TruePublica recently ran a piece highlighting the most censored stories in Britain. One story that never made it into the mainstream media or even any independent media outlets in the UK at the time was the disbanding of the UK Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR) in May 2017. This followed the revelation in December 2016 that AGNIR’s latest assessment of the science on the health impacts of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs)—the type emitted by modern wireless technologies—was inaccurate and subject to conflicts of interest, a story that elicited no media interest in the UK either.
AGNIR’s role was to provide Public Health England with objective, science-based recommendations and advice on safe public exposure levels to man-made RF-EMFs. PHE is the agency from which the devolved UK nations take their advice, and other public health agencies from around the world also referred to AGNIR’s recommendations.
In 2012 AGNIR published what turned out to be its last report: Health Effects from Electromagnetic Fields (RCE-20).
The report’s executive summary included the following definitive-sounding statement on RF-EMF safety: ‘Taken together, these studies provide no evidence of health effects of RF field exposures below internationally accepted guideline levels.’
While this conclusion might appear to justify the dissolution last year of AGNIR, close examination reveals that the final AGNIR report was a partial one—in every sense of the word.
In December 2016 UK neuroscientist Dr Sarah J. Starkey published a peer-reviewed paper, ‘Inaccurate official assessment of radiofrequency safety by the Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation’, roundly criticising the AGNIR report.
Accuracy, Starkey pointed out, ‘is vital when most people only read the executive summary and overall conclusions from a 348-page report and national and international public health decisions and exposure levels are based on them’ (p. 494).
In reality, as Starkey demonstrates, the conclusions drawn by AGNIR did not accurately reflect the scientific evidence available: the report contained ‘incorrect and misleading statements’ and omitted significant quantities of relevant research.
For some reason, AGNIR set the cut-off date for research to be considered in its report as December 2010. This meant that it excluded reference to the classification in May 2011 of RF-EMFs as a 2B possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and to a paper by the IARC Monograph Working Group published in The Lancet in July 2011.
It is clear, however, that AGNIR’s official cut-off date was not always adhered to: for example, a paper co-authored by one of its members (Maria Feychting) and published in 2011 was included in the report. This paper concluded that there was no causal association between mobile phone use and brain tumours in children and adolescents. Including this ‘no-effect’ paper while excluding reference to the IARC classification might be considered an instance of ‘cherry-picking’.
Indeed, in her study Starkey notes that the executive summary and overall conclusions of the AGNIR report disregarded or excluded much of the evidence of harm to health from RF-EMFs (p. 493).
For example, although 78% of the studies cited on male fertility described significant adverse effects on sperm, male reproductive organs or changes in male testosterone concentrations, AGNIR’s conclusion was that there was ‘no convincing evidence that low-level exposure results in any adverse outcomes on testicular function’ (p. 495).
Starkey’s painstaking analysis of the way AGNIR’s review of the science had been conducted made clear that the report was unsuitable for determining safe public exposure levels, and her conclusion didn’t mince words: ‘Public health and the well-being of other species in the natural world cannot be protected when evidence of harm, no matter how inconvenient, is covered up’ (p. 500).
Starkey’s criticism of the accuracy of the AGNIR report was echoed by Dariusz Leszczynski, an expert on RF-EMFs from the University of Helsinki and a member of the IARC panel that classified RF-EMFs as a 2B possible human carcinogen. Describing reading the report as ‘surreal’, Leszczynski wrote that it appeared that ‘the authors would either not understand the studies they read or had pre-written conclusions. It was like reading a wish list written by someone claiming that there [are] not and will never be any problems related to cell phone exposures.’ He condemned the report as misleading, pointing out that it is ‘not a comprehensive review [as it claimed to be] but it is a biased review.’
According to the British Medical Journal’s website, biases in reviewing science and in conclusions reached can be considered scientific misconduct: the definition of falsification of data ranges from ‘fabrication to deceptive selective reporting of findings and omission of conflicting data, or willful suppression and/or distortion of data.’
Could AGNIR’s partial assessment of the evidence be considered scientific misconduct? Might the omissions and inaccuracies in the report having been brought to light by Starkey’s paper account—at least in part—for AGNIR’s sudden demise, just six months later?
AGNIR’s conflict of interest
As Starkey points out, the AGNIR report also was subject to conflict of interest: AGNIR’s chair, Anthony Swerdlow, and two of its members—Maria Feychting and Zenon Sienkiewicz—were also members of the controversial International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), whose contested RF-EMF exposure guidelines have been adopted by most of the western world, including the UK. In fact, in 2012 Swerdlow was chair of AGNIR and simultaneously chair of the ICNIRP standing committee on epidemiology.
There is an obvious conflict of interest in allowing scientists who are members of the body pronouncing on safe exposure guidelines to sit also on panels tasked with evaluating the science relating to the adequacy of the guidelines.
As Starkey asks:
‘How can AGNIR report that the scientific literature contains evidence of harmful effects below the current guidelines when several of them are responsible for those guidelines?’ (p. 493).
In a recent article George Monbiot pointed out that governments determine the conclusions of reviews in advance through the appointments they make to panels. Although AGNIR was represented as an ‘independent’ advisory body, Starkey revealed that 43% of its members were from the Health Protection Agency (now Public Health England), the government health agency which commissioned the report, and from the Department of Health. AGNIR could therefore hardly be thought of as ‘independent’.
Furthermore, ICNIRP and AGNIR’s Swerdlow and Feychting are both recognised as ‘leading sceptics’ about the existence of adverse health effects from RF-EMFs, while another member of AGNIR, psychiatrist James Rubin, has published a number of studies all concluding that RF-EMFs cause no adverse health effects.
Swerdlow and his wife also hold shares in wireless and telecommunications companies, an interest he declared in a 2011 paper downplaying brain tumour risks from mobile phone use, but such a disclosure did not feature in the AGNIR report. (The BMJconsiders ‘failures of transparency to be forms of misconduct’.)
In 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists published an important report called Heads They Win, Tails We Lose. How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public’s Expense. Noting that ‘Government agencies rely on independent scientific advisory panels to provide objective advice’, the report revealed that ‘panel members often have undisclosed financial conflicts of interest: ties to companies that stand to win or lose based on the findings of these advisory committees.’ Surely having a personal financial stake in a company while being responsible for assessing the safety of the technology developed and commercialised by that company constitutes a serious conflict of interest requiring disclosure.
Any queries addressed to governments or public health bodies in the UK about the safety of wireless technologies continue to be dismissed through reference to the ‘authoritative’ AGNIR report from 2012. Recent research, however, has strengthened IARC’s 2011 classification of RF-EMFs as a 2B carcinogen.
In 2015 the replication of a German animal study from 2010 confirmed that the incidence of carcinogen-induced tumours (lung and liver) in mice was significantly higher with RF-EMF exposure. Lead author Alexander Lerchl (Jacobs University, Bremen) stated in a press release:
‘Our results show that electromagnetic fields obviously enhance the growth of tumours.’ Lymphomas, he observed, were also found to be significantly elevated by exposure. In the study,the authors noted: ‘The fact that both studies found basically the same tumour-promoting effects at levels below the accepted (and in most countries legally defined) exposure limits for humans is worrying.’
This conclusion was given added salience by the fact that Alexander Lerchl had previously been an outspoken sceptic regarding the existence of health effects from RF-EMFs.
Earlier this year, a $25m animal study on RF-EMFs—one of the world’s biggest to date—by the US National Toxicology Program (NTP) underwent peer-review. The peer-review panel concluded that the case-control study showed ‘clear evidence of carcinogenic activity’ (exposed rats developed rare heart tumours), and confirmed ‘some evidence’ of a link between RF-EMFs and brain cancer.
The findings made by the Bremen team and the NTP should contribute to a revision of permitted public RF-EMF exposure limits. The formulation of adequately protective public health policies requires the existence of an expert panel such as AGNIR—albeit with radically reformed membership and true scientific independence.
Following the disbanding of AGNIR, the assessment of health risks from RF-EMFs is now the responsibility of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE), another expert committee which is supposed to provide ‘independent’ advice about the health impacts of both ionising and non-ionising radiation.
The UK government website states that COMARE has a watching brief on non-ionising radiation and that Public Health England ‘remains committed to delivering expert review reports on non-ionising radiation topics as and when sufficient new evidence has accumulated.’ No review of research on non-ionising RF-EMFs appears to be on the horizon in COMARE’s work programme for 2018-19, the main focus of which remains ionising radiation.
In a lecture given at the National Education Union Conference in Northern Ireland, in May 2018, Starkey pointed out that the conflict of interest associated with membership of ICNIRP also exists for COMARE. The person responsible for deciding whether to advise COMARE to look at any new evidence of health impacts was an author of the inaccurate AGNIR report and is also a member of ICNIRP’s Scientific Expert Group.
There needs to be an expert advisory group independent of AGNIR, ICNIRP, the wireless communications industry and UK governments. Starkey is calling for the inaccurate 2012 AGNIR report (and government advice based on it) to be retracted and for there to be mechanisms put in place whereby incorrect government information can be corrected or removed, as can occur for peer-reviewed published scientific papers.
While evidence of adverse health effects from RF-EMF exposure below guideline levels continues to accumulate, chronic public exposure to RF-EMFs is also increasing: smart meters are being installed across the UK at the moment and the government is forging ahead with the development and deployment of 5G. Last year it awarded £16m to the universities of Surrey and Bristol and to Kings College, London, to develop and test new 5G networks. (These experimental test-beds appear to include no provision for assessing risks to public health, though ‘commercial risks’ are considered.)
As a scientific appeal of September 2017 made clear, 5G deployment will lead to a massive increase in mandatory exposure to RF-EMFs. Over 180 scientists from 35 countries called for a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G technology in the EU until potential hazards for human health and the environment have been fully investigated by scientists independent from industry.
A similar appeal was addressed this year to the new Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres (an electrical engineer and former university professor of systems theory and telecommunications signals). Both appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
In this context of increasing public exposure to RF-EMFs, it seems strange indeed to decide that it is ‘no longer viable to support a dedicated standing advisory group to address non-ionising radiation.’
With 5G on the horizon, surely a dedicated, truly independent expert advisory group on RF-EMFs is now more necessary than ever.
Perhaps disbanding ANGIR can be understood as a clumsy bid to pre-empt any discredit or further criticism of AGNIR after the publication of Starkey’s study, despite the latter’s being ignored by the UK media.
Yet closing down AGNIR on the grounds that it had ‘completed its work’ also suggests that the UK government considers—or, more likely, wants—the case to be closed as far as RF-EMFs and health effects are concerned, something that clears the way for the planned deployment of 5G and other so-called ‘smart’ wireless technologies.
George Monbiot recently pointed out that ‘Agencies of the state, newspapers and broadcasters, campaign groups and charities that claim to restrain corporate power fall under its spell.’ Consequently, he noted, their ‘mission becomes confused and their purpose dissipates.’
Far from holding the government and public health agencies to account as they like to claim, the vast majority of the UK media—including outlets that think of themselves as independent—appears to be complicit in turning a blind eye to this vital public health and environmental issue by failing to cover stories such as AGNIR’s dissolution and its inaccurate assessment of the safety of RF-EMF exposures. As a result, the UK public remains largely ignorant of the real health risks that come with the convenience of wireless.
Annelie Fitzgerald is a member of the Safe Schools Information Technology Alliance. SSITA recently sent an open letter to Education Secretary Damian Hinds on the subject of AGNIR’s inaccurate conclusions about the safety of RF-EMF exposure, particularly as they relate to children’s health and well-being.