On June 9th an FAQ page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website regarding cell phones and human health was changed. The changes didn’t involve a lot of text, but the significance was profound.
The revised page stated, in response to the question ‘Can using a cell phone cause cancer?’ that “Along with many organizations worldwide, we recommend caution in cell phone use.” No other US government body had previously issued a precautionary statement regarding cell phone use.
The new CDC statement was also “consistent with the policies of more than a dozen national health and radiation safety agencies in developed nations around the world,” according to Joel Moskowitz, Director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California, Berkeley.
Mr. Moskowitz also runs a website about health risks from wireless devices, Electromagnetic Radiation Safety and regularly distributes press releases on related topics. It was he who first informed me of the CDC language change a couple of weeks ago.
Recently, I saw that Microwave News, which has been “reporting on the potential health and environmental impacts of electromagnetic fields and radiation” for over 30 years, had a story about the CDC change. However the story had changed and the focus was that the CDC had now removed its earlier rather mild precautionary remark. The story indicated that the CDC hadn’t responded by their deadline so no answer was available as to why the reversal happened.
So I contacted the CDC for an explanation and received a call back from Kathy Harben, a Public Affairs Specialist with the CDC. She stated that the language urging precaution was unintended and that the “CDC did not recommend caution in cell phone use.”
Here’s our conversation:
AG: Can you tell me the reasons for the initial changes (June 9 update) and then why they were reversed?
KH: “Basically what happened was, CDC and ATSDR, ATSDR is the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, our office of communication has been taking steps to ensure that the health information we have on our website is easily understood by members of the public, so we’ve been doing some plain language work. We made some changes to an original fact sheet, turned them into the FAQs on the website. And then about a month after the new language went up, there was no change in position on the part of CDC or ATSDR on the use of cell phones and health effects, so the changes that were introduced, were simply an effort to ensure that people understood what was up there. There was a feeling that the previous language was a little jargony.”
AG: “When you previous language, are you referring to prior to the June 9th change or after the June 9th change?”
KH: “Yes, uh huh, prior to the June 9th change.”
AG: “Okay, so prior to June 9, it was felt the language was confusing. The language was then changed June 9, but it has since been changed again.”
KH: “Right, and the reason is shortly after the June 9th information was posted, well not shortly after, about a month after, we started getting questions about whether CDC had changed its position. And in fact we had not. So we looked back at the process that was followed and realized that in their enthusiasm in their efforts to ensure the language was more understandable, people updated the information in a way that made it sound as though CDC’s position had changed. So we sent the revised information back through both our communications and our scientific experts and they came up with the new language.”
AG: “Could you tell me what the CDC’s position is regarding cell phone use?”
KH: “Exactly what is on our website right now. That we don’t have the science to link health problems to cell phone use.”
AG: “So the CDC no longer recommends caution in cell phone use?”
KH: “CDC did not recommend caution in cell phone use.”
AG: “Well that’s actually not what it says on the FAQ page prior to August 20 but after June 9.”
KH: “I’m sorry, say that again.”
AG: “Between June 9th and August 20th, the CDC, on the FAQ page, did recommend caution in cell phone use.”
KH: “Yes, and that was a result, we did not intend to do that. We are sorry for any confusion that resulted from our efforts to ensure we were using plain language. But unfortunately, the language that was on the website between June 9th and August 20th was not accurate.”
AG: “So the CDC does not recommend caution.”
KH: “We do not.”
AG: “Do you know any more about who it was who raised questions about the language change on June 9?
KH: “We got questions from uh a variety of people, they came in through our press office, we got some calls, um some of our scientists got calls. It wasn’t until we heard uh from people uh who are following this issue, that we knew something had uh changed.”
AG: “It wasn’t until you heard feedback about it, that you knew something had changed.”
KH: “We knew that there was um, there were efforts uh going on in a variety of areas to update language on our website to make sure that members of the general public could understand it. We did not realize that people were misinterpreting that information, until we started getting the calls.”
AG: “Misinterpreting how?”
AG: “Right now what it says is ‘some organizations recommend caution in cell phone use’ and it previously had said ‘we recommend caution in cell phone use.’
KH: “Yes, and that is exactly what we’re saying, some organizations do. The language around June 9th and after until recently, said that we recommended caution. We do not.”
AG: “You’re saying that there was confusion, there was a sense that the general public…”
KH: “Well clearly, clearly some people thought there was a very real change in CDC’s position.”
AG: “Do you have any more information about who these ‘some people’ include?
KH: “There were calls from the media, and there were some additional calls to our scientists.
So there you have it. The CDC claims that recommending caution in using your cell phone was a simple mistake, which apparently no one at CDC noticed for six weeks, and may not have if people hadn’t started asking about it. I asked a couple of professionals who have been tracking wireless radiation safety issues for some time about what the CDC told me. One claimed it was a “bunch of nonsense,” while the other stated that it didn’t make any sense given what Microwave News had already reported.
The only certainty about all of this is that the truth has not yet been revealed.