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Half-hearted research into cell phone hazards may pose danger to more than just consumers. Just ask the tobacco kings
The American telecommunications industry continually generates torrents of claims, misinformation, unsubstantiated projections and hyperbole. But while much of this is relatively harmless, it is no laughing matter when it comes to issues of both occupational and public health.
Nowhere is this problem more pressing than cellular handset radiation. Although the occasional opportunistic lawsuit of a widowed attorney makes the headlines, the disturbing reality is that ignorance is winning out over science. There is currently less independent ongoing research going into the health effects of cell phones than at anytime in the past five years.
Almost all research to date has been conducted in association with vendors or the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. The CTIA pumped some $27 million and six years into largely incomplete research, although even that found that cell phones affect pacemakers and damage blood cells. The notorious Dr. George Carlo, who had previously worked on industry-funded projects into tobacco and dioxin research, headed this major effort! For a time he constituted part of the problem, as he became a lightning rod for critics of the industry.
But even he came to be disillusioned by the CTIA's predilection to spin his findings and discourage the airing of any evidence that contradicted its official line. He published an extraordinary book on the six-year saga, which may go down as "The Insider" for the cell industry.
While the CTIA has an economic incentive to spin this issue, the Food and Drug Administration should not. But until last year, the FDA had made no serious attempt to even resource a study into the issue. A current study, which is way too limited in scope, is jointly funded and conducted by the CTIA. Other ongoing studies in Europe and Australia are similarly funded by industry. For all its many faults, Dr. Carlo' s efforts were at least funded by a blind trust!
In the mid-'90s, the cell industry often claimed that there were thousands of studies clearing cell phones from health concerns. The reality was that there had been about 60, and they weren't necessarily conclusive. Aside from pacemaker interference, some studies did suggest that cell phone radiation can break DNA strands, damage blood genes and promote brain tumors. Ominously, the blood studies suggest that damage occurs well within the current radiation levels permitted for handsets.
But these independent studies are generally inconclusive because they are underfunded, small in scale, and lacking official status. When governments treat the issue seriously they find enough to be concerned about - a UK report recommended that users under 16 should minimize use of cell phones because of the higher absorption rates for radiation in developing bodies.
Unfortunately, the FDA seems more willing to appear on CNN and echo the industry position rather than attempt any serious work on the issue. The FCC is almost silent - it does little more than provide incomprehensible Web information on Specific Absorption Rates. Public demand for this information is certainly there - one private Web site, which aggregates this information into a meaningful handset comparison chart, has attracted over one million visitors since September.
The potential long-term ramifications for the cell phone industry from this issue are enormous. History shows what happened to asbestos and tobacco. Industry attempts to research the issue are largely PR driven and have no credibility. Each new independent study sends the CTIA into reactive spin mode.
The cell phone industry has everything to gain from the truth. After all, this isn't just about the abstract concept of public health. Industry technical workers also endure daily RF exposure, often at much higher levels than a civil cell phone user.
The time has come for a well-funded global research initiative into cell phone safety - completely funded by governments and independent of industry. The judges must remain separate from the plaintiffs.
No one wants to ban the cell phone. But credible biomedical information may inform meaningful changes in handset design that could save lives and deter lawsuits for generations down the line. Clearly, the industry' s lobby groups and vendors - fixated on tomorrow's headlines and quarterly sales can't be trusted with this mission.