‘American Hustle’ Takes Dig at 1970s Cancer Alarmism

December 23, 2013

The new Oscar-bait film American Hustle, about two con artists (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams) who get caught up in a corruption scandal in the 1970, contains an explicit, skeptical reference to a health scare fad.

One of the characters, played by Jennifer Lawrence, tells her husband that they need to be careful about using their new, cutting-edge microwave oven (or, as the script calls it, the "science oven"). The reason, she tells him, is that she read an article by New Yorker investigative reporter Paul Brodeur (he is mentioned by name) in which he raises concerns about cancer and radiation.

Physicist Robert Park, in his book Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, notes that dormant public fear about EMFs resurfaced in the late 1980s: "In June of 1989, The New Yorker carried a new three-part series of highly sensational articles by Paul Brodeur... on the hazards of power lines. The articles drew heavily from his earlier attacks on microwaves. Indeed, he seemed to draw no clear distinction between 60 hertz and 100 megahertz, which is typical microwaves-it was all just EMF. The series reached an affluent, educated, environmentally concerned audience. Suddenly, Brodeur was everywhere: the Today Show on NBC, Nightline on ABC, This Morning on CBS, and of course Larry King Live on CNN. In the fall, Brodeur published the New Yorker series as a book with the lurid title Currents of Death. A new generation of environmental activists, led by mothers who feared for their children's lives, demanded government action....Brodeur described power-line fields as the most pervasive-and covered-up-health hazard facing Americans. The overwhelming consensus among scientists, that no hazard existed, was for Brodeur evidence of a massive cover-up involving the utilities, the government, and the scientific community" (Park 2000, 153).

In 1990 Brodeur began a second series of New Yorker articles which were also turned into a book titled The Great Power-Line Cover Up. Others joined Brodeur in influencing the public, including George Carlo, an epidemiologist who was the primary source for the ABC TV newsmagazine 20/20, which in 1999 aired a sensationalized, alarmist report on the subject. As Dr. Ian K. Smith noted in Time magazine, "After spending six years and millions of dollars, Carlo produced only an inconclusive report offering no more than suspicions of health risks. Even so, 20/20 accepted it as medical fact. ‘We have direct evidence of possible harm from cellular phones,' he told ABC's correspondent, who cast Carlo as an ultra-ethical scientist breaking ranks with his bosses because they wouldn't let him tell the truth" (quoted in Bartholomew and Radford, 2012).

As most skeptics know, the concerns over the carcinogenic effects of microwave ovens, power lines, and cell phones have been largely discredited. The reference in American Hustle is a brief, clever reference to 1970s and 1980s alarmism, and hopefully puts Brodeur's pseudoscientific health scare-mongering in its place.






Bartholomew, R. & B. Radford. (2012). The Martians Have Landed! A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes. Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland.

Park, R. (2000). Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. New York: Oxford University Press.