Cancer Cells & Cell Phones

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by Siobhan Downes | 25/07/2011

What’s the hang up on cell phones? Could they be the next cigarettes? Siobhan Downes investigates the World Health Organisation’s recent statement that radiation from your cell phone could cause cancer.

It’s the icon of the wireless age: the cell phone. We have been dubbed the ‘thumb generation’ because of our deep obsession with them. They have replaced the landline and become our lifelines. But they are also the subjects of TV3’s latest Inside New Zealand documentary: “Is Your Cell Phone Killing You?” At first the idea is almost laughable. I think of Drew Barrymore and her fellow troupe of ill-fated victims in the Scream movies, who are killed when they answer their phones. But this issue has nothing to do with the threat of a creepy, knife-wielding murderer in a facemask on the other end of the line. According to recent research, it’s the phones themselves that could be the killers.

On May 31 this year, the World Health Organisation announced that cell phones ‘might’ increase users’ risk of developing cancer. According to the press release, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the WHO, has classified the radiofrequency electromagnetic fields that cell phones produce as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans.’ The press release stated that with an estimated five billion cell phone subscriptions globally, there has been ‘mounting concern’ about the health effects of cell phone use.

Although the report may seem like nothing to phone home about, it is the first time the Organisation has publicly made the connection between cell phones and cancer. But the connection is not new. It is one that has been fiercely disputed by scientists, health officials, and members of the cell phone industry since the 1990s. The link was most famously initiated in 1992, when a man named David Reynard appeared on the Larry King Live show, claiming that cell phone radiation had caused his wife’s death from brain cancer. An x-ray showed that the shape and location of the tumour closely resembled an outline of where the woman had normally held her cell phone to her ear. Reynard sued the cell phone manufacturer and carrier, and it became the first ever case to link cell phone radiation with cancer. The case generated massive publicity, and sparked widespread hysteria over cell phone safety.

As a result, the cell phone industry had no choice but to launch an investigation into the potential health effects of cell phone use. American medical scientist Dr. George Carlo was appointed to head the investigation, which spanned from 1993 to 1996.

The research was plagued with problems from the start – mainly due to the fact that the industry and the researchers had completely different motivations. While the industry wanted to prove that cell phones were completely safe for public use, the researchers under Carlo had no such bias, and were objectively looking for any health effects that may result from cell phone use. So when Dr. Carlo found that cell phone radiation caused DNA damage, and interfered with cardiac pacemakers, the industry immediately attempted to play down the findings. Carlo has since become a prominent cell phone ‘sceptic’, and set out to independently publicise what the industry would not – including claims that cell phones were never tested for safety before entering the market, as they were originally intended for use by the Department of Defence.

It’s this potential for bias that is the premise for Inside New Zealand’s documentary, which explores how our own telecommunications industry is dealing with the allegations that cell phones could be a health issue. A recurrent question the documentary asks is just how objective is the information that is out there? A voiceover says ominously, ‘according to the telecommunications industry, millions of dollars of research shows we have nothing to fear.’ A graph on the documentary then exposes that only 25% of industry-funded research shows adverse health effects of cell phone use, while 75% of independently funded studies reveal adverse effects. It is made clear that the industry must have had some impact on the results.

But Dr. David Black, who is interviewed as an expert on the subject of electromagnetic safety, and is a firm opponent of the idea that cell phones could have negative health effects on the population, maintains that he has never been influenced by the industry. He does admit to the camera, however, that the New Zealand cell phone industry frequently employs him – ‘probably because they like what I’m going to say.’

Even without the influence of the industry, there are mixed messages being sent out as to whether cell phones could cause cancer, messages which are dividing the scientific community. The largest ever study on the subject that claimed to be completely independent was conducted between 2000 and 2006, known as the INTERPHONE project. According to The Economist, it involved 13 countries, 50 scientists and 14,000 people, and cost 30 million dollars. Its purpose was to determine, once and for all, whether there was a link between cell phones and brain cancer. Yet even after all that time, money and expertise, the study remained inconclusive. Some results of the study showed that regular cell phone use might actually offer protection against some brain cancers. Other results showed that those who spent the greatest amount of time on their cell phones had a 40% increased risk of developing a brain tumour. Clearly the studies are flawed, so are we getting hysterical over nothing?

It all depends on how much weight can be given to the WHO’s definition of ‘possibly carcinogenic’. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the classifications exist to identify environmental factors that can increase the risk of human cancer. The categories range from Group 1 (carcinogenic to humans), to Group 4 (probably not carcinogenic to humans). Cynics have been quick to point out that, cell phones have been placed in the category that contains ‘tame’ substances such as coffee and pickled vegetables. But others note that the pesticide DDT and gasoline engine exhaust are also present in that same category.

Despite the outpouring of conflicting information, already many local and national bodies are taking precautionary measures. San Francisco made headlines last year when they became the first city in the United States to initiate a law that directly addressed the cell phone radiation issue. Known as the ‘Right To Know’ law, it forced all cell phone retailers to provide clear information about each phone’s radiation emissions and their potential negative effects. This action followed the lead of several European nations, who have been recommending to their citizens ways of reducing cell phone radiation exposure, such as using hands-free devices, and texting instead of making calls.

It’s these kinds of precautions that New Zealand’s Green Party is also pushing for. MP Sue Kedgley said in a recent press release that she would like to see warnings displayed on cell phones, including labels that show how much radiation the phone is emitting and the health risks of their use. Currently this information is less than transparent. Vodafone and Telecom mobile safety fact sheets that can be downloaded from each company’s website tend to downplay the issue. The Vodafone fact sheet only details base station safety information, sourcing a World Health Organisation statement from 2006. At that time, the WHO had concluded that ‘current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences.’ Telecom quotes the same outdated statement, in their own safety document – ‘Let’s talk about mobile phone sites’. Neither refers to the possibility that the phones themselves could be the danger. According to Kedgley, it’s the same sort of denial the tobacco industry has displayed in the past. ‘Imagine if we’d wisened up to the risks of smoking cigarettes earlier. Many lives would have been saved.’

Could cell phones be the next cigarettes? Putting the potential health effects of cell phones aside, there are some surprising behavioural similarities between the two. As early as 1999, James Stewart, then a student at the University of Edinburgh, was considering the connection between the sociology of cigarette and cell phone use. His examples are telling. At the peak of their popularity, cigarettes were once seen as symbols of glamour and wealth – think Audrey Hepburn and her iconic cigarette holder in the 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The present-day equivalent could be the iPhone, with its sleek advertising and shameless celebrity endorsement. Stewart also notes similarities in the way we socially use each product – like cigarettes, cell phones have become something we constantly fiddle with, use when we’re trying not to look out of place, when we are nervous or bored. There are also various social codes surrounding their use – they are banned in certain areas, and considered antisocial in others.

Only further research and more time will tell if cell phones could be our generation’s fatal mistake. But it seems, like cigarettes, that we’re already too addicted. Even if the World Health Organisation’s worst fears are realised, would we actually be able to hang up our phones for good? Unlikely, according to one blogger, who perhaps represents what most of us are thinking when he says – ‘The World Health Organisation will have to pry my iPhone from my cold dead hands.’

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