Cell Phones: We Need More Testing
Journalist: Norm Alster
August 14, 2000
Back in the early 1980s, there were 35 researchers at the Environmental
Protection Agency exploring the biological effects of radiation from cell
phones and other devices. But by 1987, budget cuts had shut the program
down. Since then, the Federal Communications Commission and the Food & Drug
Administration have regulated wireless communications with a feathery touch.
This hands-off approach no longer seems appropriate. Despite repeated safety
assurances from the cell-phone industry, scientists keep turning up
disturbing signs. On July 31, a survey of recent safety studies was released
by George L. Carlo, a pathologist and professional research administrator
who ran a $25 million industry-funded risk investigation. Some studies in
the survey--which appeared on the respected medical Web site Medscape--showed
evidence of gene damage in blood cells exposed to cell-phone radiation.
Others indicated heightened tumor rates in cell-phone users. ''At the very
least, the data say that claims of absolute safety would be irresponsible,''
declares Carlo, who now runs a for-profit research company called Health
Risk Management Group.
LEGAL ACTION. Carlo's report doesn't prove that cell phones cause cancer or
other diseases. But many experts echo his concerns. Leif G. Salford, a
professor of neurosurgery at the University of Lund in Sweden, found that
microwave radiation at cell-phone frequencies can weaken the blood-brain
barrier in rats. In May, a British government report recommended that
children not be exposed to mobile phones. Italy and Switzerland have slashed
allowed radiation emissions from cellular base stations.
Belatedly, the U.S. government is also taking action. In early June, partly
in response to recent studies, the FDA announced it would help supervise a
new industry-sponsored research program. And in July, the industry announced
plans to provide labels disclosing how much radiation phones emit.
But for an industry struggling to boost consumer confidence, these steps may
be too little, too late. It is certainly past time to keep the issue from
spilling into the courts. On Aug. 1, Christopher J. Newman, a 41-year-old
neurologist who developed a brain tumor, sued Motorola Inc. and several
wireless carriers in state court in Baltimore. The suit alleges that the
companies failed to disclose known radiation hazards from cell-phone use.
And lawyer Peter G. Angelos, who helped win huge settlements against the
asbestos and tobacco industries, told Business Week he has been approached
by several brain-tumor victims. He won't file suit unless he's ''90% sure''
of victory, but says he is ''very intensively'' studying this area.
The FDA's participation in a Cooperative Research & Development Agreement (CRADA)
with the cellular industry is an encouraging step. Unfortunately, the effort
is flawed. It's troubling that the industry is picking up the bill and will
choose which projects receive funding. With cellular companies adamantly
insisting that the phones are safe, only research that is designed and
funded independently--presumably by the government--would have full
credibility. ''How can [the FDA] claim to be impartial if they are taking a
lot of money from industry to do research?'' asks Dr. W. Ross Adey,
distinguished professor of physiology at the Loma Linda (Calif.) School of
The industry, for its part, finds plenty of fault with Carlo, the man
fanning the latest round of concerns. Some of the findings he posted last
week have not yet been replicated. And a top researcher in the program
he administered challenges his interpretation of the brain-tumor data.
What's more, Carlo is on disputed ground in his claim that low levels of
radiation alone--as opposed to heat from the cellular handset--could cause
medical problems. Motorola director of biological research, Dr. Mays L.
Swicord, insists there is no repeatable or established evidence of
biological effects from cell-phone radiation.
Henry Lai, research professor of bioengineering at the University of
Washington, disagrees: Looking at about 200 research papers published since
1996 on the impact of microwave radiation, he found that 80% of them
reported biological effects. ''These include behavioral effects on brain
function, effects on the immune system, and genetic effects,'' he says. Lai
has also found DNA damage in rats exposed to microwave radiation at power
levels similar to those produced by cell phones.
Who's right? There isn't enough information yet to judge. As Sweden's
Salford puts it, cell phones constitute ''the world's largest biological
experiment ever.'' Only well-designed and supervised science will tell us
whether and how cell phones affect human cells--and calm consumers'
increasingly frayed nerves.
Top of Page