In 2000, the Broward
County Public Schools in Florida received an alarming report. Like many
affluent school districts at the time, Broward was considering laptops and
wireless networks for its classrooms and 250,000 students. Were there any
health risks to worry about?
The district asked Bill
Curry, a consultant and physicist, to study the matter. The technology, he
reported back, was “likely to be a serious health hazard.” He summarized
his most troubling evidence in a large graph labeled “Microwave Absorption
in Brain Tissue (Grey Matter).”
The chart showed the dose of radiation
received by the brain as rising from left to right, with the increasing
frequency of the wireless signal. The slope was gentle at first, but when
the line reached the wireless frequencies associated with computer
networking, it shot straight up, indicating a dangerous level of exposure.
“This graph shows why I am concerned,” Dr.
Curry wrote. The body of his report detailed how the radio waves could
sow brain cancer, a terrifying disease that kills most of its victims.
Over the years, Dr. Curry’s warning
spread far, resonating with educators, consumers and entire cities as the
frequencies of cellphones, cell towers and wireless local networks rose. To
no small degree, the blossoming anxiety over the professed health risks of 5G technology
can be traced to a single scientist and a single chart.
Except that Dr. Curry and his graph
got it wrong.
According to experts on the biological
effects of electromagnetic radiation, radio waves
become safer at higher frequencies, not more dangerous.
(Extremely high-frequency energies, such as X-rays, behave differently and
do pose a health risk.)
In his research, Dr. Curry looked at
studies on how radio waves affect tissues isolated in the lab, and
misinterpreted the results as applying to
cells deep inside the human body. His analysis failed to recognize the
protective effect of human skin. At higher radio frequencies, the skin acts
as a barrier, shielding the internal organs, including the brain, from
exposure. Human skin blocks the even higher
frequencies of sunlight.
“It doesn’t penetrate,” said Christopher
M. Collins, a professor of radiology at New York University who
studies the effect of high-frequency electromagnetic waves on humans. Dr.
Curry’s graph, he added, failed to take into
account “the shielding effect.”
A 2000 graph by physicist Bill P. Curry purported to show that tissue damage
increases with the rising frequency of radio waves. But it
failed to account for the shielding effect of human skin.
Dr. Marvin C. Ziskin, an emeritus
professor of medical physics at Temple University School of Medicine, agreed.
For decades, Dr. Ziskin explored whether such high frequencies could sow
illness. Many experiments, he said, support the safety
of high-frequency waves.
Despite the benign
assessment of the medical establishment, Dr. Curry’s flawed reports were
amplified by alarmist websites, prompted articles linking cellphones to brain
cancer and served as evidence in lawsuits urging the removal of wireless
In time, echoes of his reports fed Russian news sites
noted for stoking misinformation about 5G technology. What began as a
simple graph became a case study in how bad science can take root and flourish.
“I still think there are health effects,” Dr.
Curry said in an interview. “The federal government needs to look at it more
An authoritative mistake
Dr. Curry was not the first to endorse the
idea that advances in wireless technology could harbor unforeseen risks.
In 1978, Paul Brodeur, an investigative journalist, published “The Zapping of
America,” which drew on suggestive but often ambiguous evidence to
argue that the growing use of high frequencies could endanger human health.
In contrast, Dr. Curry’s voice was
authoritative. He became a private consultant in the 1990s after federal
budget cuts brought his
research career to an end. He
had degrees in physics (1959 and 1965) and electrical engineering (1990).
His credentials and decades of experience at federal and industrial
laboratories, including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, seemed to
make him a very strong candidate to conduct the Broward study.
“He was a very bright guy,” recalled Gary Brown,
an expert in the district’s technology unit who worked with Dr. Curry to
prepare the reports. But Dr. Curry lacked biological expertise.
He could solve atomic and electromagnetic puzzles with ease, but he had little
or no formal training in the intricacies of
In 2000, Dr. Curry, writing on letterhead
home office in the Chicago suburbs, sent the Broward district two reports, the
first in February 2000 and the
second in September of that year.
The latter study went to the superintendent, the school board and the district’s
head of safety and risk management.
The frequency graph in the second report was far
more detailed. Its rising line bore annotations noting the precise locations for
the wireless-network dose and, far lower down, for radio, television and
Place in the Spectrum
The newest generation of cellphones, 5G, will operate near the highest
frequencies of the radio wave spectrum. Lower down in the spectrum are
wireless networks used in homes and schools.
Over all, Dr. Curry’s reports cast the
emerging topic as crucial for public health. He warned that children were
especially vulnerable to the cancer risk of wireless technology. “Their
brains are developing,” he noted in his
Dr. Carpenter’s credentials were
impressive. He graduated magna cum laudefrom
Harvard in 1959 and cum laude from its medical school in1964.
From 1985 to 1997, he served as dean of the School of Public Health at the
State University of New York in Albany, and in 2001 became director of its
Institute for Health and the Environment, where he still works. His
resumé lists hundreds of journal reports, jobs, grants, awards, advisory
boards, books and legal declarations.
Dr. Carpenter stirred global
controversy in the 1980s by asserting that high-voltage power lines could
cause leukemia in nearby children. He appeared as an authority in Mr.
Brodeur’s 1989 book, “Currents of Death.” But federal researchers failed
to find solid evidence to support the warnings.
In late 2011, Dr. Carpenter introduced
Dr. Curry’s graph in a
lawsuit that sought to force the Portland, Ore., public schools to
abandon their wireless computer networks. The suit had been filed by a
As an "expert" witness, Dr. Carpenter
said in a legal
declaration on Dec. 20, 2011, that the graph showed how the brain’s
absorption of radio-wave energy “increases exponentially” as wireless
frequencies rise, calling it evidence of grave student danger. The graph
“illustrates the problem with the drive of the wireless industry toward ever
higher frequencies,” he said.
In response to such arguments, the industry
noted that it obeys government safety rules. The judge in the Portland case
said the court had no jurisdiction over federal regulatory matters, and dismissed
Despite the setback, Dr. Carpenter’s
2011 declaration, which included Dr. Curry’s graph, kept drawing
attention. In 2012, he introduced it as part of his
testimony to a Michigan state board assessing wireless dangers, and it
circulating online among wireless
And he saw a new danger. Between 2010 and
2012, the frequencies of the newest generation of cellphones, 4G,
rose past those typical of the day’s wireless networks. Dr. Carpenter
now had a much larger and seemingly more urgent target, especially since
cellphones were often held snugly against the head.
“There is now much more evidence of risks to
health, affecting billions of people,” he
said in introducing a 1,400-page report on wireless dangers that he
an aide. “The status quo is not acceptable.”
Report, released in late 2012, gained worldwide notice. But
mainstream science rejected its conclusions.
Two Oxford University researchers described
it as “scientifically discredited.”
By The New York Times | Sources: National
Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Academies of Sciences,
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Congressional Research
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
Dr. David O.
a director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University
Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times
A ‘fact’ is born
Unbowed, Dr. Carpenter worked hard to
revise established science. In 2012, he became editor in chief of Reviews
on Environmental Health, a quarterly journal. He published several
authors who filed alarmist reports, as well as his own.
“The rapid increase in the use of cellphones
increases risk of cancer, male infertility, and neurobehavioral abnormalities,” Dr.
Carpenter wrote in 2013.
In subsequent years, as the frequencies of
wireless devices continued to rise, an associated risk of brain cancer was
repeated uncritically, often without attribution to Dr. Curry or Dr.
Carpenter. Instead, it came to be regarded by activists as an established
fact of modern science.
“The higher the frequency, the more dangerous,”
according to Radiation Health Risks, a website, in reference to signals
from 5G towers. The idea was echoed by a similar website, 5G Exposed —
“Higher frequencies are more dangerous to health” — on
a page entitled “Scientific Discussion.” Over all, the site bristled with
Recently, Dr. Carpenter told
RT America, a Russian television network,
that the newest cellphones represented a dire health threat. “The rollout of 5G
is very frightening,” he said. “Nobody is going to be able to escape the
In recent months, the network has run a series of
segments critical of 5G technology. “The higher the frequency, the more
dangerous it is to living organisms,” a RT
viewers in March. The
show described children as particularly vulnerable.
The new cellphones are to employ a range of radio
frequencies up to dozens of times higher than those Dr. Curry identified
two decades ago as endangering student health. But mainstream
scientists continue to see no evidence of harm from
cellphone radio waves.
“If phones are linked to
cancer, we’d expect to see a marked uptick,” David Robert Grimes, a
cancer researcher at the University of Oxford, wrote
recently in The Guardian. “Yet we do not.”
In a recent interview, Dr. Carpenter
defended his high-frequency view. “You have all this evidence that cellphone
radiation penetrates the brain,” he said.
But he conceded after some discussion that
the increasingly high frequencies could in fact have a difficult time entering
the human body: “There’s some legitimacy to that point of view.”
He noted that, in cities, 5G service requires the
placement of many antenna towers, because walls, buildings, rain, leaves and
other objects can block the high-frequency signals. “That’s why they put the
towers so close together,” he said. “The waves don’t
If human skin also blocks 5G signals, Dr. Carpenter
it’s not that big a deal.”