By William J. Kelly
Stuart Cobb, 36, was a prosperous plumber in Portland, Maine, until a brain tumor disabled him 2 years ago. Luckily, Cobb’s tumor was benign, and doctors successfully removed most of it.
Cobb had no significant exposure to toxic chemicals or radiation, which are two of the things that come to mind quickly when physicians diagnose the cause of tumors. However, Cobb was a frequent cellphone user, and the tumor grew on the side of his head where he typically held his phone.
“I’m almost 100 percent positive [the tumor] was from cellphone use,” Cobb says.
Unfortunately, Cobb might never know whether that’s the case. Although plenty of studies associate cellphones with brain tumors, the scientific jury remains undecided on whether cellphones cause cancer or any other adverse health effects, such as low sperm count or brain-chemistry changes.
Still, circumstantial evidence is mounting. This year, World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified cellphones’ radiation emissions as “possibly carcinogenic.” IARC’s declaration prompted three members of Congress in June to order Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study cellphone emissions. And states are starting to get more concerned about the health risks. Lawmakers in California, Maine, Oregon and Pennsylvania have considered bills that would require warning labels for cellphones. A handful of municipalities—including Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Santa Fe, N.M.—asked the federal government to conduct more studies and allow the cities to exercise control over where cellphone transmitting towers are placed due to concern about radiation exposure.
But federal authorities haven’t set any standards or issued any precautions. Food and Drug Administration is charged with monitoring whether Americans are at risk of health problems. (Americans have a total of 303 million cellphone accounts for business and personal use, according to industry trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association.) The balance of health studies indicates that cellphones don’t cause cancer or any other health problems, says Abiy Desta, who is a health scientist for FDA.
Federal Communications Commission also says cellphones pose no health threat. The only safety standard that FCC administers is to make sure that the radio-frequency electromagnetic-field (RF EMF) emissions that come from cellphones don’t literally burn the skin of cellphone users.
But three of the four ruling members of FCC hail from the telecommunications industry. And cellphone-safety advocates claim that the industry is worried intensely about potential liability and the loss of $160 billion per year in sales if cellphones are proven to cause cancer or if the federal government even hints that consumers should take precautions.
“The lawyers are running the show” at FCC, says epidemiologist Devra Davis, who is a former professor of public health at University of Pittsburgh and the author of Disconnect, which is about cellphones and health.
We interviewed 34 doctors, industry representatives, lawyers, scientists and cellphone-safety advocates and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and studies to help consumers to sort out the latest health information about cellphones. We found that too many industry-sponsored groups are spinning the safety debate. And in light of all of the scientific uncertainty, we believe that consumers should exercise caution when they use a cellphone. We agree with National Academy of Sciences, which in 2008 called for more research into the safety of the technology.
Although no link has been made between cellphone use and cancer, it can take decades for cancer to develop in a person after he/she is exposed to a potential carcinogen. Cellphones have been around since 1983, but their usage has become commonplace only in the past decade. Five billion people now use cellphones worldwide, so if cellphones pose even a small cancer risk, it would constitute a significant public-health problem, says Michael Wyde, who is project manager for a cellphone health study that’s being conducted by National Institute of Environmental Health Science’s National Toxicology Program (NTP).
Other nations, which include Canada, England, Finland and France, urge consumers to minimize their exposure to cellphone radiation and require telecommunications businesses to pay for independent research to address health concerns. In contrast, the approach in the United States has been to see whether bodies pile up before officials urge any change at all.
INVISIBLE WAVES. The health concerns about cellphones revolve around their RF EMF emissions. All experts acknowledge that these fields penetrate into human tissue, just like microwaves penetrate into food. The question: How much RF EMF penetration is unhealthy?
To protect cellphone users, FCC in 1996 adopted a Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) limit of 1.6 watts per kilogram (w/kg) of tissue. SAR measures the amount of energy that’s emitted by cellphones and is similar to the wattage rating for a light bulb. But SAR isn’t a measure of cumulative RF EMF exposure, which is what scientists believe might cause cancer. Cellphone manufacturers must have their phones tested by FCC-approved laboratories to certify that the devices emit less than 1.6 w/kg of energy.
FCC considers SAR to be a good guideline to prevent tissue burns, but it’s irrelevant to the larger issue of cancer and other health issues. Unfortunately, no standard exists for measuring cumulative exposure to RF EMF. FCC spokesperson David Fiske says other agencies, not FCC, should set such a health standard for cellphone use.
In cellphone manuals, most manufacturers tell consumers to keep the devices some distance from the head to reduce exposure to RF EMF. For instance, Motorola recommends keeping its Backflip model 1 inch from the head, and Samsung recommends keeping its Alias 2 model 0.59 inches from the head. Of course, you won’t know how far your phone is from your head unless you use a ruler and look in a mirror.
Still, FCC says this is better than trying to purchase a phone based on its SAR, which is why it doesn’t publish those ratings. According to FCC, cellphone-emissions exposure also is influenced by how much time that people spend talking on their cellphone and where they use it. That’s because the power level of a cellphone automatically adjusts to the strength of its connection. In enclosures, such as on a train, a signal can be weak, and a cellphone will power up and thus increase the user’s exposure to RF EMF.
A cellphone’s power level also depends on where you live, according to a 2010 study in Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. Cellphones boost their power in rural areas, because cellphone towers that send and receive signals in rural areas often are more distant from users than are those that function in urban areas. Thus, rural consumers are exposed to more RF EMF while they use their cellphone.
Whatever the power level, children—because of their thin skulls—warrant special protection, says Jonathan Samet, who is a professor of medicine at University of Southern California and a member of IARC. He cautions parents “to make sure your child has the lowest exposure.” That means that parents should encourage text messaging instead of phone calls and limits on the duration of cellphone conversations, although Samet says nobody agrees on a specific time limit.
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