As Americans rely more heavily on mobile phones, mounting data hint at long-term cancer risks. Concern and research have been sparse
Russ Faulkner isn't worried about whether talking on his cell phone might harm his health. He uses his Apple (AAPL) iPhone even more these days, spending more than 1,000 minutes a month on business and personal calls. "A few years ago there was a study that claimed your alarm clock caused cancer," jokes the 36-year-old, who owns a corporate training company in Columbus, Ohio, and has used a cell phone for 12 years. "Didn't ditch that then, either."
Like Faulkner, most Americans rely heavily on their cell phones and do not expect health problems to result, despite several recent reports that raise concerns about potential risks. Because cell phones emit electromagnetic radiation to make calls, many people worry that radiation can seep into brain tissue, damaging cells and stimulating the growth of tumors.
The amount of time each month that the average wireless subscriber spent talking on a mobile jumped 430%, to 12.6 hours, between 1998 and 2008, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn. (CTIA). As handsets gain additional capabilities, people are increasingly using them not only to make calls but also to check weather forecasts, watch videos, and play games. "The weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems," the Food & Drug Administration states on its Web site.
The National Cancer Institute echoes that sentiment a bit more tentatively. "Studies have not shown any consistent link between cellular telephone use and cancer, but scientists feel that additional research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn," according to NCI.
Mobile radiation: Like tobacco smoke?
Many oncologists say they limit their own cellphone usage, don't hold mobiles against their ear, and instead use speakerphones, headsets, and hands-free setups. Columbia University associate professor Martin Blank, who has studied the effects of electromagnetic radiation—waves emitted by devices like cell phones—on living cells, doesn't own a cell phone. His wife uses hers only in emergencies.
Such precautionary measures haven't caught on with most U.S. consumers, who are using mobiles more than ever. But a growing number of voices in the scientific community and even in Congress suggest that maybe Americans should take precautions because it's better to be safe than sorry. "I am reminded of this nation's experience with cigarettes," Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), said at a Sept. 14 hearing, which coincided with an international conference in Washington on the health effects of cell phone use. Said Harkin: "Decades spanned between the first warning and the final, definitive conclusion that cigarettes cause lung cancer."
On Sept. 9, advocacy organization Environmental Working Group released an analysis of more than 200 scientific studies that examined cell-phone usage and health risks. "It suggests a potential for serious health concerns," says Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist at the Washington group. "We [at EWG] are still using cell phones; we are just taking precautions."
Another advocacy outfit, International EMF Collaborative, released a paper on Aug. 25 entitled "Cellphones Cause Tumors." After assessing the results and methodology of industry-funded and independent studies, it concluded that "studies, independent of industry, consistently show there is a 'significant' risk of brain tumors from cellphone use." The report, endorsed by 43 scientists from 14 countries also warns that "children have larger risks than adults for brain tumors" because their thinner skulls allow radiation to penetrate deeper. Om Gandhi, chair of the department of electrical engineering at the University of Utah, has found that children absorb twice as much energy from a cell phone as do adults. The French government already encourages banning cell phones in elementary schools.
mixed results so far in pending study
CTIA's members include such handset makers as Motorola (MOT) and Nokia (NOK), which have sponsored numerous studies into the issue over the years. The group still maintains that there's no danger: U.S. governmental agencies "have all concluded that the scientific evidence to date does not demonstrate any adverse health effects associated with the use of wireless phones," according to CTIA's Sept. 14 statement. In August, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which consists of independent scientists from various countries, issued this statement: "It is the opinion of ICNIRP that the scientific literature published…has provided no evidence of any adverse effects" from cell phone use.
More data should become available this fall, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer is expected to release the results of the most ambitious epidemiological study on the issue to date. The so-called INTERPHONE study, which included 13 countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and Israel (but not the U.S.), looked at whether exposure from cellular telephones poses increased risk of malignant or benign brain and other head-and-neck tumors. Component studies already released by the participating countries have shown mixed results. A component Danish study showed no increased risk of acoustic neuroma—a benign tumor of the nerve that connects the ear to the brain—in long-term cellular telephone users, compared with short-term users. But a Swedish study found a slightly elevated risk of acoustic neuroma in people using mobiles for more than 10 years.
Some experts believe that conclusive evidence as to whether cell phones are safe or not could take decades to gather. A witness at the Sept. 14 Senate hearing pointed out that while a nuclear bomb exploded in Hiroshima in 1945, the first report that confirmed a cause-and-effect relationship between radiation and brain tumors came out nearly 50 years later, in 1994. Certain cancers can take 10 to 50 years to mature, said Siegal Sadetzki, director of the Cancer & Radiation Epidemiology Unit at Gertner Institute in Israel, whose 2008 study suggests a link between heavy cell-phone usage and higher incidence of salivary gland tumors. "At least 10 years [of cell-phone usage] is needed for solid results," she said. Most Americans are just starting to bump against that benchmark.
begun: U.S. study on pregnant rats
Studies of the issue in the U.S. have been rare because funding has been scarce. "I do not have any funds for the last six years because I told the industry [that] children should not be using [mobile] telephones," says Gandhi. Most of the research to date has been conducted in Europe, where patterns of use and wireless technologies differ from those in the U.S. In Europe, for instance, wireless networks use a technology called GSM. In the U.S., carriers use two different technologies, GSM and CDMA, and are quickly migrating to newer ones. "I'd certainly suggest there should be a study on humans," John Bucher, associate director of the Office of National Toxicology Program, said at the Senate hearing—the second time in two years that Congress has held hearings on cell phones and human health. Harkin, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, promised to find research money.
The National Institutes of Health is currently funding five academic studies on wireless radiation, while the Office of National Toxicology Program is finishing the initial stage of a multiyear study in Chicago that will examine the effects of cellular radiation on rats, some of which will be pregnant. "Animals tend to begin to spontaneously develop cancer as early as 15 months of age," Bucher says. "The whole process is sped up." The rats will be subjected to up to 20 hours of radiation per day, with initial study results available in 2010, and full results three or four years later.
What should consumers do meanwhile? EWG's Naidenko recommends buying cell phones that emit the lowest amount of radiation. Although all of today's phones adhere to standards set by the Federal Communications Commission, some cell phones emit radiation levels eight times higher than others, according to EWG, which examined more than 1,000 cell phones.
Other experts suggest that people shouldn't use their phones when reception is poor, as the devices crank up energy levels to compensate. They also recommend that callers wait a moment after dialing a number before placing the device to their ear, and not to talk while driving, when a phone signal must jump between wireless towers. (Radiation is highest when a connection with a wireless tower is first established.) Naidenko also recommends that consumers lobby the FCC to review the issue and change its technical requirements for mobile devices.
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