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Canada Probes Cellphone Dangers - Suspicion Of Ill Effects Refuses To Go
The federal Health Department is probing recent reports that link cellular phone use to headaches, memory loss and adverse drug reactions.
The department's radiation protection bureau plans a series of laboratory studies to determine whether cellphones can change brain chemistry and cause health problems.
The bureau, citing the growing body of international research, has also asked Statistics Canada to survey the public on cellphone use to help answer those questions.
A bureau analysis paper obtained by the Citizen says the survey data could identify problems such as headaches, fatigue and depression "that may be related to the length of time a person uses a cellular telephone."
The 10-page paper adds the survey results would help in planning studies to measure "the strength of association" between cellphones and minor ailments as well as serious effects "such as brain cancer, lymphoma and leukemia." The data could also shed light on the potential for harm to cell-phone users who take certain prescription drugs.
"There is a lot of information out there -- a lot of literature that's been published but never independently replicated," said Jack McLean of the bureau's radiobiology division. "But it does raise some very interesting questions that have to be addressed somehow. It is a problem that has to be resolved."
Five million Canadians use cell-phones, a number expected to reach 13 million by 2006. The rapid growth has fuelled concern over the radio frequency field emitted by the phone's antenna, usually held next to the user's head.
The federal government has long maintained there is no conclusive scientific evidence to indicate emissions from cellphones cause health problems.
Safety limits for radiofrequency fields were set well below the lowest level of exposure that could cause harm, based on a consensus of the scientific community.
In recent years, Health Department scientists have conducted studies on fibreglass shells filled with a liquid that has identical properties to the human brain.
However, in light of new studies and growing public uneasiness, the department asked the Royal Society of Canada last August to examine the range of risk factors associated with the radiofrequency fields used for wireless communications, including hand-held phones, transmitter towers and roof-top antennas. The panel is expected to report in March. At the same time, the department's radiation protection bureau has continued to monitor research developments and make plans for future laboratory work.
"Several recent studies have reported an association between the use of cellular telephones and the occurrence of headaches and other minor health-related problems," says the bureau's September 1998 analysis paper, obtained under the Access to Information Act.
Scandinavian researchers, who studied the complaints of 17,000 people, reported last year the risk of headaches was significantly higher among those who used their cellphone more than an hour a day than among those who used it for less than two minutes a day.
Preliminary work on the Health Department's planned laboratory could begin late this month, setting the stage for several years of studies, said Mr. McLean. "This is not the kind of research that will be begun on Monday and finished on Friday."
Initially, the bureau will look at the effects of radiofrequency fields on brain chemistry, which may hold clues to potential interaction with prescription drugs.
The bureau's analysis paper also argues that information on Canadian cell-phone users is "essential for making valid risk assessments" and updating safety guidelines.
"Failure to resolve the issue of cellular telephone use health effects would have a serious economic impact on the telecommunications industry in Canada," the paper warns.
However, an advisory committee decided there was no room for the questions on the latest National Population Health Survey, to be carried out next year.
"There are a great many demands for information," said survey manager Larry Swain. "We just can't meet them all, unfortunately."
The health survey, conducted every two years, already takes up to 90 minutes to answer, making it difficult to add more questions.
Mr. McLean said the department hopes the cellphone questions will be included in the 2002 survey.
"I don't think this issue will go away," he said. "And I think that eventually they will get on there. Somebody has to do it."