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Cell Study: Hazards Are
The cellular phone industry probably didn't pay researchers US$27 million dollars hoping they'd produce bad news about the health effects of cell phones.
Nonetheless, an industry-funded study has done just that.
"These data are the first data that are directly relevant to the human-exposure situation," said Dr. George Carlo, chairman of Wireless Technology Research, or WTR. "Prior to this, the studies were largely speculative."
A set of results from a variety of studies were presented at a WTR-sponsored colloquium Saturday and Sunday. The latest findings suggest a correlation between cell phone emissions and a slightly higher incidence of human brain tumors, cell growth in human blood micronuclei, and DNA breakage in rats.
While the findings are far from conclusive, they are the first from an organization like the industry-supported Wireless Technology Research.
"You would come to the [possible] conclusion that RF [radio frequencies] causes genetic damage," Carlo said. "That is a huge surprise."
The findings represent a need for coordinated public health action while there is more investigation into the hazards, he added. "When you have 200 million people who are being exposed to cell phones, you can't wait around for the slow scientific process to work."
Some of the conclusions are roughly parallel to studies that have found DNA breakage caused by microwave emissions, which are near cell phones on the radio frequency spectrum.
Another group of researchers funded by the industry organization suggested that a cell phone's "non-ionizing" radiation could cause the growth of cells in the micronuclei of human blood samples.
Washington-based Wireless Technology Research was established in 1993 to address the public health risks from wireless communication technologies. The organization is also creating a scientific database for use in making public health decisions related to cell phone manufacturing and use. Its US$27 million budget comes from the cellular phone industry.
Paul Joseph Morrissey, the head of Motorola's biological research program, sought to downplay the findings.
"We saw both effects and no effects, and we need to replicate [the studies] to assess the results," said Morrissey. The findings were just a few among a far greater number of studies showing negative results -- or no effects -- when examining the effects of cell phone radiation on everything from rats' brains to in vitro human tissue.
"The results of genotoxicity studies using radio frequency exposure at nonthermal levels continue to be predominantly negative," Morrissey said during his presentation. "Any new positive genotoxic finding must be carefully and independently replicated by another laboratory before it can be considered as a genuine nonthermal effect."
The findings weren't surprising to critics and activists, who've been pointing to studies dating as far back as 1995.
DNA breaks were found in an oft-cited study conducted by University of Washington researchers Dr. Henry Lai and Dr. Narendra P. Singh. In 1994, the researchers say they tried to alert the WTR in 1994 to their experimental data showing DNA damage in live rats from microwave exposure. In March of this year, they charged in a letter published in Microwave News that these attempts were met with stonewalling and foot-dragging.
Given this history, critics charge the WTR data is too little and too late.
"You spend $25 million, and you have two
reports? Where did the money go?" said
He said no one knows conclusively whether or not there are negative health impacts of cell phones -- and that's the problem. "No one really expected to really know whether cell phones are safe with $25 million," he said. "But we should know a lot more."
By now the industry and government should have implemented more conclusive research and precautionary public health measures, he said.
In Switzerland, for example, the government recently approved precautionary rules for cell phone exposure. The restrictions set limits for cell phone power levels that are substantially lower than US standards.
The WTR's Carlo was among the most vocal public health advocates at the colloquium, calling for immediate steps to begin tracking and coordinating all cell phone research. Slesin called Carlo's comments ironic, but nonetheless seconded his demands.
Carlo admonished one panel, "This would be just a scientific issue -- but for the 200 million people around the world using this technology."