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About Cell Phone Danger
America’s cell phone users are at risk today because they put their trust in Washington’s watchdogs — and the watchdogs have refused to bark despite unmistakable warning signs right before their eyes.
It is time for someone with a voice of authority to give new commands to the federal government’s too-silent watchdogs:
As a result, 112 million Americans hold their mobile telephones against their heads, trusting that all is well, when they could easily avoid the risk of exposure to radiation from the antenna that is unnecessarily close to their skulls. Cell phone users could all avoid the greatest health risk — the potential of developing brain cancer — just by using a headset, an earpiece at the end of a wire. With that simple device, which costs just a few dollars, people can talk while keeping the antenna safely away from their heads. It’s an easy intermediate safety step we all can take, while scientists spend years determining the ultimate risk of radiation emitted from the cell phone antenna.
Consider what the FDA knows that it has not clearly communicated to the public.
In August 2000, the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health hosted a two-day conference, attended by worldwide scientists, to review crucial new findings. Scientists in a North Carolina laboratory, in research funded by the telecommunications industry, had repeatedly found that when human blood in test tubes was exposed to cell phone radiation, a genetic change occurred — one that cancer experts call a diagnostic marker of high risk for developing cancer. The blood developed high levels of cells containing micronuclei.
That finding had stunned the industry’s hand-picked research coordinator, Dr. George Carlo. He ordered the experiments repeated and received the same results. Ultimately, the industry’s lobbyists were infuriated when Carlo concluded his public health duty required that he make the findings public, to alert cell phone users to take precautions. (Carlo and I recently wrote a book, Cell Phones: Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age, published by Carroll and Graf, which tells the story of this scientific investigation and the political repercussions it triggered.) The FDA conference also studied similar findings of a scientist in St. Louis, funded by Motorola, that cell phone radiation produced micronuclei in mouse tissue.
What do these micronuclei mean for us? FDA officials need only to look at the National Cancer Institute’s files. After the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, scientists from Germany and Italy rushed to the Ukraine and tested the blood of children who lived nearby for one thing: micronuclei. Those with excessive levels were classified at high risk for developing cancer and aggressively treated. That quick micronuclei diagnosis saved lives.
Just one week after that conference, the director of the FDA center that hosted the event appeared on a CNN Larry King Live show about cell phones and health risks — but never mentioned the conference or the findings. The FDA’s Dr. David Feigal said only, “It’s our conclusion that at this time there is no reason to conclude that there are health risks posed by cell phones to consumers.”
That was not just a failure to communicate — it was the ultimate in Washington cynicism. The FDA had evidence of an apparent health risk. But more research was needed to determine how great the risk might be. Especially: whether we will be at much greater risk of brain cancer if we hold this still-new device against our heads for a few minutes each day, for 10, 20, or 30 years.
Here’s a short-term proposal: Just as we cannot buy a car without seatbelts, we should not be able to buy a mobile phone without a protective headset that will keep the antenna safely away from our skulls.
Until science can give us final answers, Washington’s watchdogs can at least warn us of the need to take the basic intermediary steps to protect ourselves.