Meet the people shaping the future of science

It's good to talk


Mays Swicord spent 26 years searching for a health effect of radio-frequency radiation. He tried and tried to falsify the notion that this radiation - the kind emitted by mobile phones - has no effect. He failed. He changed sides, and for the past 8 years he has been working for the mobile phone maker Motorola. Now he is trying to convince us that mobile phones are safe, and that enough research is enough. David Cohen caught up with him when he visited London

I see you have two mobile phones on your belt...

One is for the US, and one is for travel.

Do you ever worry about radiation from them?

Never. I have probably had hour-long conversations on a mobile phone. I wouldn't worry about it in terms of health - just in terms of the discomfort of holding a phone against my head for an hour.

Have you ever had that feeling of your ear getting warm?

Well, yes. But hold your hand against your ear. It gets warm, right? It's because your ear is normally cooled by the air. Put an insulator against it, and it will warm up closer to body temperature. Older phones lost a lot of power from electric circuits heating up. Neither kind of warming comes from the radio-frequency (RF) emissions.
The standards are very conservative about that. Theoretical studies estimate the temperature rise in body tissue from RF radiation to be around 0.1 C.

Was there a crucial event that changed your attitude after all those years?

It was gradual. You don't arrive at this point by overnight conversion.

In 1984 you published a paper claiming a non-thermal effect of low-level RF radiation on DNA. What happened?

We thought we saw a change in the structure of purified DNA that varied with the frequency of the radiation we exposed it to. You would expect this kind of frequency dependence from a non-thermal effect. We got all excited about it, and so did the research community in general. Then the normal scientific process took place. Several people tried to replicate our results.

And what did they find?

Nothing. No one managed to reproduce our result. We were unable to go back and look at the work ourselves because we had moved on to looking at extremely low-frequency (ELF) radiation.

Were you disappointed?

When two or three people try to repeat your work and cannot, even if you help them with their work, even when they visit you to go over what you have done - then you have to say, "OK, it was a fluke." The scientific process always does this.

Did you find another explanation for what you saw?

Not really. We had used an old piece of equipment called a network analyser, and some people suggested the frequency dependence came from this, not the DNA. I know of no better explanation.

Did you see any work that suggested RF effects?

Let me answer that in a different way. On the World Health Organization (WHO) website you'll find a database set up by the IEEE (the US Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) containing thousands of papers, reports and reviews since 1950, all of them about non-ionising radiation in some way. Almost 1300 of them are peer-reviewed publications dealing with the issue of biological effects. Of course, a lot of them report that radiation does have an effect. But I don't know of one that is confirmed or replicated by independent researchers.

But don't people say that if so many studies by reputable researchers are reporting measurable effects, then there must be something there?

That's not the way the body of science grows. One of the reasons for trying to replicate others' findings is because you don't want to waste energy testing a prediction based on a freak result. You need a repeatable phenomenon to study. That's why, when I was at the US Food and Drug Administration, I started trying to do replication studies to get to the bottom of whether or not these were repeatable phenomena. If they were, we could build on them. But that's just not happening.

Why do you think it's not happening?

After 35 years in this business, I must conclude that there is nothing there. What else can I conclude? Even when people say, "we've found something new", you go back to that database and you'll find people have already done something related and haven't been able to prove it as a predictable phenomenon.

What about the UK government's Stewart report, which advised that children should not use phones because of the potential for developmental problems?

I don't think the Stewart report really considered all the relevant data. No one has exposed children and watched to see what happens. That would be unethical. But there is a study of prenatal RF exposure of a monkey. It wasn't a cellular telephone signal, but I really think that's immaterial; it was still in the RF range. The monkey was exposed prenatally and then throughout its young life with no effects whatsoever.

What about pregnant women?

Temperature is an issue: you would probably not want to raise the fetus's temperature. But phones just don't produce enough heating for that to happen to a significant extent. We have no indication that there are any other, non-thermal effects.

But aren't thermal effects themselves a justifiable concern?

Sure, if you heated enough. But if you run a marathon you'll find your ear can rise to 40 C. So you can take temperature increases without ill effect. With mobile phones we're talking not about degrees, but tenths of degrees of temperature rise. There are now serious attempts to really think through what temperature rise could cause a problem, but whatever it is, right now there is a safety factor.

Do you feel the same way about the new generation of 3G phones?

Well, some people say we need to do a whole new assessment because of the coming of 3G. But you can't just say, "Hey, it's a new signal, give me $50 million and let's do it." How is 3G supposed to be different from the current system? Is it the higher frequency? There have been studies across all frequencies from 400 megahertz to 2450 megahertz. Some suggest the modulation patterns that encode data on the base frequency have distinct effects. A good physicist will say it's impossible to have rectification in tissue above about 1 megahertz, therefore modulation can't make any difference. But even if it could, it's at the same levels in both systems.

You are gaining a reputation as a debunker of myths...

Really? I don't think I'm a debunker. I started my career looking for effects. I spent a lot of time cooperating on biological research to find something that could be repeated. We did one study in the millimetre-wave range, some studies in the RF range and some in the ELF range. All failed. And you could say, "Well, that's because you're a poor researcher." But I think we did quality work.

Could we be missing something obvious?

We can never prove the null hypothesis. If we took all the funds in the world and spent them on this issue, we would still have questions left over which we could pose scientifically. We can't keep driving the public to spend more money on an issue that should be brought to closure at some point.

That's quite a change for a man who a few years ago got excited by finding a potential RF effect.

It comes down to having a public conscience. We have a public responsibility because we are spending public funds. Whether the money comes through industry or through the government, we pay - either through the cost of devices or in taxes. So we have a responsibility to say when enough is enough. The public wants to know whether there is a health issue. If there isn't one, then we should stop wasting money looking for it. There are other more pressing health issues in the world. People are still starving out there.

Won't people see that as sour grapes?

Well yes, that is always a possibility. If there really were an effect, I'd have to say: "Alright, I confess my incompetence." But you have to look at what other people have done. Has anybody been able to replicate any of these findings? The answer is no. At some point we have to say: "This is it." We have to define an end.

How would you define that end?

We need to stick to the WHO research agenda. There are classical approaches to this. For example, there are standard procedures for assessing cancer risks. Most important are human studies - epidemiology. If the epidemiology is weak - which is not true for RF, there is a very large epidemiology study under way right now - then we do a lifetime study on an animal, a so-called bioassay. If those studies raise issues, then we need to clarify that with more research. If they don't raise issues then we should say: "We have enough to cover it."
I would go further, and say we should stop spending money, whether it comes from government or industry.

Why should the public trust a scientist in the pay of a company with a vested interest in selling mobile phones?

Well, you are from the UK, a country that has greater distrust of government and of industry than most others. It's not a uniquely British problem, but it is more of a problem for you than in America. I think that there is a responsibility to say: "Here's what's rational, let's stop reacting to things that don't make sense, let's go back to a scientific base, let's analyse things and come up with the appropriate approaches and appropriate answers."

But there is a perception by the public that you have a conflict of interest.

I understand that. But academic researchers also have a conflict of interest in that they want to promote their own research. So one has to look at what makes sense in terms of science, or in terms of public health. We cannot get away from who we are or who we work for. We have to ask just what scientific process should be followed.

Can you blame the public if they take a "better safe than sorry" attitude?

We have to go to a neutral forum, the WHO. If the public don't take advice from the public health officials, then who are they going to take advice from? The public have to realise that everyone has some sort of conflict of interest. It's our responsibility to educate the public that it is through the scientific process that the truth will emerge, not through the political process, which serves special interests.

Do you see yourself as a reluctant campaigner?

Trying to deal with science issues with the general public becomes more political than scientific in terms of how you phrase things, how you put things forward. It's a bit of an uncomfortable situation for me. I would much prefer to go sit in the laboratory and get back to twiddling knobs and working out equations. I am not longing to become a politician, though I may do some day. I wouldn't rule anything out.


This interview was first published in New Scientist print edition