Electrosensitivity caused by chronic nervous system arousal

Electrosensitivity caused by chronic nervous system arousal – Dr Roy Fox – Maison du 21e siècle – Le Magazine de la Maison Saint

Dr Roy Fox

Pollutant avoidance and detoxification are preferable to neuroactive medication if you suffer from electrosensitivity or chemical sensitivities, says Dr Roy Fox, Medical Director of the Capital Health Integrative Chronic Care Service, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Dr Fox will be speaking on this topic in Montreal next May 25th at the Project ECOSPHERE Environmental and Ecohousing Fair.

French version of this interview

Contrary to a common medical practice worldwide, one of Canada’s few experts in environmental medicine says avoiding pollutants and detoxifying the body are the best ways of reducing symptoms of environmental sensitivities and that use of neuroactive drugs is a risky last resort.

“I would never prescribe antidepressants or anxiolytics to someone with electrosensitivity unless they were obviously depressed or anxious and had been treated with psychotherapy or learned some self-management tools and were not responding, Dr Roy Fox said in an interview. Also, the anxiety or depression would need to be diagnosed by the usual criteria and be a clearly significant clinical issue. If I do prescribe medication, then I anticipate limited tolerance and therefore start with a medication I am most familiar with, is usually well tolerated and also at a low dose. A high percentage of patients who are electrosensitive have limited tolerance to medications and particularly antidepressants/anxiolytics. Side effects are more frequent. I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that such medications are beneficial in this situation.”

A chemically-sensitive physician

A gastroenterologist by training and professor of geriatrics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Dr Roy Fox speaks from experience. In 1990-1991, he was among more than 600 people who became ill because of indoor air quality problems at Camp Hill Medical Centre, near Halifax. The major cause of their illness was thought to be neurotoxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), specifically mixtures of amines added to the boiler for their anticorrosive properties, accidentally introduced into the hospital’s environment for humidification purposes.

More than 100 of those affected, including senior staff such as Dr Fox, Camp Hill’s first Director of the Centre for Health Care of the Elderly, developed a condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). Many remained disabled five years later and were unable to pursue any gainful employment. A significant proportion of those who became ill also developed electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), also known as electrical sensitivity (ES).

Loss of tolerance

“Lessening of ES appeared to parallel improvement in health and reduction of chemical sensitivity… In the [few] patients where this has been identified as a major factor, addressing total body [pollutant] load or the use of desensitization techniques to lessen chemical sensitivity and allergy has resulted in significant amelioration of ES symptoms’’, Dr Fox wrote in a paper presented at the 1997 Annual International Symposium on Man and his Environment, which focused on bioelectricity. He explained how those poisoned at Camp Hill were affected: “The negatively charged amines have a more profound effect on membrane functions such as permeability. These changes in membrane function (…) are likely to result in altered function and altered electromagnetic characteristics.’’

(In a letter written to someone with EHS who forwarded it to us, Parisian oncologist Dr Dominique Belpomme highlights that “most living organisms — including bacteria — are electrosensitive. What individualises electrosensitivity is that certain susceptible organisms become more intolerant to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) than others as a result of prolonged EMF exposure.’’ Dr Belpomme has asked the World Health Organization to stop using the term Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity and adopt the one he coined, Electromagnetic Field Intolerance Syndrome.)

Following the Camp Hill poisoning, Dr. Fox completed a year-long fellowship in Environmental Medicine at the Environmental Health Centre, Dallas (EHCD) and Tri-City Hospital, Dallas, Texas. EHCD’s founder, cardiac surgeon William J. Rea, co-wrote the first scientific paper describing an effective method to evaluate electromagnetic field hypersensitivity. It was published in the Journal of Bioelectricity in 1991.

A unique medical centre

In 1994, Dr Fox was appointed Interim Director of the new Nova Scotia Environmental Health Centre, a 2-million-dollar state-of-the-art facility built by the province with ceramic tiles and other healthy building materials tolerated by chemically sensitive patients. He was appointed Director in 1997 and today he is Medical Director. The Centre, part of the Capital District Health Authority and renamed the Integrated Chronic Care Service, specializes in the treatment of individuals with complex chronic conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and acquired environmental sensitivities.

“We always have about 600-700 patients at any one time.’’ Some of them come from Quebec, which reimburses their medical fees because the province has no similar treatment facility. The fact that Nova Scotia physicians became hypersensitive “certainly helped’’ to convince the Maritime province to take environmental illnesses more seriously, recognized Dr Fox.

A growing epidemic 

Chemical and electromagnetic sensitivities share common characteristics with other conditions that are largely due to environmental assaults on the nervous system, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, Dr Fox said in an interview. In 2010, an estimated 5% of Canadians suffered from at least one or a combination of MCS, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue and many of them are too sick to work full time, according to a study co-written by family physician Lynn Marshall of the University of Toronto and president of the Environmental Health Institute of Canada.

In 2007, Statistics Canada reported that 3% of Canadians had received a medical diagnosis of Environmental Hypersensitivity or MCS. In addition, European polls revealed that up to 13% of people say they have become electrosensitive. And up to 35% (2.3 billion people) seem to have become intolerant to EMFs, according to environmental toxicologist Magda Havas, an expert in the health effects of EMFs including transient high frequencies, a form of electrical interference commonly called dirty electricity. “When we cleaned up the dirty electricity in classrooms, the health of about 30% to 35% of the teachers improved, adds Havas, Associate Professor of Environmental & Resource Studies at Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario. I believe that between 1% and 5% of the population are extremely sensitive and another 30% to 35% are moderately to mildly sensitive.’’

Characteristics of chemical sensitivities

In 1999, six consensus criteria were identified by researchers for the diagnosis of MCS, which can be triggered by an acute or chronic chemical exposure:

  • Symptoms are reproducible with repeated exposures.
  • The condition has persisted for a significant period of time.
  • Levels of exposure lower than commonly tolerated result in increased sensitivity.
  • The symptoms improve or resolve completely when the triggering chemicals are removed.
  • Responses often occur to multiple chemically unrelated substances.
  • Symptoms involve multiple organs.

Overstimulated nervous system 

The same criteria can be applied to EHS, according to Dr Fox. “I see chemical and EMF sensitivities not as separate and unique illnesses, but as the manifestation of a common underlying change in the central nervous system. In the literature, central sensitivity or sensitization syndrome appears be a pathophysiological change that accounts for MCS, migraines, irritable bowel and bladder, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and difficult to treat chronic pain. Those affected have a lower threshold [of tolerance to various stressors] and higher excitation within the nervous system. Reviews on central sensitization were written in the USA by professor of rheumatology Muhammad B. Yunus. A whole variety of things keep this sensitization going, such as infection, endocrine dysfunction, environmental stress, psychosocial stress or chronic joint inflammation. Patients learn to limit their reactivity by avoiding the environmental triggers.’’

Yet there is no medical consensus around the diagnosis and treatment of environmental hypersensitivities, which many physicians consider to be psychosomatic. “I can confirm that 90% of patients referred to our Center have a history which confirms they are environmentally sensitive, 10% of whom had severe reactions, some with anaphylaxis or severe asthma, Dr Fox said. The hypersensitive don’t suffer from more mental illnesses than other groups of patients.” He is thus categorical when he says electrohypersensitivity is not psychosomatic: “It’s not a phobia, said this author of more than 110 scientific papers. Ever since I’ve been in this field, that diagnosis of psychosomatic or somatoform illness has always bothered me. People are so linear, black and white in their thinking.’’

Psychological impacts

But he understands why doctors tend to pose such a diagnosis: “It’s very difficult when there is no objective confirmation or immediate treatment.’’ But he adds that while the cause of environmental diseases is not psychological, “you can’t ignore the psychological impact of suddenly becoming sensitive to things you use daily in modern life. We have patients where psychological issues are important, but a very small number, fewer than 5%, where there is a clear psychiatric diagnosis which is the most important clinical feature. This is no more than in the general population. However in the other 95%, psychological issues may be contributing to their ill health and limiting their potential to heal. We can help if we lower the stress of isolation, financial problems, etc. When the nervous system is in a high state of arousal where you react to the environment, it’s interpreted as being anxious. But any kind of health problem that compromises the body’s overall ability to function in a cohesive, normal way is a stress and alters nervous system function. Threats to the person switch the nervous system into a high state of arousal leading to overprotective responses. Heightened sensitivity is really an over-protective self-protection mechanism. Vulnerability to environmental stress varies and different people are affected in different ways. Multiple body systems are usually involved and most of our patients have multiple diagnoses.’’

Despite Dr Rea’s 1991 study and one coauthored in 2011 by biophysicist Dr Andrew Marino who teaches medicine at Louisiana State University, the World Health Organization still stands behind its 2005 assertion that ‘’there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure.’’ Nevertheless, Dr Fox and thousands of other physicians worldwide say they are indeed linked (details on the International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS) and Cellular Phone Task Force websites).

Difficult to demonstrate scientifically

Dr Fox has seen patients with major problems with electrohypersensitivity, also known as microwave sensitivity or electric sensitivity. But he says it’s indeed a very difficult thing to prove by exposing patients to EMFs in a laboratory, as Drs Rea and Marino have achieved. “I tried here in the Center but it’s very difficult to exclude the presence of EMFs in the modern world.’’ A colleague at the Microwave/RF and Wireless Research Laboratory in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Dalhousie University  has a chamber where microwave intrusion can be eliminated. “However, we found it very difficult to test our patients there: its building materials are very smelly and off-gas pollutants that made them sick.’’

The nervous system of every species including humans can detect EMFs but it is not developed in most humans, Dr Fox added. “They have not learned to be aware of EMFs because it was not useful historically. But when the nervous system detects a change, for example when entering in a strong electromagnetic field that is interpreted as a threat, it goes into arousal and a fight or flight response.’’

Calming this response by avoiding exposure to pollutants is also very difficult to do in modern life. “Many aspects of modern life can trigger this heightened state of arousal, such as mold or anything that the body senses is harmful. Our approach to environmental sensitivities is we recognize that and teach people how to limit their exposure to bring down their level of arousal.’’

One of his patients who was very ill had worked at Camp Hill and worked long hours on a computer over a weekend to finish a report. “He became very sensitive to EMF exposure. He talked to somebody in the power generating industry who told him they grounded themselves. He tried [earthing devices backed by scientific research] as well as Chi Gong. That helped relieve his symptoms.’’

Frog in hot water

People who are in a constant state of nervous system arousal suffer the most. “When they get additional exposure, what happens is the nervous system, which is a very complex network, goes from order into a state of chaos. What we take for granted as humans becomes disrupted: they get brain fog, uncomfortable sensory experiences in parts of the body, pain, incoordination, anticipation and fear.’’ He compares our reaction to the ever rising levels of background EMFs with putting the proverbial frog in a pot of slowly heating water where it stays and gets cooked. Most people have adapted and tolerated the progressive increase and stayed in the pot, whereas today the high peaks of pulsating RFs are making more and more people jump out as if they were in boiling water.

McGill physician disagrees

Dr Gilles Thériault, a professor of occupational epidemiology at McGill University and a clinician at the Montreal Chest Institute’s Environmental Health Clinic, is one of Quebec’s rare medical experts on EMFs. He disagrees with ICEMS scientists and the coauthors of the most recent BioInitiative 2012 report (including his McGill colleague physicist Paul Héroux) who say EMFs may well cause or foster many diseases including cancer. Last year, Dr Thériault wrote us by email: “I am still of the opinion that there is no scientific evidence to justify worrying about the effect of EMF on human health. I am also of the opinion that there is a lack of knowledge and I regret that there is little financial resource for such studies to be conducted by independent researchers. About electrosensitivity, I see patients in the clinic and in a large proportion, they carry diseases whose symptoms they attribute to EMF or RF exposure. Our role is to direct them towards adequate clinical care to treat their underlying diseases.’’ Dr Thériault also wrote us that the last thing he tells his patients is to avoid exposing themselves to the pollutants they believe are harming them, to avoid aggravating their fear and perceived intolerance of their environment.

Roy Fox said that approach is “right, but limiting. It’s very important not to teach people to retreat and live on a desert island. People who are ill become very passionate about what is making them sick and they want to change the world. That makes it difficult because if the only answer for them is for everybody to stop using mobile phones, that’s impossible and they’ll never get better. But when you become ill and everything you are exposed to makes it worse, you have to reduce your exposure so the body can focus on healing. We still teach our patients how to reduce chemical and electromagnetic exposure and when they do that their health improves.’’

Dr Brundtland is also electrosensitive

The challenge is that EMFs are ubiquitous and that since the turn of the century, more and more people say they are particularly hypersensitive to microwave emissions from cell phones, other wireless devices, including cell towers, radio, television and radar antennas located one to several kilometres away. For one, Dr Gro Harlem Brundland, the former Premier of Norway and former Executive Director of the World Health Organization, says she gets headaches from cell phones located 3 to 4 meters away and turned on but not even in use. (Here is her story which she recounted to Magda Havas in front of an Ontario audience in April 2012.)

That’s one reason why wireless devices are not used in Dr Fox’s Centre. “We don’t have Wi-Fi in our Center and we encourage people to turn their cell phones off [by putting it in airplane mode]. When we built the clinic, we created it so in some rooms power can be completely turned off. We do have fluorescent lights but clinicians leave them off. In the last 10 years, all medical records have become electronic, so we use computers daily but not Wi-Fi. We haven’t seen a need for it.’’

U of T: same approach

Dr Marshall’s group at the University of Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital has the same approach. As its website states: “We at the Environmental Health Clinic are of the opinion that the true safety limits for wireless computers (Wi-Fi) and cell phones are not yet known, so it would be wise to exercise precaution. Toronto Public Health has information on this topic and a fact sheet – Cell phone Use by Children and Youth.’’ This fact sheet states about radio frequency (RF)/microwave exposure: “…in light of the limitations of the research, we cannot rule out the possibility that children require greater protection from RF exposure. In 2005, TPH began to promote parents’ awareness of the need to minimize children’s use of cell phones among other important practices (…) Consistent with messages from the British Department of Health, Toronto Public Health is recommending that children, especially pre-adolescent children, use landlines whenever possible, keeping the use of cell phones for essential purposes only, limiting the length of cell phone calls and using headsets or hands-free options, whenever possible.’’ Dr Fox goes even further and says: “We need regulations and exposure limits, for example, so children don’t spend hours on cell phones.’’

Provincial backing

Despite the lack of scientific consensus over the causes and cures of environmental illnesses, Dr Fox’s team’s approach has been supported by the Nova Scotia government and population: “Over the years, there has been much controversy, but we seem to have more acceptance because people have seen we are trying to help people with a rational approach. For a lot of things, we don’t have much scientific evidence to help our understanding.’’

He says people must consider not only pollution’s impact on the nervous system, but also the non-stop, fast pace of modern life. “There are a number of things that provide high levels of stimulation to humans. When we try to help people, one of the hard things is to get them to slow down. The way our appliances are used, they really speed up and limit down time in people. I meditate and teach patients ways of calming the mind, such as Cardiac coherence. Based upon the programs of the Institute of HeartMath which has done good research in this area and developed interesting electronic tools to use biofeedback, this approach to emotional and stress management has a great deal of evidence in peer reveiwed literature to support it. We also teach  mindfulness, and use an approach based upon the work of Jon Kabat Zinn, again with much documentation of efficacy in peer reveiwed literature. I also recommend Qi Gong, Tai Chi, yoga and other grounding techniques. As a physician I will of course determine whether the person has features of a clinical depression and if so will seek the help of my colleagues. It should also be noted that being electrically sensitive does not preclude someone from having concomitant anxiety or depression. I will treat whatever is appropriate. Some people who cannot accept the need for a self management approach will be prescribed an anxiolytic, when prescribed this may offer some help when symptoms are very disturbing. However this is never front line therapy and in my experience never “cures” the problem.’’

Dr Fox’s team treats its patients holistically: “We treat the whole person, ensuring they have a good balanced diet that does not contain what their body can’t adapt to. Our approach is to get people in a state of optimal health so they can tap into their own ability to restore balance. And it works: while it does not eliminate sensitivities, patients generally react less and manage their symptoms, which lessen, more effectively.’’

When we asked him why he does not use vitamins and supplements such as Dr Rea does in Dallas, Dr Fox responded : “The approach by EHC-Dallas is one of many that are used. Naturopaths and environmental physicians add all kinds of nutrients, vitamins and minerals to detoxify. There is little evidence that this improves outcome. My experience is that in very sensitive patients this approach makes them worse. Some of the materials recommended are expensive and with limited resources I prefer that people spend their money on things that will be long lasting in improving health – changes in their home, etc. With environmental cleanup, changes in diet and personal products used, individuals will detoxify and at a rate that they can handle. We do offer sauna and we use intravenous magnesium to offer relief from fatigue and pain in some patients who appear to be deficient. Some of the other treatments offered in Dallas have limited evidence to support their use. Many treatments are utilized to impact the immune system, but there is litte evidence to support the belief that the immune syustem is damaged or deficient. One might ask why Dallas and various naturopathic approaches do not address the whole person and the problem of an aroused nervous system.’’

(Dry infrared sauna helps the body detoxify because sweat often contains neurotoxins such as pesticides and heavy metals. These “attract and enhance electrical frequencies like a lightning rod’’, according to nutritionist Brian Clement, director of the world-famous Hippocrates Health Institute, a Florida center founded in 1956 by Ann Wigmore, a pioneer in a vegan, living and enzyme-rich diet complemented by exercise, positive thinking and non-invasive therapies.)

Finally, Dr Fox left us with perhaps this wise piece of advice: “Creating space in your life does not mean to stop being active, but to learn to pace yourself, to match demands with your body’s capacities. To do that, you must become aware of those capacities.’’

For more information

The Capital Health Integrated Chronic Care Service Electrosensitivity symptoms can be eliminated in 60% of people and significantly reduced in the rest – Dr Brian Clement Women’s College Hospital diagnoses patients with electromagnetic hypersensitivity


N.P. Singh, the Comet Assay and “Radiation Research”

Microwave News | Singh Comet Assay Radiation Research



Peer Review in the Raw

N.P. Singh, the Comet Assay and “Radiation Research”

April 27, 2017


 NP Singh

Narendra P. Singh, known to friends and colleagues simply as NP, died last December at the age of 69. When his family wrote to me with the news, Singh’s wife asked me not to publish a tribute or an obituary at that time. I honored her request, but now, after a decent interval, I break my silence, in part to make good on a promise and to settle some unfinished business.

Singh was a proud and honest man; he was also gentle and unassuming. “He cannot tell a lie, even a white lie,” Henry Lai, his long-time collaborator at the University of Washington in Seattle, told me years ago. Perhaps most of all, Singh was a meticulous experimentalist who believed in the power of science.

Singh was born and educated in India, then moved to America in 1980 to take a job at the National Center for Toxicological Research in Arkansas. He is best known for his work on the development of the comet assay, a now-standard technique to detect DNA damage. The assay gets its name from the comet-like tail formed by fragments of broken DNA. The greater the DNA damage, the longer and more diffuse the tail. Singh’s assay is used around the world to assess the genetic toxicity of all sorts of chemicals and radiation.

Singh published his landmark paper on the comet assay in 1988 based on his studies of the DNA damage caused by X-rays. That single paper has been cited close to 10,000 times —an astonishingly large number. For perspective, that’s about twice as often as the 1953 paper on the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick.

A few years later, Singh turned his attention to the non-ionizing side of the radiation spectrum. He moved to the University of Washington in 1994 where Henry Lai was running experiments exposing animals to microwaves. They would continue to work together for the next 22 years. (Lai retired five years ago.) Like so many others, Singh paid dearly for that decision. It would change his professional and personal life. Singh felt as if he had fallen through the looking glass and entered a twilight zone where science was in the service of money and politics. But it was the real world, one that Singh did not and could not understand. It literally made him sick.

Motorola Asks Roti Roti To Replicate Lai-Singh DNA Study

I got to know Singh in the mid-1990’s after he and Henry Lai surprised just about everyone with the news that microwaves could cause DNA breaks in the brains of rats. News of their findings leaked out and spread quickly within industry circles. Even before they had published their first paper together, operatives from Motorola and the CTIA, the powerful industry lobby group, came to their lab to see what they could find out.

At the time, the nascent cell phone industry was still reeling from a lawsuit, filed a couple of years earlier by David Reynard of St Petersburg, FL. Reynard claimed that his wife had developed a fatal brain tumor after using a cell phone. Lai and Singh’s peer-reviewed paper would likely be Exhibit A in any future litigation unless the industry could show that their work was faulty and unrepeatable.

In the wake of Reynard’s allegations, CTIA, led by Tom Wheeler, pledged research to rebut all health claims. Wheeler brought in George Carlo, a Washington-based fixer, to help him put out the fire. The strategy was simple: Do as little as possible to resolve the science. After all there was always the risk that research might prove Reynard right. Lai-Singh’s DNA results threatened to expose the hollowness of CTIA’s and Carlo’s plan.

Executives at Motorola, at the time the leading wireless company, were worried that Carlo’s confidence game would backfire. Q. Balzano, the company’s point man on the growing RF problem, wanted actual research. He embarked on a multi-million-dollar research program, which included a project to test Lai-Singh’s results. That job went to Joe Roti Roti of Washington University in St. Louis. Balzano had moved quickly: The $400,000 contract was signed in December 1994, six months before the Lai-Singh paper appeared in print.

Roti Roti was the head of cancer biology at the university’s Radiation Oncology Center. He had made a name in the field of hyperthermia —using heat as an adjunct to chemotherapy— and in the process had carried out a number of studies on DNA damage. Roti Roti had an impressive list of publications, notably in the community’s flagship journal, Radiation Research. On the other hand, he had no prior experience with the genetic effects of microwaves and was new to the comet assay.

Singh vs. Olive: Two Variations of the Comet Assay

The Motorola project was billed as a test of the Lai-Singh experiment, yet the contract stated that Roti Roti would not use Singh’s comet assay. Instead he was to run a variant developed by Peggy Olive of the British Columbia Cancer Research Center. Olive had come up with her own version of the assay a few years after Singh, though she had been the first to call it the “comet assay.”

Roti Roti was under orders to only attempt the Singh assay if he first found that the Olive assay showed no microwave-induced DNA damage. Motorola lawyers were buying some insurance. Even if the Olive assay showed DNA damage, they would preserve —to use an expression from the Nixon era— deniability. That is, they could still maintain that the Lai-Singh experiment had not been replicated. Left unsaid was the general consensus within the research community that the Olive assay was not as sensitive as Singh’s and therefore less likely to pick up a weak effect.

The first results of the Motorola project were presented 18 months later in Victoria, British Columbia, at the 1996 annual meeting of the Bioelectromagnetics Society. Lai and Singh were both in the audience. I was there too. Over lunch before Roti Roti’s talk, Singh was on edge. He had read the one-paragraph summary of the experiment that was in the conference book of abstracts given to the attendees on registration. Singh suspected that Roti Roti did not know what he was doing.

To no one’s surprise, Roti Roti announced that he had come up empty. He had tried three different microwave frequencies and, in each case, the DNA had remained intact. After his presentation, I asked Singh and Lai what they thought. “The Roti Roti data are a mess,” Singh replied. And, with respect to the all-important experimental techniques, Singh commented: “We asked him six questions and he did not answer a single one.”

Moulder Sends Roti Roti’s DNA Paper Out for Peer Review

The following March, Roti Roti submitted his results to Radiation Research, where the paper was handled by John Moulder, an associate editor. He sent it out to four reviewers. One of them was Singh.

Singh now had all the experimental details and they reaffirmed his worst fears. The strongest evidence that something was amiss was in the positive controls. These are an essential component of any rigorous experimental design. A researcher must be sure that the laboratory system being used can indeed detect the effect under study, in this case, DNA damage. An agent known to break DNA, typically X-rays or gamma rays, is applied as the positive controls. Both Singh and Olive had each used X-rays as they worked to develop and fine-tune their respective assays.

Roti Roti reported that he could detect DNA damage from gamma rays at unusually low doses —down to 0.3 cGy (0.3 rad). “This is an incredible accomplishment,” Singh wrote in the peer review he sent to Moulder. He pointed out that the best Olive herself had been able to achieve was a sensitivity down to 200 cGy, that is, a dose that was close to one thousand times higher.

Singh’s assay is more sensitive, but he could still only see damage above 3-6 cGy. Roti Roti was claiming that he could do ten times better. Singh was offended. He had spent more than a decade perfecting the assay and he did not take well to being told that a novice could walk in and do so much better than everyone else.

Singh had no confidence in Roti Roti’s work. He wrote a detailed critique of the paper that ran two-and-half, single-spaced typescript pages. He wanted Radiation Research to reject it.

Olive Weighs In: “I Doubt That It Is Possible”

There were two questions at the bottom of the peer review form: Could Singh’s comments be shared with the other co-reviewers, and, second, should the editor forward their reviews to him. Singh checked both boxes in the affirmative. When he got the other reviews, he felt vindicated.

Peggy Olive was another of the reviewers and she, like Singh, could not accept that Roti Roti had achieved such a high order of sensitivity. Olive did not mince words: “Obviously, I’m concerned with the statement that my method can detect damage by 0.3 cGy [radiation],” she wrote, “I would love to have [that kind of] sensitivity.” The norm, she said, was a dose that was 150 times higher than what Roti Roti claims to have achieved.

Then she added:

“I and several others in the lab have tried many times over the last 10 years to improve sensitivity, but without success. I really doubt that it is possible to get much below 5 cGy even for non-cycling cells. The problem is now all of us (and there are a lot of other labs) that do not see such exquisite sensitivity with this method could be put in the position of having to explain why.”

There was more:

“I find it amusing that Singh’s paper caused such a furor when it first appeared. (Motorola subsequently funded Joe’s work since they were concerned with Singh’s results), and for a different reason, the paper could also be topical (because of the radiation ‘positive control” data not the microwave results).”

Olive made one additional damning point. She echoed Singh’s reaction after watching Roti Roti present his preliminary results in Victoria. Roti Roti seemed ignorant of some key experimental details: She had talked to him at a meeting a year earlier about problems that turned up while running such experiments. He “did not seem to understand my concern,” Olive wrote.

Nevertheless, Olive took a softer line than Singh on publishing the Roti Roti paper. It could be salvaged, she wrote, but it would require more lab work and “substantial revision.” If he did so and resubmitted the manuscript, she asked to see it again before publication.

Two Other Reviews: One Was Anonymous

There were two other reviewers. One was Brenda Cobb, a researcher at the Brooks Air Force base in San Antonio, who recommended accepting the paper after substantial revisions and further review. Her concerns were more about Roti Roti’s grammar than his science.

Neither Singh nor Lai understood why Moulder had picked her since this was not her field of expertise. The reason was probably because the U.S. Air Force was the largest funder of microwave research in the country and had a major stake in how the controversy played out. (Think radar, rather than cell phones.) Moulder may have felt it was a good idea to keep the military in the loop and, in the process, give the Air Force an advanced look at the Roti Roti paper.

The name of the fourth peer reviewer was a mystery. He or she did not want to be identified. Moulder had not included the cover sheet with the accept/reject questions, but the comments suggested that the paper should be published. The reviewer said that it was “certainly an important paper” and that it put the earlier controversial findings of Lai and Singh in “new light.”

Lai, among others, speculated that the reviewer was Mays Swicord, who was in charge of Motorola’s radiation biology research program. There is no hard evidence to support this, other than if it were in fact Swicord, neither he nor Moulder would want to admit it. Seeking a peer review from anyone at Motorola, which had paid for the research and which had an obvious stake in the outcome, would have qualified as scientific misconduct.

Singh Makes a Final Attempt To Stop Publication

In June, just two months after Moulder sent out the paper for peer review, Singh sent me a one-sentence email. “Looks like John Moulder is going to let Roti Roti publish his RFR/comet assay paper in Radiation Research,” he wrote. He did not say how he had found out.

Singh made two last ditch efforts to stop the paper. In what he called a “personal” and “unofficial” letter to Moulder, he repeated his warning that, “it is not possible to resolve the difference between control cells and cell irradiated with 0.6 rad [0.6 cGy].” Then he raised the possibility that some more nefarious forces might be at work: “I hope this not the case of scientific fraud and is only a serious mistake,” Singh wrote.

Singh also sent an e-mail to Motorola’s vice president for research [probably Q. Balzano], making the same general arguments. There is no indication that either Moulder or anyone at Motorola ever replied.

In early August, the managing editor of Radiation Research, Martha Edington, sent a letter to Singh that confirmed his prediction. “Although you recommended that the manuscript be rejected,” she wrote, the associate editor [John Moulder] and the other reviewers “felt” differently. Roti Roti had made revisions, she noted, and the paper had been accepted.

The paper came out in the December 1997 issue of Radiation Research. When Lai took a close look at the published version he could detect only one change from the original manuscript that had been sent to Singh for review: In the acknowledgments section the authors now thanked Peggy Olive for “helpful discussions.”

From then on, the Motorola crew took the position that they had tried and failed to repeat the Lai-Singh work. Roti Roti was right and Lai and Singh were wrong. End of discussion.

Within the year, a six-member group led by Moulder and Robert Malyapa, the first author of most of Roti Roti’s DNA papers, completed a review of the possible link between cell phones and cancer. The evidence was “weak to nonexistent,” they concluded. In the discussion of the DNA work, they reiterated the claim that the sensitivity of the Olive assay was “comparable” to Singh’s. The effects that had been observed by Lai and Singh, they argued, were due to confounding, of one type or another. The review paper was published in Radiation Research.

Seven years later, in 2005, I interviewed Lai and Singh about industry’s latest attack on their work. This time it came from one of Lai’s former collaborators, Bill Guy, who was now working for Carlo.  The conversation turned to Roti Roti’s breakthrough —the claimed enhanced sensitivity of the Olive assay. “People should be happy,” Singh said, quickly adding, “But they have not been replicated. No one has replicated Malyapa’s sensitivity.”

No one has to this day.

What To Do with the Peer Reviews?

In early June 1997, after Singh had learned that Radiation Research would accept the Roti Roti papers, he and Lai sent me a copy of the peer reviews, with a hand-written Post-It attached from Lai: “Please keep these to yourself. But, I think you should know about these crazy things.”

At first, I did not challenge their request to keep the peer reviews confidential. But their outlook changed a few months later when the paper came out with no sign of any changes. Still, peer review was hallowed ground within the scientific community (less so today than back then). I was concerned that their many enemies would blame Singh the leak and that the backlash would be severe.

Lai and Singh had been the focus of relentless attacks over their DNA work. Even before the paper appeared in print, Motorola’s PR team plotted how to lessen its impact —this was spelled out in the now well-known “war gaming” memo (MWN, J/F97).

Soon afterward a group funded by the U.S. Air Force included a lengthy attack on Lai and Singh’s DNA study in a paper published in Radiation Research. In response, Lai wrote to one of the authors, Melvin Frei, whom he considered a friend. “Am I such a ‘junk’ scientist who would report unreliable data and did not carefully carry out experiments?” Lai asked Frei, “What have I done to provoke such an attack from you?” Even so, Lai closed his letter with “I will always be your friend.” Frei never replied.

Lai and Singh were also jerked around by George Carlo and those running his CTIA research program. In the end, their frustrations with Carlo grew so great that they wrote a history of what they called “a very strange experience” and less politely “a disgrace to the American research establishment.” Carlo threatened to sue them for libel, but soon dropped the case.

The attacks continued year after year. At one scientific meeting, a Motorola consultant approached Lai to offer what he called some “friendly” advice: Stop working on DNA breaks because it will “ruin your scientific career and your scientific reputation.”

When the Roti Roti paper finally appeared in print, I called Olive to see what she had to say. At first she declined to be interviewed. “Joe is a friend of mine,” she told me, explaining that she would rather not get involved with what she called the “politics” of the issue. Two weeks later, just as we were preparing to go to press, she called back, most likely at Roti Roti’s suggestion. I had told him —without letting on that we had the peer reviews— that I was aware that Olive had some reservations about his work.

In the interview, Olive’s criticisms were much gentler than what she had written to Moulder in the peer review. She did concede that she had never been able to get the sensitivity “down that far.” Never below 1 cGy, she told me, and more realistically not below 5 cGy.

In the end, Lai and Singh gave me their permission to publish the peer reviews, but I decided not risk causing them any more grief. After I sent Singh our article, he wrote back: “I am so happy on your decision not to publish [the] peer review comments.” There would be time later, he added, “five or ten years down the road.”

Now, close to 20 years later, I am finally setting the record straight.



To this day, Lai keeps a current count of papers on studies of microwave-induced DNA breaks using the comet assay. As of this April, he has identified 76 papers, of which 49 (64%) showed DNA breaks and 27 (36%) did not.

Eliminating the seven DNA breaks papers from Roti Roti’s lab, the papers showing effects rises to 75% of the total.

Eliminating all the papers published in Radiation Research, the spread gets even wider: 77% show effects.  (Radiation Research ran its first paper showing microwave-induced DNA breaks in 2015.)

Lai’s count does not include the report from the National Toxicology Program (NTP) which shows that, in its $25 million experiment, rats exposed to cell phone radiation developed elevated rates of cancer and DNA breaks in their brain. Those results, which have been presented at scientific meetings, have yet to be published.

Further reading in Microwave News:

“Cellular Telephone Radiation Blamed for Brain Tumor,” May/June 1992, p.1. [Read]

“Microwaves Break DNA in Brain; Cellular Phone Industry Skeptical,” November/December 1994, p.1. [Read]

“Motorola, Microwaves and DNA Breaks: ‘War-Gaming’ the Lai-Singh Experiments,” January/February 1997, p.13. [Read]

“Two Labs at Odds Over Microwaves and DNA Breaks: Controversy Over Comet Assay,” January/February 1998, p.1. [Read]

“Inside the WTR Research Program: “A Very Strange Experience,” March/April 1999, pp.12-13. [Read]

“Carlo Accuses Lai and Singh of Libel,” May/June 1999, p.12 [Read]; and “Wireless Notes” (Carlo makes peace with Lai and Singh), July/August 1999, p.6. [Read]

“DNA Breaks: The Controversy Continues,” January 30, 2004. [Read]

“Wake-Up Call,” March 11, 2005. [Read]

“‘Radiation Research’ and the Cult of Negative Results: A Microwave News Investigation,” July 31, 2006. [Read]

“NTP: Cell Phone RF Breaks DNA: Consistent with Higher Tumor Counts 20 Years After Landmark Lai-Singh Study,” September 6, 2016. [Read]