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Questions But No Answers
About Cell Phones
Almost since there have been cellular phones, there have been worries that the radio waves they emit might cause brain cancer. Yet despite years of studies, no one has established a solid link, and the industry has long sought to reassure the public that the technology is perfectly safe.
But as the little phones become ubiquitous, the questions persist. News reports suggesting that their microwave radio emissions may be harmful are raising the issue anew among consumers. And public health authorities and other experts say a few recent studies signal the need for more research to resolve an issue that affects hundreds of millions of users worldwide.
"The available science does not allow us to conclude that mobile phones are absolutely safe, or that they are unsafe," the Federal Food and Drug Administration, which regulates devices that emit radiation, said in a statement last week. It emphasized, however, that the available evidence "does not demonstrate any adverse health effects associated with the use of mobile phones."
Experts say they hope a worldwide research effort, including studies under way in the United States, Europe, Australia and elsewhere, will resolve the matter.
One program that did not, despite six years of study and $27 million in spending, was just completed by Wireless Technology Research, an independent research group in Washington under the sponsorship of the wireless phone industry's trade association. This project supported studies by private research organizations and universities, and while it generally found little to link cellular phone use and cancer, some of the research suggested possible correlations that Federal health officials said should be clarified with further study.
And the director of the project, Dr. George L. Carlo, put those concerns more strongly, saying, "The industry should stop saying cell phones are safe without qualification when there is no proof they are and give consumers all the information so they can make intelligent choices."
The F.D.A. announced last week that it had signed a letter of intent with the cellular industry association to look into a possible collaborative project to follow up on clues from the earlier program. "We want to see if researchers can replicate and explain some findings from work previously done by Wireless Technology Research," said Sharon Snider, an F.D.A. spokeswoman.
The agency said these findings needed further attention:
•A hospital study that compared brain cancer patients and a similar group without brain cancer found no statistically significant association between cell-phone use and a group of brain cancers known as glioma. But when 20 types of glioma were considered separately, an association was found between phone use and one rare form. Puzzlingly, however, this risk appeared to decrease rather than increase with greater mobile phone use.
•When a variety of cultured animal cells were exposed to radiation from cell phones to see if it caused cancer-inducing genetic damage, only one test battery, known as a micronucleus assay, produced a negative result on one type of human white blood cells. But these changes were seen only after 24 hours of microwave exposure, raising the possibility that the damage stemmed from heating and not direct radiation exposure.
Some critics have assailed the industry and government regulators for continuing to say the phones appear safe while awaiting further studies. They say health authorities and the industry should do more to warn consumers of the dangers and limit exposure to the suspect radio signals.
These critics have acquired a new ally from an unexpected quarter -- Dr. Carlo, who heads the group that carried out the industry-sponsored research program.
A lawyer with a Ph.D. in pathology, Dr. Carlo says the industry is wrong in assuring the public that cell phones are safe and that no immediate action is necessary. Research results produced through his group and by others, although not conclusive, raise enough alarms to advise consumers to distance themselves from cell phones, he says.
"You don't have to wait for absolute proof of a hazard before taking action," he said.
Dr. Carlo, whose research group goes out of business in December when its mandate ends, said he broke with the industry stance when it did not agree to his suggestion to sponsor an extensive after-marketing research program to continually gather data on possible adverse effects from cell phones. He accused the industry of trying to narrow the focus of research and to "manage" adverse information to protect sales.
Earlier this month, Dr. Carlo sent letters to 30 companies in the cellular industry, saying that adverse effects had been found in a number of studies and that he was "extremely frustrated and concerned that appropriate steps have not been taken by the wireless industry to protect consumers during this time of uncertainty about safety."
Dr. Carlo asked for the companies' help in publishing a consumer information package based on the findings, to be marketed by a company with which he is affiliated. He said in an interview that he simply wanted to produce consumer material that the industry would not.
JoAnne Basile, a vice president with the cellular association who worked with Dr. Carlo, says her group does not fully understand his change of heart or his criticism. Results of the research group's studies have been summarized orally at meetings by Dr. Carlo and some material has been presented to the F.D.A., she said, but none of the work has yet to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals so other scientists can review it and comment. Ms. Basile questioned how such results could be used to fashion policies or recommendations when it has not been scrutinized by scientists at large.
"This group was set up so that it would be independent and the industry would have no control over it or the research results," she said, "The research belongs to the researchers, and it's up to them to publish it."