Monday, February 8, 2016

Cell phone towers ; A deadly weapon

      As if skeptics didn’t have enough to facepalm about, this recent study published in PLoSOne implies that it has identified a model in which anthropogenic (meaning, human-caused) RF emissions are enough to cause pain in amputees. It also claims to reconcile anecdata from “power lines give me a migraine” types with the overwhelming public and scientific consensus that anthropogenic RF EMFs don’t actually have adverse effects. But it fails hard at supporting its claims.

If you sift through the study, the actual hypothesis becomes clear, and it has little to do with the deeply misleading press release. Sleight-of-headline aside, the team claims that they’ve found a neuropathology that makes rats sensitive enough to RF emissions that they can feel pain from anthropogenic RF like what cell towers produce. The condition is called a neuroma: a usually-benign growth on a damaged nerve that’s already known to cause feelings of electric shocks. Neuromas are also known to contribute to phantom limb pain, which happens to amputees.

The paper says that rats with neuromas react to less than a watt per square meter of applied microwave-frequency energy. It goes on to hypothesize that this happens because neuromas have too many of a sensory receptor usually used to sense heat. Those things on their own are testable. And they’re the only things about this study that make any sense.

The study and its press release have some major problems that I invited the lead author, Dr. Mario Romero-Ortega, to discuss via email (he didn’t respond).

Above the fold, the press release rests on the personal experience of retired Maj. David Underwood, a veteran of the Iraq war whose injuries resulted in the amputation of his left arm — which he believes hurts when he drives past cell towers, or gets close to cell phones on roam. Buried below the fold in the press release, it adds that as a result of interactions with Maj. Underwood, one Dr. Mario Romero-Ortega conducted this study on rats and cell cultures in vitro. And because there exists anecdotal evidence, but no scientific consensus or human studies, Dr. Romero-Ortega opines that the results of this study in rats are “very likely” generalizable to humans.

Neuromas are known to cause neuropathic pain all on their own. The premise of this study is that the researchers injured rat sciatic nerves and gave them neuromas, and that those rats experienced pain in the presence of 915 MHz RF radiation. Why does it surprise us that rats who were already in pain from their neuromas acted like they were in pain? Why does the law of parsimony not take us back to the null hypothesis?

Besides, the numbers just don’t work. The numbers don’t even come close to working, even with extremely generous margins. To start with — the authors’ own data doesn’t actually follow the inverse square law — the RF field apparently increases with increasing distance from the source, and if they actually used the numbers they published for their model, it belies the whole idea of the RF emissions being the problem. Then, the RF dose they applied to the rat amounted to less than a third of what an iPhone 5 puts out, and not what you’d actually be getting at 40m from a cell tower broadcasting at 50W. And even assuming that the authors’ estimation of RF emissions strength over distance was correct, their own graph shows that they cherry-picked the high outlier in their data (the yellow dot among all the reds, below) to use for a representative value.

There’s a conflict of interest that’s important here, too. Dr. Romero-Ortega is a well-established neuroscientist and professor of neurology and plastic surgery — and he’s also the founder and Chief Scientific Officer for “Nerve Solutions Inc.,” a company which is currently “below the radar” because it’s having “market challenges” selling the devices he invented, including one he claims can relieve pain by limiting the formation of neuromas.

But in the RF paper, he claimed that he didn’t have any patents to disclose. Done like this, it really looks like he had a saleable idea, but realized ex post facto that he needed some science to support his marketing claims. It wouldn’t be the first time a scientist has taken real research, used it to lampshade pseudoscience, and co-opted it to turn a profit off the less scientifically literate. The university’s own press release goes on to say that their next step should be building a device people can use to block RF signals. Charging people in pain for Faraday cages to block RF signals? Either this is groundbreaking, game-changing original research that just hasn’t hit the mainstream yet, or it’s one slick infomercial removed from tinfoil hats.

Now let me be very clear. I am not trying to deride people who have unexplained problems, just because my thoughts on the etiology of the problems differs from theirs. Nor do I wish to disparage Maj. Underwood’s experiences or Dr. Romero-Ortega’s research. Amputees have experienced shocking pains since long before cell towers were conceived.

In medicine, the saying goes, pain is whatever the experiencing person says it is. Nobody’s saying amputees don’t have pain. It’s just that we are dancing on the edge of Ockham’s razor in trying to say it’s the cell towers causing pain. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a single conflicted study does not constitute extraordinary evidence. Science is supposed to be accessible to everybody. The only way we can keep it like that is by being scrupulously honest about what we can claim.


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