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Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review: "Disconnect"

AUTHOR: Devra Davis
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Dutton, 2010, (274 pages).

This book is essentially about the dangers of cell phone radiation. The author, a scientist herself with a PhD in Science studies is currently involved in the toxicology and environmental studies board at the US National Academy of Sciences. In a compelling book that argues against the existing widespread nonchalance about the dangers of cell-phone usage, she highlights several 'disconnects' that lead to the beginning of a long-term demise of our mental and physical health. Some of her concerns include:

  • KIDS AFFECTED MORE: cell-phone radiation affects children under the age of 10 more negatively because the children's skulls are not fully grown like adults and young brain tissues tend to absorb radiation more readily than adults.
  • TOO LUCRATIVE A MARKET: That the business world are less urgent in addressing children usage of cell phones in a world where cell phone is such a hugely profitable industry;
  • LOB-SIDED RESEARCH: the concern that research tends to be lobsided. Well-funded research tends to be pro-business. Research that shows negative consequences of cell-phone use tend to be highly unpopular and poorly funded;
  • A LINK EXISTS: that radiation directly impacts brain and causes cancer, seen in animal research;
  • INFERTILITY: some links found that connects fertility problems with radiation. This affects men more because their testes are more sensitive to external elements, compared to women's ovaries which are inside the body.
  • BODY LIKE AN ELECTRIC MACHINE: the author points out the human body is an 'electric being' and that is why it reacts to radiation so easily. 
  • READ THE FINE PRINT: She also notes that new cell phone manuals contain instructions to cover their liabilities. 
    • "Do not hold directly on the body." (Nokia)
    • Blackberry recommends a distance of 0.89 inches gap between phone and ear.
    • HTC also recommends device be kept at a distance from body;
  • WHO FUNDS RESEARCH? Davis argues that since 1993, even till 2010, nearly all research are sponsored by the mobile phone industry. Naturally, the results will be in favour of cell-phone usage. (176)
  • FLAWED DATA: Many research reference points do not reflect a typical user.

Davis makes a poignant and important argument for a paradigm shift.
"No matter how hard I look at various ways researchers have tried to measure the incidence of brain cancer and its rate of change, I remain convinced we should not wait for proof that population-wide shifts have occurred before taking simple precautions to reduce direct exposure of our brains and bodies to cell phone radiation." (202)
The author ends the book with an African story about Congo and coltan. Coltan is a relatively rare and expensive mineral that stores an electric charge and can resist heat. It is widely used in cell phonies of today. Due to the high premium, there are problems surrounding child labour and environmental violations. Corruption, greed, bribery, civil wars, and all kinds of crimes are associated with the harvesting of this precious resource.

In one book, Davis pieces together a compelling story that attacks current research models that are lob-sided, lack public health awareness, and an alarmingly dangerous health risk, especially among children.

My Comments
This book covers a lot of ground. It deals with the ethical practices of businesses that tend to focus more on the bottom line over public health. It deals with the need to educate public about radiation concerns. It maintains a call to ensure a well-funded research for both pros and cons of cellphone usage. It warns us about serious health risks if nothing is done now. Most importantly, it argues for a paradigm shift, to address the problem instead of waiting for the problem to appear.

The title of the book has multiple interpretations. Firstly, it is about the ‘disconnect’ between the scientific community and the business community. Science needs the money that businesses make in order to fund research. Business needs science to positively innovate and bring in new technologies that make money. Yet, the scientific community are often prevented in various ways about highlighting NEGATIVE results of research, especially those that can impact the businesses bottom line.

The second ‘disconnect’ is about the information the scientific community has long known, but not adequately communicated to the general public user base. In between the two, the business community often gets in the way by saying the phrase everybody seems to accept: “More research is needed to verify the findings.” Such a call for more research is a convenient lubricant to remove all negative findings of cellphone usage. This is a common tactic adopted by the businesses of the highly lucrative trillion-dollar wireless industry. Any link between cell-phone radiation and brain cancer is automatically debunked with the standard phrase: “further investigation of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk is merited.”

Thirdly, there is a 'disconnect' of information lag. Whatever research that was based upon by businesses were largely outdated, done many years ago on old equipment and tests. In other words, many businesses are still using research information based on old findings many years ago as a basis for their existing operations.
• “The current recommended maximum exposure guidance level for man-made radio frequency radiation that is used worldwide is over a trillion times the natural level that we were exposed to less than a hundred years ago. The last national survey of radio frequency radiation was conducted three decades ago.” (21)

Fourthly, there is a ‘disconnect’ in terms of the research purpose.

  • “The problem that has arisen around cell phones is that the science machin, the system that produces research papers and conferences and dissertations, has become disconnected from the reasons why we study radio frequency radiation. We experiment on animals in order to prevent future human harm, not in order to prove why past damage has already occurred.” (57)

Fifthly, there is a 'disconnect' in terms of a paradigm shift needed.

I agree with Davis's call for a paradigm shift with regards to safety considerations by the cell-phone industry. Do not wait for the problem to surface before taking any action. Do not assume things are ok unless otherwise. Do not wait until it is too late before doing something about it. There is still time for all to do something about it.

Sixthly, there is a disconnect in terms of people's desire for convenience versus people's awareness of health risks.

Finally, the author makes a good attempt to try to RECONNECT public concerns with prudent usage. Davis gives a helpful list of resources, and things to do in the Appendix.  Tips like wearing a headset, keeping phones in the bag, using phones only when the signal quality is high, text rather than speak, and other safety acts.

I recommend this book highly as a call to action. Vote with our wallets to make sure that businesses recognize public concerns. Start by reading this book.

Rating: 4 stars of 5


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