From asbestos to cell phones, Devra Lee Davis warns of potential public-health crises.
By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07
Illustration by Richard Thompson
In March epidemiologist Devra Lee Davis, PhD’72, testified before the Maine legislature about the need for clearer warning labels on cell phones, similar to those on cigarette packages. She had advised Democratic Maine Representative Andrea Boland, who led the campaign. The current fine-print warnings—as of spring 2010, for example, the BlackBerry 8300 recommended keeping the phone 0.98 inches from the user’s body—weren’t enough, Boland argued. The congresswoman’s suggested warning would read, “This device emits electromagnetic radiation, exposure to which may cause brain cancer. Users, especially pregnant women and children, should keep away from the head and body.”
The bill never made it out of committee, despite testimony from people like Davis and Californian Mindy Brown, whose husband died of a brain tumor after thousands of hours of cell-phone use. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and Maine Governor John Baldacci—who had “spearheaded wireless and broadband development across the state”—both opposed the bill, Davis writes in Disconnect: The Truth Behind Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family (Dutton), due out in late September.
Davis has spent her career educating the public about environmental and chemical dangers, leading programs at the National Academy of Sciences and the World Resources Institute, among others. She’s warned against asbestos, hormone-replacement therapy, radiation from mammograms, aspartame. Still, she says during a landline interview, “there’s no need to be an alarmist. It’s a big, complicated society; there are things we can do.”
Some of those actions are at the individual level. A February GQ feature, “Warning: Your Cell Phone May Be Hazardous To Your Health,” asked Davis how readers could shield themselves from radiation “bombarding [them] at every turn.” Use a speakerphone or an earpiece, Davis suggested, to put distance between the phone and the brain.
Other actions are broader. The former director of the first environmental-oncology center, at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Davis has advised legislators on the right-to-know proposals recently passed in San Francisco; Jackson, Wyoming; and Toronto, which require retailers to display radiation levels of wireless devices at the point of sale.
As an epidemiologist and a historian of science, Davis has seen a recurring model in public-health crises that she hopes to break with cell phones. First come reports that a particular population has the same illness. Then animal studies attempt to show that what’s happening “is somehow not related to their exposure.” Then, says Davis, “more and more people die,” and eventually society admits there’s a problem.
Take cigarettes, she says. It took scientists more than 40 years to agree that they were dangerous. Filters appeared in the early 1950s. In 1964 the surgeon general released a report linking smoking with lung cancer and emphysema, but tobacco companies continued to fund research that yielded contradictory findings. The Food and Drug Administration didn’t get full power to regulate tobacco until 2009. In her 2007 book The Secret History of the War on Cancer (Basic Books), Davis calls the lag in action created by purposely obfuscating research “the science of doubt promotion.”
With cell phones, an issue Davis first took up in 2003, it’s uncertain whether their radiation levels will cause long-term damage. The World Health Organization’s 13-country Interphone report, based on ten years of research and released in May, found no increased risk of cancer overall. But the report also found that people who talk for more than 30 minutes a day are 40 percent more likely to develop brain gliomas, a type of tumor. In a May Huffington Post column, Davis noted some flaws in the research design: for example, the study evaluated outdated technology and included no children or teenagers. Scientists’ primary take-away from the Interphone report: more research is needed. “The absence of research has become part of the rationale,” Davis writes in Disconnect, “for making no changes in the meantime.”
Industry, government, and scientists—funded by pharmaceutical or chemical companies—all deflect blame, Davis says, by distorting research results to suggest uncertainty. But “disagreements are inherent in science,” she wrote in 2007 on the Freakonomics blog, “and should not be misconstrued to mean there is no problem.”
Davis’s nonprofit foundation, the Environmental Health Trust, started in 2007, aims to give citizens as much information as possible. The trust is based in Teton County, Wyoming, where Davis, 64, and her husband, Richard Morgenstern, spend a lot of time. In addition to the “beautiful physical environment,” says Davis, who’s also a visiting professor at New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, there’s an “inclination of people who are here to think about” the issues she’s interested in. She’s worked with local retailers to make discounted cell-phone headsets available and holds standing-room-only talks at local libraries. “It’s a small enough community, and well-informed enough, to get things done.”
She compares Teton County to Washington, DC, where she and her husband live most of the year—Morgenstern is the former director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Policy Analysis. There, she says, it’s hard to bring concerns like cell-phone safety to the forefront “because the big issues of climate change and health-care reform make everything else pale in importance.”
Other countries, meanwhile, have already adopted cell-phone policies. In 2008 Israel’s Ministry of Health published guidelines for using mobile phones safely, recommending hands-free devices. France has banned advertising cell phones aimed at children under 14, and both Wales’s chief medical officer and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency recommend that children limit their usage to texting, not calling.
With three young grandchildren, Davis is particularly attuned to cell phones’ effect on growing brains. Kids are more vulnerable to toxic exposures, she writes in Disconnect, so if cell phones are bad for adults, they’re worse for kids. Requiring scientific proof of human harm to take precautionary action is unethical regarding children, Davis argues. The “guiding principle,” she says, should be “it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Davis believes the cell-phone industry can create better, safer technology. Even beyond cell phones, we’re in the midst of “a revolution in green chemistry,” she says. “People all over the world are coming up with safer ways to make things.”
Davis’s attention to greener, less chemically harmful technology started in the honors college at the University of Pittsburgh. A course reading gave her a new view of the western Pennsylvania town of Donora, where she had grown up, before her family moved to Pittsburgh in the late 1950s, when Davis was about to start high school. When she left Donora, the town’s steel factories and zinc plants had started to fold. What she discovered from the reading, however, was the pollution those industries had caused. Nobody talked about pollution in Donora. “I had never heard about our town being anything other than a wonderful place,” she writes in her 2002 National Book Award finalist When the Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution (Basic Books). “I had never heard of pollution. The word sounded dirty, something to be ashamed of.” She learned that in October 1948 (she was two at the time) “a massive, still blanket of cold air” had filled homes and streets with toxic fumes. Eighteen people died within 24 hours, but the effects lasted for years afterward, showing up in incidences of heart disease and cancer.
Learning Donora’s history inspired her to become an epidemiologist. She continued her research at Chicago, where she studied the history of science, and then earned an MPH from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
She’s combined her scholarly and policy work to reach a wider audience. In 1997, for instance, shortly before the UN’s Kyoto Protocol Climate Conference, she was working as a consultant to the World Health Organization. The conference, she realized, could help raise awareness of the potential health dangers of fossil fuels. Correlating the amount of coal soot in the air with bronchitis and early deaths, she and about 30 colleagues estimated that there were 700,000 avoidable deaths annually. They predicted that, if coal fuel continued at current levels, the death toll would rise to about 8 million by 2020. She was a lead author on the paper, published in Lancet and distributed at the Kyoto conference, where Vice President Al Gore became aware of it. The paper ultimately ended up in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report for which Gore and thousands of scientists, including Davis, received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.In all her work, Davis says, it’s important to create awareness. “I think I have a moral obligation”—stemming from the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, healing the world—“to tell the truth and to see that it’s told clearly and broadly,” she says. “And that’s all I’m trying to do.”