Give Me a Megaphone

Give Me a Megaphone – Excerpted from An Electronic Silent Spring
Ginger Farver’s story about her family’s part in the brain tumor cluster at San Diego State University. 

For his first twenty-five years, my son Rich was healthy. He was six feet, two inches tall and two hundred pounds. He kept fit by playing basketball and riding his bike just about everywhere. Since he was a Democrat and I was a Republican, we had a lot of debates. Usually, he won.

In the fall of 2005, Rich started working on a masters degree in political science at San Diego State University. During his first few months at SDSU, he called me every day from his cell phone, crying. “Mom, just stay on with me,” he’d say. And of course, I did. I knew something was off, but I didn’t know what to do about it. He’d never had panic attacks before.

Soon enough, Rich fell in love with the school and with San Diego. He worked as a teaching assistant and spent seven days a week in Room 131 of Nasatir Hall, the political science building. He wrote his master’s thesis on the politics of stadium building. In his graduation picture, in the Spring of 2006, he squinted. One of his eyes would not open all the way.

Rich stayed in San Diego and applied for law school. He told me that even if he got in, he wasn’t sure if he should attend, because he’d developed short-term memory problems.

In the Fall of 2007, Craig, my husband, and I went to visit our son. We’d pick him up in the morning and run errands. Then Rich would go back to his apartment for a nap until dinner time.

We didn’t get it.

Rich’s girlfriend told us, “He gets headaches a lot. He curls up like a cat and sleeps by the patio window–every day.”

Before leaving, I noticed a vein on the right side of Rich’s hairline that traveled to his right eye, just above his eyebrow. A few months later, he developed problems with his balance, and he had nosebleeds every morning. We thought it was a deviated septum, which I’d had. He scheduled a doctor’s appointment for March 14, 2008.

Thursday evening, March 13, I was home checking email. Craig was taking a shower. The phone rang, and Rich whispered, “Mom?” He had the worst headache of his life, and he’d been projectile vomiting all over his apartment.
“Get an ambulance immediately,” I told him. “Get to the hospital.”

The emergency room doctor called us at one in the morning. Rich had bleeding on the brain. He’d had a seizure and would need more testing.

Craig and I took out our suitcases. I was so disoriented that I only packed underwear. At the airport, we told the attendant, “We don’t care what it costs, get us to San Diego.”

Ten days later, Rich, Craig and I sat in the neurosurgeon’s office. The doctor said, “glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer.”

Everyone knows what a brain cancer diagnosis means. The life we’d known until then was over. I kept myself together so I could be there for Rich and talk with the doctor. I could not pronounce glioblastoma multiforme, but I could ask, “What causes it?”

The doctor replied, “Using a cell phone.”

Why had I never heard this before? I wrapped an arm around myself. Because none of us had a landline anymore. My cell phone was in my purse. Rich’s and Craig’s were parked in their pockets.

We took our son to the Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University. Ted Kennedy was released the day we arrived. I figured if Tisch was the best place for Senator Kennedy, then it was the best place for Rich. We did everything for him that we could come up with, and still, he had blackouts and went blind. His cancer didn’t go away.

Another one of his doctors told me, “Your son’s tumor isn’t caused by genetics.” I wrote his words in a journal like a clue I might understand later.
Before Rich came home, we got rid of our cell phones and cordless phones. We used only corded landlines to minimize our exposure to radiation. We quit our Wi-Fi and got cabled Internet access.

For Rich’s last month, Craig took off from work, and Lee, our elder son, moved back in. Rich didn’t want to use a walker or a cane to get from one room to the next, even though he was so wobbly. I’m only 5′ 3″, so I couldn’t help him. Craig and Lee had to do it.

Rich died October 11, 2008, seven months after his seizure.

For a long time, I just stayed in bed. I was so numb that I felt lucky to make it to the couch.

After a few months, I got curious about glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) and cell phones. I started doing research. At first, I had to look up each word so I could make sense of it. But now I can explain it. And that is what I want to do. Because Rich would want his colleagues and friends to know what I have learned. And because I do not want any other parent to go through what Craig and I have gone through.

From 2001, when he was twenty-two, until his seizure in 2008, Rich used a cell phone every day for two to three hours. So he had a wireless device emitting radiation beside his brain all that time. A study in Sweden found that for every one hundred hours of cell phone use, the risk of brain cancer increases by 5%.#1 For every year of cell phone use, the risk of brain cancer increases by 8%.#2 With two to three thousand cumulative hours of analog cell phone use, there is a 490% increased risk of brain cancer.#3 (Rich used an analog cell phone. Current mobile phones are digital, not analog. Digital phones emit more radiation than the kind used in these studies.)

There’s a barrier around the brain that keeps toxins in the blood from entering the brain. Using a cell phone for two hours weakens this barrier. A leak in the barrier can contribute to a brain tumor.

Nine months after Rich died, I found an article online about a suspected cancer cluster at San Diego State University. Four people who all spent time in Nasatir Hall’s Room 131 had gotten brain cancer. Room 131 was a lounge and an office for people who worked in SDSU’s political science department. One of Rich’s professors told me that he practically lived in that room. The article reported that there are cellular antennas on the Communications building beside Nasatir Hall. Three of the people, including a graduate student, had died.

That was my son.

I read the article about twenty times, and then I ended up on the floor.

I started doing research about the cell tower beside Nasatir Hall where Rich spent so much time. It’s a GWEN tower, installed at the highest point on campus. GWEN stands for Ground Wave Emergency Network. The antennas’ signals are used for police, ambulance and Homeland Security networks. They’re needed for cell phones and WiMax. SDSU’s antennas were upgraded in the summer of 2005, around the time Rich arrived. Their signals broadcast for seventy-two miles and can penetrate most structures.

GWEN towers are common on campuses across the country.
The tower also holds “cell dishes” that are part of the High Performance Wireless Research and Educational Network (HPWREN) project. These dishes provide Internet connections for SDSU, the Mount Palomar Observatory, and for Native American land. They also link CalFire and other agencies to the Internet during emergencies.

If an antenna’s signals can penetrate most structures, wouldn’t they also penetrate people? I could not imagine that hanging out under a tower of powerful antennas is safe, so I wrote SDSU’s administration.

They replied that “the equipment is FCC (Federal Communications Commission) approved and does not include any unusual signal strength.”

What happens when you use a cell phone for two hours a day and you hang out in a building that’s beside a cell tower?

I contacted SDSU’s president, Stephen Weber, and its Board of Directors and requested a toxicology study of Nasatir Hall. The University hired Thomas Mack, an epidemiologist, to study the situation and write a report. His third paragraph states, “I have not been informed of any unusual chemical or radiation exposure to persons working in this building, and I therefore presume there are none.”

I realized that SDSU considers Dr. Mack’s report the end of the matter, so I contacted Governor Schwarzenegger. He said it sounded like a campus issue and referred me back to the campus.

I made a list of people who spent time in Nasatir Hall near this antenna and who got cancer:

Employee #1 died in 1993 of a GBM brain tumor. There was an antenna on SDSU then, which sent signals from radio and TV studios to transmitters on Mount Miguel. It was removed from SDSU in 1995.

Employee #2 was diagnosed with brain cancer and died in 2008.

Employee #3 was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008.

Employee #4 also died of some kind of cancer in 2008.

Rich Farver, 29, was diagnosed with GBM in March, 2008; he died in October, 2008.

This list raised a lot of questions for me. I decided I needed to visit San Diego State again. I called a hotel and got to talking with the man who answered the phone. His friend works at SDSU, and got diagnosed with a GBM brain tumor in 2008. This woman does not use a cell phone very much. But the building where she works also has GWEN and HPWREN antennas. I put her on my list, Employee #5.

Craig and I drove back to SDSU a year after Rich died, in the Fall of 2009. Room 131 in Nasatir Hall was closed, presumably because it needs renovation. Now, students hang out in the court underneath the cell tower. I watched them laugh with their professors. I watched them sleep, study, talk on mobile phones and use their laptops right under the tower.

I wanted a megaphone. I wanted to tell every single one of them to get clear of this place.

I know these towers are on other schools. If any mother thinks her kids are safe, she is sadly mistaken.

In August, 2010, SDSU Employee #6, who worked in a building near a GWEN tower, died of brain cancer.

In March, 2011, a video was posted on YouTube about an SDSU student with brain cancer. This student may have been diagnosed before arriving at SDSU. Student #2.

In the Spring of 2012, an undergraduate who lived on campus across the street from a GWEN tower and who took classes in a building near another GWEN tower died of undisclosed causes while taking a nap. Student #3.

In January, 2013, Employee #7, who worked in Nasatir Hall under a GWEN tower died of some form of cancer.

After we learned about all the harm that comes from cigarettes and put warnings on their packages, I figured that whatever I buy has been tested and determined to be safe by a government agency and by the company that sells it.

I know now that that is naive thinking.

Now, I don’t mince words. I tell people that using a mobile phone increases your risk of brain cancer. If you think that increasing your risk is your personal business, that may be true. But since every mobile phone requires antennas, then your choice to use a wireless device exposes the rest of us to radiation–with no choice in the matter at all.

Smartphones are even more dangerous than the kind Rich used, because they can transmit more data–and so they need more bandwidth. Their antennas emit more radiation. If you don’t want an antenna in your neighborhood, quit your mobile phone.

A friend who’s a teacher asked me to speak to her class when they studied the causes of cancer. I told these ten-year-olds what happened to Rich, and one boy shared that his father died from a brain tumor. For me, the worst part was that this child has a cell phone. “Please,” I begged him. “For my sake, throw that phone away.”

A girl asked, “At what age is it okay to have a cell phone?”

“If you were my child,” I told her, “it would never be okay.”

Also recently, two of Rich’s childhood friends were diagnosed with GBM brain tumors. One of them had a seizure while driving. Fortunately, an alert passenger took the wheel, and no accident occurred.

In my grief support group, there’s a couple whose daughter was bicycling around her neighborhood a month after Rich died. A woman talking on her cell phone drove into this girl and killed her.

Everywhere I turn, it seems, the risks of using this technology far outweigh what anyone could get from it.

I will never have a cell phone again, and my life is much simpler. I engage in actual conversation now. If I go out of town and need to borrow a landline, most folks are courteous. For emergencies, we could have phone booths along the highways, just like the good old days.

Because of Rich, I’ve learned a lot about public policy. I’ve learned that we need to keep landlines and corded phones. We need laws that protect our environment and peoples’ health from radiation emitted by wireless devices, cellular antennas and “smart” utility meters. In the U.S., epidemiologists need access to cell phone use records so that they can determine the health effects of using mobile phones and living near antennas—just like researchers in Sweden are allowed. Every person needs proper warnings about the dangers of mobile devices and transmitting antennas. The Cell Phone Right to Know Act would get us started on these regulations.

I like to think that Rich would be pleased with me, for how much I have learned–and for voicing it. I like to think he did not die in vain.

In March, 2014, another student who attended SDSU in the mid 2000s died from a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor.

A French study reports that people who used their phones more than 15 hours per month have a two-to-three folk increased risk of developing glioma and meningioma tumors (like Rich Farver had).

Here is the study’s abstract.

1. Mild, et al., “Pooled analysis of two Swedish case-control studies on the use of mobile and cordless telephones and the risk of brain tumours diagnosed during 1997 – 2003, Int. J. Occup. Safety Ergon, (JOSE) 13 (1) (2007) 63-71.3.
2. ibid.
3. Hardell et al. “Pooled analysis of two case-control studies on use of cellular and cordless telephones and the risk for malignant brain tumours diagnosed in 1997 – 2003. Int. Arch. Occup Environ. Health, 79; September 8, 2006, 630-639.