and heart disease to infertility, and it is time for regulators to protect the public.3
It’s a view echoed by another pressure group, the 5G Appeal, which represents more than 230 doctors and scientists. In its position paper, the appeal’s authors point to the world’s largest study into the effects of EMF radiation, the US National Toxicology Program, which showed statistically significant increases in cases of brain and heart cancers in animals exposed to radiation levels well below the safety thresholds set by the ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, see box).
Perhaps there’s still no absolute proof that EMF radiation causes cancers and other health problems in people, but there is certainly enough research to suggest a more cautious approach needs to be adopted, especially as the new 5G network is ready to roll out. That approach, known as the precautionary principle, is at the heart of European law, and has also been used in Japan and by the city of San Francisco.
It places the onus on those developing a new technology or innovation to demonstrate its safety for humans, other species and the environment. The NABU study alone suggests the principle needs to be exercised, as there’s clear evidence that EMF radiation is wiping out the insect population.
But with so much money changing hands for 5G licenses—28 providers have paid out $7.5 billion in the US and nearly £2 billion has been paid to UK regulators—don’t expect the principle to be exercised any time soon. As ever, money comes before people and their health.
Unscientific and conflicted
Health regulators turn to the German agency, ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection), for setting safe levels of EMF radiation exposure.
The European Union recently announced that it will be setting safety levels for the 5G network according to the new guidelines issued by the ICNIRP last March.
But there’s something wrong with the organization, says Lennart Hardell from the Environment and Cancer Research Foundation in Sweden.1
For one, the ICNIRP accepts only the research findings that explore “thermal effects,” in other words, any damage that is caused by heat generated by a mobile device. But non-thermal effects can be just as significant, he argues, and include the cumulative effects of mobile devices, networks and Wi-Fi.
Most real-world exposure is low intensity and long term, and there’s evidence that this constant background EMF radiation could be causing cancer, reproduction problems and neurological damage.
But the major concern is the conflict of interests within the group, says Hardell. Several members belong to other organizations that may have conflicting views and concerns, and others are receiving money from the mobile phone industry directly or indirectly.
The members also have a problem understanding the science. “It is remarkable that ICNIRP is uninformed and that their writing is based on the misunderstanding of the peer-reviewed published articles,” he writes.
The group’s latest guidelines have also been criticized. Hardell quotes one from a group of 164 scientists, who said the new guidelines were “unscientific, obsolete and do not represent an objective evaluation of the available science. . . they ignore the vast amount of scientific findings that clearly and convincingly show harmful effects at intensities well below ICNIRP guidelines.”
Unscientific and conflicted
Oncol Lett, 2020; 20: 15
Toxicology Letters, 2020; 323: 35–40
Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, en.nabu.de
Physicians’ Health Initiative for Radiation and Environment, phiremedical.org