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Professor At UW Studies Effects Of Cell Phones
Seattle, known as a spawning ground for leading cell-phone companies, is also a premier place for science challenging the industry's safety.
For 20 years, Dr. Henry Lai has quietly led the world's efforts to understand the health effects of cellular telephone and tower radiation.
The University of Washington researcher fields calls and e-mails from far-away places on a daily basis. In the last year, he spoke to the House of Commons in London. Last month took him to Portugal.
Locally, though, his fame does not extend beyond academic and activist circles. On campus, he works in obscurity in a small office that belies his scientific stature.
Lai himself seems to play down his role, emphasizing what he doesn't know more than what he does.
"There's no solid answer," Lai said, "but there's cause for concern. I think that's the main point."
That is indeed the main point for cell-tower opponents like Melissa Kaput, who is mobilizing her rural Woodinville-area neighborhood against a proposed Sprint PCS tower.
In her eyes, Lai is an unsung hero, a small voice of reason speaking against a tide of industry opposition.
Kaput heard about Lai's work when she searched the Internet, looking for answers about cell-tower effects. She wanted to know how a cell tower 130 feet away might affect her family and the elderly patients in the adult-care home she runs.
"He's on 90 percent of the research," she said. "He co-wrote 90 percent of the worldwide stuff."
Lai, research professor in the UW Bioengineering Department, has published a number of studies indicating that radiation emitted by cell phones may pose a health hazard.
He found a loss of short-term and long-term memory among rats exposed to radiation similar to what a person experiences in talking on a cell phone for an hour.
His research with rats also showed that brain cells suffer genetic damage from the same kind of radiation emitted by cell phones, a finding documented in other scientists' studies. Such DNA damage is a precursor to cancer.
Nobody has studied the long-term effects of living near cell towers, Lai said.
But he says he would not live next to one himself. And he worries about exposing young children, whose "cells are still dividing."
Activists around the country turn to him for advice in fighting cell towers in their neighborhoods. Lai helped Kaput, the Woodinville woman, hook up with experienced cell-tower opponents in California and Vermont.
Federal law does not allow health concerns to be a factor in siting towers. Lai thinks that's wrong.
"This is a movement," Lai said, noting increased interest in Congress. "The public has to have some kind of input."
None of this sits well with cell-phone companies, including Sprint PCS, the nation's largest all-digital wireless network.
"The industry is very familiar with the work that he's been doing," says Bob Kelley, Western region spokesman for Sprint PCS. "Dr. Lai is really creating scare tactics needlessly."
He echoed the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, which maintains there is nothing to worry about.
"Government agencies in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain, as well as others, are unanimous in stating that the weight of scientific evidence to date shows there are no adverse health effects from the use of wireless phones," the CTIA contends on its website.
In 1999, George Carlo, the leader of an industry-funded research program, publicly warned that "the question of wireless phone safety is unclear" and that the industry was trying to hide it. The association responded with a sharply worded letter denying any health threat.
It's an industry that employs some 16,000 people in the Seattle area, a bigger economic segment than biotech.
Seattle gave birth to such industry giants as McCaw Cellular, later sold to AT&T, and Voicestream.
Washington state is home to more than 5 million wireless phone users. In the 17 years since the phones hit the market, the industry has signed up more than a 100 million subscribers nationwide -- more than a third of all U.S. citizens, according to the CTIA.
Clearly, Lai is reckoning with a formidable force.
Asked to comment on the credibility of his work, Yongmin Kim, chairman of Lai's department, said, "He has been doing that research for quite a long time, and he has an established track record. But this is a very controversial subject."
Kim said there is a body of statistically significant work linking cell-phone use to cancer, although it falls short of definitive proof. For Lai to say more research is needed is "quite valid," he said.
"Our mission is to pursue the truth," Kim said. "Some industry people may not like it, but we still need to let the public know."
For his part, Lai tells people to use cell phones if they need to. He agrees with the industry that a link to cancer has not been proven.
"It's difficult. It's like the beginning of the tobacco lawsuits. It took a long time to establish a cause-and-effect relationship," Lai said.
"Research is a slow process. Scientists are always conservative, too. Nobody will say, 'That's a fact.' "
Maybe not, but there's a man and his rats who will at least raise the question.
"Will all this data apply to humans?" Lai asked. "I don't know."