Article — From the May 2010 issue

For Whom the Cell Tolls

Why your phone may (or may not) be killing you

( 8 of 10 )

A common criticism of the BioInitiative report is that Cindy Sage, a co-editor and its leading spokesperson, is not a scientist. She is the director of a Santa Barbara–based firm, Sage Associates, that does public-policy research and consulting on EMF-related health issues. In 1982, Sage worked as a consultant on a seminal lawsuit dealing with electromagnetic radiation—a case in which a California court ruled that the fear of electromagnetic radiation could be the basis for compensatory damages. Soon after that, Sage Associates began to offer EMF-detection services. Over the past twenty years, she has consulted for law firms, banks, fire departments, Hollywood moguls, country clubs, golf courses, and public schools; clients have included the Santa Barbara Zoo and the cities of Montebello, Torrance, and Ojai. Tom Cruise, on a referral from his production partner Paula Wagner, hired Sage to survey two of his homes. Sage told me that one of them, due to faulty construction, had “excessively high EMF levels,” and that she oversaw the massive rewiring and rebuilding of the home.

Sage is a slender woman with hard eyes and beach-brown hair. She dresses elegantly, in a striped jacket, white slacks, and a pearl necklace, and speaks in full paragraphs, as if from a teleprompter. She sounds much like a spokesperson for a nonprofit charity—which, in a sense, she is. At her suggestion, we met at the open-roofed restaurant of the Biltmore Four Seasons. A gray sky hung low over the coastline. She said that the haziness was normal for May and that the famous Santa Barbara sun would burn it off by afternoon. Over lemonade, her prediction came true.

I asked whether she thought her EMF consulting created a conflict of interest for her work on the BioInitiative Report. She gave me a firm shake of her head.

“We don’t sell EMF-blocking gizmos.” She was referring to the burgeoning market of stickers, patches, and necklaces available online, such as the EarthCalm Scalar Home Protector-EMF Blocker ($159), which promises to bring its customers a “sense of calmness and peace” and a “deeper connection to the earth.” For Sage, as well as for Lloyd Morgan, such devices pass some boundary of common sense: they are hooey; they inspire needless anxiety and?fear.

“We don’t make a profit off of this work—in fact, it’s the reverse,” she continued. It had taken nine months for Sage to prepare the BioInitiative Report; she couldn’t afford to sacrifice any more time. “No individual scientist would have or could have done the work. They needed someone like me. I have experience assembling teams of scientific experts and producing large projects. I did it because it was the right thing to do.” She credited the Internet with the report’s wide-reaching success. “Journalism is dead in the U.S. The amount of advertising power that the cell-phone industry has in this country has a major impact in silencing the debate. And the industry can no longer claim to be ignorant of the science. They know they’re killing people.”

Sage keeps a file she calls “the obit list”: well-known tumor victims (not all of them dead) whose maladies she traces to cell-phone exposure. It includes Ted Kennedy (glioma), famously a cell-phone addict; Johnnie Cochran (glioma), whose own neurosurgeon suggested that the lawyer’s cell-phone usage might be responsible for his tumor; Diane von Furstenberg (salivary-gland tumor); Siskel (glioma) and Ebert (salivary gland). “I’m sorry to say it,” said Sage, “but until a lot of public people get brain tumors, we won’t have visibility for the subject.”

Brain cancer is one of the rarest forms of cancer. Sage’s worst-case- scenario figures may be terrifying, but they lose some of their impact when considered alongside all the other things we do every day to hasten our own deaths. One’s odds of developing a brain tumor are about 1 in 165. By comparison, prostate cancer afflicts 1 in 6 men; breast cancer, 1 in 8 women; 1 out of 85 people dies in a car crash. A person would still be more likely to die from the common flu (1 in 63), and almost as likely to be murdered. And considering the technology’s prodigious benefits—not just for iPhone users in the States but also for people in the developing world, many of whose cell phones serve as their only link to health care, banks, even education—does the risk really outweigh the reward?

“If EMFs function both as a carcinogen and a neurotoxin,” said Sage, “then it’s not just brain tumors and brain cancers. It’s also testicular cancer, breast cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and a range of cognitive and behavioral problems. Is that pie big enough?”

I asked Sage whether there were any theories about EMF-related illness that she rejects. She paused for a full minute.

“Bats and honey bees.” (Some have blamed man-made EMFs for the mysteriously sharp declines in the populations of these species in recent years.)

What about human beings? Were there any theories of EMF-related health effects that she rejected? She did not have a response at the Biltmore, but in an email later that week she said she was unsure whether EMFs caused autism. She would not rule it out; she just thinks the science “isn’t there yet.”

On the way out of the restaurant, a high-pitched rattling sound—the kind made by the crank of a jack-in-the-box—came from Sage’s jacket. She stopped in her tracks.

“They must have Wi-Fi,” she said.

The chirping accelerated as she approached the hostess station, where there was a desktop computer. The hostess, a pretty young suntanned woman with blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, looked up with a perplexed smile.

“Wi-Fi?” asked Sage, gesturing to the computer.

The girl nodded.

“I just want you to know that you are in an elevated-radio-frequency zone,” replied Sage, smiling like a concerned mother.

The hostess laughed. “Maybe that’s why my voice is so hoarse today.”

“It’s just good that you have to walk around a lot.”

“Thank you,” said the hostess, who did not seem particularly concerned. “Enjoy your day.”

is the author of <em>The Mayor's Tongue.</em> He is at work on his second novel, which is about worst-case scenarios.

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October 2019