POSSIBLE CARCINOGEN. To date, health studies that are related to cellphone use have focused on how much individuals use their cellphone, where they hold it in relation to their head, and the shape, size and thickness of the individual’s skull. Researchers also have studied potential health effects through epidemiological studies that track health effects, such as incidences of brain cancer, in people.
So far, the largest epidemiological study is IARC’s 2010 Interphone study of 14,000 longtime cellphone users who are from 13 countries. The study compared the results with a group of people who didn’t use cellphones regularly. Those who talked on their phones at least 30 minutes per day experienced a 40 percent increase in the incidence of glioma, which is a tumor that occurs in brain tissue; and a 15 percent increase in meningioma, which occurs in the tissue that lines the brain. Moreover, the study found that the tumors in heavy users tended to be on the same side of the head as where the people customarily held their phone.
Interphone was criticized by a variety of scientists. They noted that its findings could be taken with limited confidence, because the daily cellphone usage of study participants was based on their personal estimations rather than on actual billing records. Still, IARC found the study persuasive enough to designate cellphone emissions as “possibly carcinogenic.”
The designation places cellphones in the middle of the agency’s classifications for cancer risk—below “probably carcinogenic” but above two other classifications that indicate an inadequate amount of evidence of carcinogens. (For comparison, IARC also considers diesel fuel and engine exhaust as “possibly carcinogenic.”)
Samet, who led the IARC panel of 31 scientists from 14 nations, wants to see more-rigorous research on cellphones. He also wants inquiries into how RF EMF emissions might lead DNA to mutate or cause other health problems, as he suspects based on the Interphone results.
INDUSTRY STATIC. While IARC awaits more research, the cellphone industry is busy spinning the science in the opposite direction.
John Boice, who is a scientist for International Epidemiology Institute, which has performed contract research for the telecommunications industry, believes that cellphone research has proven so inconclusive that it’s time to focus research money on other priorities. He cites a July study that was released in Europe that shows no association between cellphone use and brain cancer in children. (Critics point out that the study covered only 5 years of use, although the latency period for cancer runs at least a decade.)
Instead of further study, Boice suggests that researchers watch what happens to brain-cancer rates. National Cancer Institute (NCI) data show that the incidence of brain cancer has fallen 0.3 percent in the United States since 1987.
But Dr. David Carpenter, who is a public-health physician at University at Albany (N.Y.) and specializes in the study of RF EMF, cautions that because of the long latency period for brain cancer, it’s too soon to draw conclusions from NCI’s data. He predicts that cases of brain cancer will increase between 2020 and 2030.
Boice isn’t alone in his assertions. He and other scientists maintain that RF EMF doesn’t carry enough energy to damage DNA, unlike the radiation that’s emitted from radioactive materials, such as uranium.
Several scientists have found otherwise, including Henry Lai, who is a professor of bioengineering at University of Washington. Lai has conducted studies in which cells are exposed to cellphone signals and examined for DNA damage. His research dates to 1994, and the results show that there was DNA damage.
Lai tells Consumers Digest that a cellphone-industry-funded consortium that backed his studies in the 1990s—Wireless Technology Research—tried to fire him when it learned of the results of his studies.
The consortium’s director, George Carlo, denies to us that his group requested that Lai be fired. Instead, Carlo says, he asked the university to refund the money that it was paid for the research, because Lai violated the terms of the contract by failing to follow proper procedure.
Strong-arm tactics are common, according to cellphone-safety advocates. Jerry Phillips, who is a biochemistry professor at University of Colorado, conducted research for Motorola in the 1990s. He tells us that he found that RF EMF affects DNA. Motorola offered to fund additional research if he wouldn’t publish his results, he says, but he published his data anyway in 1997 in the journal Bioelectromagnetics. The company terminated his contract and hired another team that wound up disputing Phillips’ findings.
Motorola referred our calls seeking clarification to CTIA. CTIA general counsel Michael Altschul only confirms that his association funded a $25 million research program in the 1990s that Carlo led. Altschul characterizes the research controversies as disagreements among scientists.
“Our goal is to follow the science,” says K. Dane Snowden, who is the vice president of CTIA. “When FDA says there’s no evidence of cellphones causing brain cancer, we follow that. When FCC says cellphones are safe, we follow that.”
But as we noted above, three of the four ruling members of FCC are from the telecommunications industry. Despite Snowden’s assertions, we believe that the safety of cellphones remains suspect.
REGULATORY INACTION. Until it ordered the GAO study, Congress held just two hearings over the past decade—in 2008 and 2009—on cellphone safety, says Olga Naidenko, who is a scientist at Environmental Working Group. To date, no member of Congress has introduced legislation to direct any federal regulatory initiative.
We believe that that’s because money speaks. Telecommunications companies gave almost $9 million in federal campaign contributions in 2010, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks corporate spending in politics. That year, the industry also spent more than $40 million lobbying in Washington. So it’s no surprise to us that when telecommunications companies call, Washington listens.
European Parliament displays more independence. In 2009, it adopted a report that called for nations to develop stricter regulatory standards to reduce the potentially harmful characteristics of RF EMF emissions. The report also advocated the development of education campaigns on how to cut radiation exposure from cellphones by talking less. In 2010, San Francisco Department of the Environment found that the average U.S. cellphone customer uses his/her phone 848 minutes per month, compared with 104 minutes per month in Germany and 249 minutes per month in France.
Maine is the only state that has come close to enacting any regulation. Cobb joined doctors and scientists in lobbying for a 2010 Maine State Legislature bill that sought to require cellphone labels that warned consumers about potential health risks. But the cellphone industry applied unusually heavy pressure, says bill author Andrea Boland, who is a Democratic representative. Lobbyists lined up at the door of the chamber and pressured senators as they entered for a vote, she says. Industry representatives threatened to sue the state if the bill passed, and the bill ultimately died in the Senate.
San Francisco is the only municipality that has adopted any ordinance. Scientists and health experts at the city’s Environment department helped the city’s board of supervisors to adopt a law in 2010 that requires cellphone marketers to warn consumers about potential health risks.
CTIA sued. In response, the board amended the ordinance last June to require marketers to give consumers guidelines on the safe usage of cellphones. A federal judge was expected to review the case this October. Snowden says it’s strictly up to the federal government—not states and local governments—to determine safety standards for cellphones.
Similar legislation in Oregon failed to make it out of a legislative committee this year. But many hope that in 2012, California will become the first state to enact a cellphone-labeling measure. The labels would warn consumers that if they hold cellphones directly against their bodies, they might be exposed to radiation levels that exceed FCC’s SAR limit. California State Sen. Mark Leno decided to hold the bill until 2012, when it became apparent that six Democratic senators accepted tens of thousands of dollars from the cellphone industry for their campaigns, according to MapLight.org, which tracks money in politics. Those six senators are enough to prevent a majority vote in California, where Republicans unanimously oppose almost any bill that seeks to regulate business. However, Leno believes that after lawmakers learn more about the IARC designation, which came late in the legislative season, they will change their minds in 2012.
For the record, the cellphone industry claims that the bill would violate the U.S. Constitution by compelling the industry to engage in false and misleading speech—that cellphones might be unsafe. We believe that this claim is absurd.
“The message from the industry is there should be no more discussion about this issue at all,” Leno says. “This is not a topic that’s going away.”
CLARITY AHEAD? As legislation stalls and scientific uncertainty continues, a few positive developments are taking place. Samet notes that research shows that cellphone emissions have been decreasing. (See “Know Your Limits: The Differences in Modulation.”) New models now operate at lower power levels because of modulation technologies that pack more information into their signals.
Furthermore, in 2014, the results of NTP’s study should provide some of the best data yet on the effects of cellphones. Beginning late this year, NTP will dose rats with cellphone RF EMF and examine their bodies for tumors, Wyde says. Scientists will examine whether any difference exists between the two frequency bands that are used for cellphones in the United States and the two predominant modulation systems for cellphones.
Unlike past studies that focused on brain cancer, NTP’s study will scrutinize whether cellphones affect other organs, such as the kidneys, liver or reproductive organs. Those risks never have been examined, even though people often keep their phones at waist level.
But more must be done. We would like to see an independent epidemiological study of whether heavy users of cellphones present any increased incidence of cancer or other health effects that’s based on the actual cellphone usage records of study subjects, rather than the recollections of study subjects, as in the Interphone study.
These records now date back more than 10 years for large numbers of people. And the government should mandate that researchers have access to the phone-use records of any cellphone user who wants to take part in the study. We also would like to see the cellphone industry pay for such a study, as was done in Europe.
We also believe that FCC should run an information campaign (and, if it doesn’t have sufficient legal authority or the budget for such a campaign, FCC should seek it) to instruct consumers on the best ways to limit exposure to RF EMF. Federal Trade Commission also should develop guidelines for cellphone advertising that’s aimed at children under its children’s advertising program, which covers privacy and age-appropriate content access.
Finally, FCC, FDA and the cellphone industry should launch a cooperative program to design cellphone networks that decrease exposure to RF EMF and any of its harmful characteristics.
Because the scientific verdict on cellphones is unlikely to be rendered for years, these measures would help to eliminate unnecessary exposure and decrease potential health risks in the meantime. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
St. Paul, Minnesota
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