CBC MARKETPLACE: HEALTH » CELLPHONE
Controversy at IARC
Broadcast: November 25, 2003
A few years ago, there was a flap over something
called DEHP. It’s found in IV bags, blood bags and tubing
of all kinds. DEHP makes plastic soft, pliable and strong.
It was found to cause problems in rats, including infertility.
After a full review, IARC decided to downgrade
the risk of cancer from DEHP. That opened the door for more
For Lorenzo Tomatis, the downgrading of DEHP
was a clear sign IARC had let industry
get too close to the science.
He and 30 other scientists from around the world decided to
go public with their fears saying that allowing industry representatives
to take part in IARC's decisions about what is cancerous "compromises
public health" and that scientific papers showing a possible
link to cancer had been
"ignored or intentionally suppressed."
"If you delete a suspicion of a risk,"
Tomatis said, "you give full green light and that may
create a special danger for the public."
Paul Kleihues took over from Tomatis as head
of IARC. He says these critics always see industry as the
enemy of public health.
"If they don't have scientific reasons
they suggest a conflict of interest of industry or participants
that have a vested interest. We do not believe that any of
our recent decisions was ultimately influenced by industry."
Kleihues rejected the accusation and then barred
Lorenzo Tomatis from ever re-entering the building.
"He told me I was persona non grata and
had me escorted out by two witnesses from the building saying
I was not allowed to come back…I think even Saddam Hussein
could go back into IARC but not me. I found it totally absurd
because it was a disagreement on the interpretation of scientific
"We did not ban him because of a scientific
disagreement," Peter Kleihues said. "What
is not acceptable is that
he questions our integrity, our striving for scientific truth.
If scientific truth is no longer our guiding principle, we’d
better close this whole place down."
does this squabbling mean for the cellphone study and for
those of us who use a cellphone? The critics are accusing
IARC of not trying hard enough to keep industry money and
influence away from the science. Marketplace wondered
whether industry money could be influencing IARC's study on
cellphones, especially in Canada.
Dan Krewski, of the McLaughlin Centre for
Population Health Risk Assessment at the University of Ottawa,
is one of Canada's lead scientists for the IARC study.
"This’ll be the largest study of
brain cancer ever conducted and will give us the opportunity
to really look in detail for small risks with cellular technology."
Krewski has about a million dollars to fund
his part of the IARC research.
Most of it came from the Canadian Wireless
and Telecommunications Association — the cellphone industry
approached the CWTA through Roger Poirier who at the time
was president and CEO of the organization."
Poirier's the man who said studies into the
cellphones and cancer risks showed “…no adverse
The current head of the association is Peter
Barnes. He says the million dollars his lobby group is giving
to Krewski's centre has no strings attached.
"I mean we basically sign a cheque every
year for five years, we committed to that, and apart from
knowing that the money is being used for the research that’s
the extent of our involvement."
IARC told Marketplace that Canada
is the only one of 13 countries in the study to receive funding
directly from the cellphone industry.
Marketplace's research found that the
CWTA and its members invested $1 million to help establish
the R. Samuel McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk
Assessment at the University of Ottawa — where Dan Krewski
is doing his cellphone research.
Krewski's centre gets the cheques directly from
the CWTA. But to get the relationship stamped officially "arm's
length," he had to get the deal reviewed by the Canadian
Institutes of Health Research, which also threw in $220,000
of government money.
According to IARC guidelines, this funding has
to be indirect - so it went through the CIHR. That makes the
funding not directly connected to the industry.
The study is not Krewski's only link to the
cellphone industry. If you search the web for information
about cellphones, you might come across the Wireless Information
Resource Centre — paid for by the CWTA.
Krewski chairs the Wireless Information Resource
Centre's scientific advisory group. Roger Poirier — former
head of the CWTA — administers the web site. Another
link between the cellphone scientist and the cellphone lobby:
Poirier — the man who negotiated the million-dollar
deal — is a paid consultant on the big cellphone study
When we reached Poirier by phone, he told us
his involvement with the cellphone study is minor and purely
technical. He didn't want to talk to us on camera.
Krewski described Poirier's involvement as "a
"He puts us in contact with the right people
when we need info on technical aspects of cell phones for
the WHO study…He doesn't see scientific results, he
does not participate in scientific meetings."
A chart we produce for Krewski shows the same
names and links popping up frequently.
"I can see how you could get that sort
of perception there may be something leading to some sort
of complications here, but if you actually look at the roles
of the organizations and agencies that you’ve got on
your chart and what they’re actually doing, the industry,
clearly, both in Canada and internationally, is hands off,"
But it wasn't that clear in Europe. The scientists
at IARC say the European cellphone industry did try to negotiate
more influence over that end of the study.
"So we wanted not only to avoid any bias,
but we didn't want to get any involvement with an industry
which then doesn't like the results and tries all kinds of
things," IARC's Peter Kleihues said.
Kleihues told us industry reps came knocking
as the negotiations on the study were happening.
"They wanted to give us the money. They
said 'enlarge, do more, you will be happy because we are so
much interested, we are under pressure, we would like a bigger
and better study,' and we said 'no, it’s not possible,
we can’t accept the money.'"
"Yeah, basically we refused until a contract
was drawn up that ensured we had no strings
attached," research scientist Elisabeth Cardis said.
That means there is still industry funding in Europe, but
a third party administers the money. In Canada, the industry
money goes to Dan Krewski's centre.
"We are trying very hard through various mechanisms to
make sure that everything is going well in the countries to
review…to see what mechanisms have been set up. We have
been preparing declarations of interest for example; we’ve
been documenting sources. We’re getting copies of all
the contracts. If we feel that any centre has a potential conflict
of interest, that centre’s not going to be included in
the international analysis," Cardis said.
adds the connections involved with the
Canadian part of the study don't seem to be a conflict of
interest to her. But her boss — IARC chief Paul Kleihues
— does seem concerned about our findings.
"Well, I think this is a reason for concern.
Industry doesn't give you a free lunch usually. That means
industry expects something back for any money they do, and
I think we must look into this. It's a matter of concern and
we must find out if it's sufficient reason to exclude that
branch of the study or not."
Kleihues goes on to say that as far as he can
see, the Canadian part of the study appears to have been set
up carefully, to follow the rules.
As we kept digging, we discovered that not only
does the Canadian cellphone lobby pay for a chunk of Krewski's
research at the University of Ottawa, it also has an impact
on his salary. We learned that the CWTA money unleashes government
money that goes towards Krewski's salary. Krewski says these
arrangements are all above board.
The head of IARC - Paul Kleihues told us he
was reviewing for possible conflicts of interest the contracts
people like Krewski had signed. He said no decisions or changes
would be made until an IARC meeting in mid-December.
As for the study itself — it won't be
complete for a couple of years. So get ready for another long
wait before we get any definitive answer on that old riddle
over cellphones and cancer.
All cellphones in Canada meet the basic radiation
safety guidelines. But anyone concerned about exposure can
take a couple of steps to limit it:
- When you see only one or two bars on your
phone's display, it means the signal is weak and your phone
is trying harder to connect with the tower. That's when
radiation is highest. Wait until all the bars are there
for less radiation.
- Radiation is also higher when you first place
a call, as your phone seeks a connection. If you wait until
the call has connected, your exposure will be lower.
- Keep your calls short — shorter calls
means less exposure.