Dialing 'C' For Cancer
Journalist: Ian Harvey
July 7, 1999
Some fear microwaves could
potentially cause memory loss, headaches and even tumours.
Don't ask for whom the cell
phone rings, it's probably for you.
But at what risk do we answer that call?
We know cell phone users are more likely to have a car accident while using
their phone and that microwaves can disrupt other electronic equipment
causing problems in aircraft and hospitals.
The billion-dollar question, however, revolves around the Big C: Cancer.
The concern is that the microwaves which carry cell phone conversation have
the potential to alter our DNA and our tissues, causing symptoms ranging
from memory loss, to headaches, to full blown tumours.
Those battling the wireless Juggernaut, such as citizen groups fighting to
stop the construction of cell phone towers in their neighbourhoods, point to
now infamous studies that purport to show dramatic cell tissue damage in
mice subjected to microwaves.
The weight of known evidence, however, remains overwhelmingly benign. Last
May the Royal Society of Canada tabled a study from a blue-ribbon panel of
eminent experts which painstakingly reviewed the scientific literature on
the subject and found there isn't any conclusive evidence -- yet anyway.
But that's not the end of the story, says Dr. Daniel Krewski, an
epidemiologist and bio-statistician at the University of Ottawa who chaired
Krewski notes that the controversial studies often cited as evidence that
cell phone, or more specifically microwaves, cause health damage were not
part of the material reviewed.
"We only reviewed published material that had been subject to peer-review."
That effectively eliminated work by Dr. Henry Lai of the University of
Washington in Seattle who with Dr. Narendra Singh found evidence that
low-level microwave radiation could split DNA molecules in live rats, often
cited as the smoking gun .
Unfortunately, Lai became embroiled in a battle with his sponsor, Wireless
Technology Research which received US$27 million funding from the cell phone
industry. "I've never had any problems with my work before," said Lai last
week, sticking to his guns that there is evidence that requires further
Further fuelling the conspiracy fire, last month WTR chairman George Carlo,
the man who originally shot down Lai's work as "amateurish" and
"unprofessional" did an about face and started waving red flags about cell
phones and health concerns at a Long Beach, Calf. symposium in which 42
studies were presented.
But then Carlo found himself the subject of attack with serious questions
about how US$27 million produced so little research over six years.
Talk about a soap opera. For the record WTR, whose contract with the
industry is about to expire, now says out of 42 studies presented, two
showed "positive" results that merit further investigation.
Furthermore, says WTR, Lai's findings were never questioned, merely the way
he presented it to his masters. It says a book of all the studies will be
published this fall while other studies it funded are also in the process of
being published in specialized journals.
"But there are lingering questions about the science, questions about the
selection of Carlo himself and questions about invoices for his expenses,"
says Jeff Silva, a 17-year veteran Washington D.C. reporter for an industry
magazine RCR-GW News.
"I think the burden of proof is on those who feel that there is a health
risk," he said adding that so far no U.S. governmental agency or body, or
the industry itself, has committed to serious and aggressive arm's-length
study and that's what is clearly need. "The fact is that cell phones are
ubiquitous, there's what, 75 million in
use, pretty soon everyone will have one."
Back in Canada Krewski agrees, noting we are still dealing with new
"This is something that we have a limited exposure to, only 10 years or so,"
The bottom line is that more work is needed, especially in the areas of cell
phones and with those who work in areas that are saturated with microwaves.
"There's an international study starting up which will look at data in 14
countries," said Krewski but adds it'll take five years to complete.
So, cell phone addicts have few options: carry on as usual or fit the phone
with some kind of shield, or condom, designed to protect the user from the
The problem, with the latter solution, of course, is that if we haven't
established the harmful effects, how can you possibly engineer a foolproof
In the meantime, we're collectively on hold.
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