I have nothing to declare but my cheekiness

May 20th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dangers, electrosensitivity, medicalisation, patrick holford, powerwatch - alasdair philips, scare stories, very basic science | 121 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday May 20, 2006
The Guardian

I am routinely accused, in long and angry letters, of being in the pay of the pharmaceutical industry, the mobile phone industry, and the government. Needless to say I lap it up, and would never engage in similarly ad hominem attacks in return, since critiques of character and finance are a poor substitute for a sober analysis of the data.

Oh go on then.

Let’s say you were worried your health was being harmed by electromagnetic radiation, a notion that the newspapers are currently very keen to promote, with little heed to the facts, as we saw last week. Where would you turn?

Powerwatch might be your first step: they are quoted widely in the newspapers, after all. In 2000, in the Daily Telegraph, they estimated that “up to one in 100 people suffers from mild electrosensitivity, which can cause nausea, migraines, disorientation and blackouts.” By 2005 in the Daily Mail this had risen dramatically: “campaign group Powerwatch believes up to five per cent of the population is severely affected by electrosensitivity.”

When you got to their website, you’d pay £28 to sister organisation “EMFields”, run from the same address, to get full access to their vast array of complex scientific material. This might lead you to believe in the need to shield your house out. Luckily they can help you there too.

You’ll want to start with EMFields carbon screening paint, at £50.99 a litre: “one coat of this specialist paint stops over 99.9% of incoming radiation (900 MHz – 18,000 MHz)”. You’d get 3 square meters per litre on rough plaster. Oh golly. That’s an awful lot of very expensive paint. And then you’ll have to earth it all. With their £25 earthing kits. What about the curtains? You’ll need screening material at £43.94 a meter. Don’t forget the doors. Or any vents. Maybe you’ll want to fill the gaps. With foil tape. At £10.50 a roll.

I’m sure they’re well intentioned. But I do think we’re spotting a theme here: the people selling us the idea that we have a medical problem often, at the same time, seem to be selling the solution. Pharmaceutical companies promote Night Eating Syndrome and Female Sexual Arousal Disorder, offering Sertraline and Sildenafil to treat them. Patrick Holford reckons that 50% of you have hidden food allergies, or nutritional deficiencies, which he can treat with his books and tablets.

Meanwhile I have nothing to declare but my cheekiness, and if I was very worried about the mobile phone network being a danger to health – which could well turn out to be the case – the first thing I would do is campaign to make my own mobile phone operator erect their mast as close to my house as possible.

Pay attention. The one thing that people who worry about the health risks of mobile phone masts tend to forget is the inverse square law: the power of the signal falls away extremely rapidly as you move away from the mast, much faster than you’d think, exponentially in fact, because the energy is dissipated and spread out in 3 dimensions like a big, ever-growing sphere. A bit like how the skin of a balloon gets thinner, the more you inflate it.

Meanwhile you’re holding a dirty great big transmitter right up next to your brain in the form of your mobile phone. In fact, because of the inverse square law, the phone gives you a far higher dose of evil rays than the mast. Go on, press it harder, I can’t quite hear you. But mobile phones, very cleverly, preserve their battery life by transmitting a much weaker signal into the air (and therefore also your head) when they detect that a mast is very close by. If you have a phone, it’s in your interest to have it transmit at the lowest power it can manage, which means a strong signal from the mast, which means the mast is on your street. I don’t expect you all to start campaigning at once.

Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

121 Responses

  1. Hector Ballast said,

    May 25, 2006 at 11:10 pm

    Useful answer but the MW is in the bin….the issue of the leaking cropped uo indirectly in a discussion about screening materials – I was only having this discussion because others seemed endlessly fascinated by it. It even seems more interesting than all the evidence about phone masts Ben is ignoring.

  2. coracle said,

    May 26, 2006 at 8:46 am

    Well Hector, do you have some proper references for Ben to look at?

    The TNO study is of no use by its own admission, I’ve been unable to find Wolf or Oberfeld and I’m not inclined to look for the others if they haven’t been published.

    Come on, you know what we need: journal, date, volume number, page number, author, title

  3. chillycold said,

    May 26, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    As one of the members of the evil tribe whose function it is to try an obtain planning permission for mobile phone masts. With the most enjoyable role of sitting in planning committee listening to the well researched and unbiased soundly based objections from resident and councillors to mobile phone mast which mean we only get sites by wasting tax payers money and forcing that government agency that is the planning inspectorate to give us permission despite the fair and democratic process that resulted in a refusal

    I have often wondered when I am accused of risking the next ten generations of young Briton with cancer brain tumours etc why when the scientific evidence is so clear what harm am doing why do these thoughtful and obviously concerned parents continue to buy their delightful progeny mobile phones and upgrades. I can only assume it is down to the subliminal sales technique used by that possibly more hated sector known as advertising that is whipping the children up to such a state that the parent are willing to allow their little darlings to risk death by using mobile phone.

  4. Hector Ballast said,

    May 26, 2006 at 2:35 pm

    Hi chillycold

    You dont offer any info – Is your post just a moan? Nothing wrong with that. What do you say to this:-

    [Parents should read: 20 expert warnings on mobiles/child safety www.emfacts.com/papers/children_mobiles.pdf%5D

    Anyway, as I understand it, mobile operators don’t usually listen to anything about health, well-researched or not. Any question, statement, document or pile of folders related to public health concerns is answered by the same misleading reference to thermal safety limits that are irrelevant to these concerns. No wonder its dull.

    Re: putting children at risk etc

    To alleviate the accusations you describe, why not stay awake long enough to take some of the well researched and unbiased soundly based objections you have heard in the planning committees, including evidence of health effects from mobiles, and start giving it out to parents and children, instead of Disney adverts and free ring tones and other devices to market the technology to children.. Stop putting masts near schools and on top of hospitals and baby wards. You might start to feel much better !


  5. monty28 said,

    May 26, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    just sitting back and admiring my £1318.23 beautiful new paint/curtain combo….

  6. monty28 said,

    May 26, 2006 at 4:15 pm

    oww just got a shock…

    it’s a con – leave it alone!

  7. Michael Harman said,

    May 26, 2006 at 7:14 pm

    Hector Ballast (post 112) refers to an Australian study, emfacts, which summarizes “20 expert warnings”. Looking at item 10:

    … a small unpublished Spanish study, examining changes in brain activity after a child uses a mobile phone. … The subjects were an 11-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl. Using a CATEEN scanner, linked to a machine measuring brain wave activity, researchers were able to make photographic images of the changes in brain electrical activity. … “We were able to see in minute detail what was going on in the brain. …”

    I don’t know what a CATEEN scanner is, though I assume it’s some sort of CAT scanner. What sort of fields does that expose the subjects to? I guess a great deal stronger than the fields from a mobile phone. And what sort of safety evaluation has been done on CATEEN scanners, particularly when used on children? How does that evaluation compare with the sort of concerns which have been raised, on grounds of varying degrees of plausibility, to mobile phones?

    I think there’s a case for being more concerned about the two subjects of that study than about mobile phone users generally, or even children in particular.

  8. Hector Ballast said,

    May 27, 2006 at 11:20 pm

    The ESC could certainly bring on a psychosomatic illness in me. But thankfully, it doesn’t pick up radio waves. Its a microwave monitor – useful to tell you for example where mast signals are lowest in your house. Or how to dodge signals from their neighbours cordless (if you’re that way inclined). You can also tell GSM, 3G and Tetra mast signals apart which is useful for some people.

  9. Ben Goldacre said,

    May 28, 2006 at 1:28 am

    just got this excellent email from Rod Read, the head of Electrosensitivity, more than happy to print it as he requests:

    “Re: Disgusting Ben Goldacre

    Oh dear, this is turning nasty,

    several times it has been suggested by your Joseph Harker I should write a letter, so lets have you print it.

    Rattled old Ben Goldacre down in the gutter again, such a high-falutin scientist when he can make the facts fit, and down in the gutter when it pleases him if they won’t.

    And paid to have his high and mighty pedestal, to swing left and right, by you.

    So he offends hundreds with insults and innuendo, then, when his nose is pushed in the evidence and he wobbles, acknowledging risks “the mobile phone network being a danger to health – which could well turn out to be the case”, but hey retrieve it, with a mass smear none of us can know to be true. Like a squid retreating in a cloud of stinky gas to cover his passage.

    We do know he had many genuine accounts of electro-sensitive illness sent in. What about Brian Stein then Ben? Explain away his lucid detailed account of how he runs a 500 million pound a year company, with an electricity-free office, because of what heavy mobile use did, and does, to his health. Oh no. Pick one wishing you get cancer, an emotional response to insult, far more ‘scientific’. Now I am into sarcasm, that is what it does to you, dealing with those down in the intellectual gutter.

    Off he goes disdainfully holding his nose in the air, he disgusts many of us with his chicanery deceit and double standards. No wonder some blow their tops..and you pay him, ugh.

    Yours sincerely

    Rod Read”

  10. JQH said,

    May 28, 2006 at 3:55 pm

    Glad to see Rod Read is using calm, rational analysis of the data as opposed to Ben’s insults and innuendo…..

  11. Delster said,

    May 29, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    As far as microwaves leaking radiation goes.

    What you have is a device that is designed to produce a form of moderatly penetrating EM emmission which induces a thermal effect in objects placed within the effective area (ie inside the thing)

    To totally shield the devise to prevent all leakage would entail much thicker shielding all round and probably some kind of double door affair as well and probable reinforcing your worktop to take the weight.

    We had a microwave oven back in about 1980-2 i think it was and we were warned, when purchasing it, that there was a small amout of leakage and simply to not be in very close proximity while it was working…. so if you don’t go pressing your eyeballs to the glass you should be just fine!

    The emmission that escapes the shielding is very low and when combined with the inverse square rule means you would probably have to be continually leaning on the glass while it was running for extended periods on multiple occasions to do more than discomfort the occasional skin cell… which are dead anyway!

  12. AJH said,

    June 2, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    If you use, as I did last year, an AV sender to watch Sky in the kitchen, it goes screwy when the microwave is on. Clear evidence of leakage in the 2.4GHz spectrum I’d have thought.

  13. Delster said,

    June 2, 2006 at 1:28 pm


    microwave ovens have a transformer in them i believe…. so it could be the pesky magnetic fields from that……

  14. topazg said,

    July 24, 2006 at 12:35 pm

    Sorry about the long delay in finding this thread :

    @ JQH (post 13): We will soon be posting full details of how we performed screening measurement on the Powerwatch website.

    @ Frank (post 16): We know Grahame Blackwell personally, and I think it is fairly likely that he will answer any questions you have directly, instead of just criticising his lack of open evidence on here which he probably will not see. He may not, but it is certainly worth a try.

    @ Hector (post 28): The piece of equipment used for measuring wasn’t an Acousti-com, but a spectrum analyser from Anritsu (MS2721A – retails at about 10,000 pounds) which gives exceptional data recording and logging facilities. Again, this wil be part of the write up of the screening measurements.

    @ Hector (post 47): As mentioned above, it wasn’t a hand-held meter we used, but a considerably more sophisticated piece of measuring equipment.

    @ Robert (post 120): The acousti-com is not a standard retail AM radio receiver, (though I guess it is retail of some description as EMFields sell it), but works by converting incoming pulsed signals across a set Microwave frequency band into an analogue audio output. It was designed by Powerwatch.

    We will happily answer any technical or scientific questions regarding any of this subject or related ones for those still watching the thread.

    Best Regards,
    – Graham

  15. ttrtilley said,

    October 31, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    I want my cellphone (and my students phones) to not ring during class. High school science taught me that putting the phones in a metal box would prevent them from ringing However, Andy is right. Never trust a Faraday Cage. I tried cleaning the paint off the overlapping lid seal. Still rang. I put in a bottle of water. Still rang. Put the box, phone and all, inside the microwave oven. Silence. Similarly for box with phone inside stainless steel roastpan. Nesting cheap Faraday cages is easier for me than trying something exotic and expensive. All I need is a bigger biscuit box. Or paint my classroom with that conducting paint 🙂

  16. topazg said,

    November 7, 2006 at 3:57 pm

    It is almost impossible to stop a phone from ringing, as they are capable of working (receiving signal at least) at astonishingly low levels. Certainly the material we provide will not stop a phone from receiving a call inside, though making a phone call inside would rather defeat the object of the screening – However, it does make an enormous reduction to the field strengths that a number of sensitive people find very helpful.

    Best Regards,
    – Graham

  17. ttrtilley said,

    December 2, 2006 at 6:21 pm

    Success! I have found a metal box with 2 lids. If both the inner and outer lids are properly closed, then the phone does not ring. Written on the box is: “Starbucks Eggrolls”, “Printed in Hong Kong”, and a bunch of Chinese characters.

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