Wake Up Call: Study Finds Link
Between Cell Phones/Brain Tumor
Journalist: By Nancy Mcvicar
October 13, 2004
People who have used cell phones for at
least 10 years may have an increased risk of developing a rare brain
tumor, according to a study published Wednesday in the international
A team of researchers at Institute of Environmental Medicine at
the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, found almost a four-fold
increase of the tumors -- known as acoustic neuromas -- on the side of
the head where the phone was most often held.
The work was done as part of the World Health Organization's cell
phone research agenda, and experts in the field said it must be taken
seriously and is likely to rekindle consumer worries about the risks of
using the phones.
"The Karolinska researchers are respected around the world and
this study will force health agencies to take a fresh look at mobile
phone risks," said Louis Slesin, publisher of Microwave News, who has
been covering the industry since its early days. "This study should put
an end to the industry's call to stop mobile phone health research."
At least one past study conducted for the cell phone industry had
also suggested a link between the phones and this type of tumor. But
cell phone industry officials on Wednesday said the Swedish research is
just one study and that no conclusions can be drawn from it.
The study, involving 150 acoustic neuroma patients and 600 healthy
people, is one of at least six studies that have investigated possible
links between cell phone use and acoustic neuromas. Most of those
studies had fewer long-term users than the Karolinska study.
Acoustic neuromas are slow-growing non-cancerous tumors that
develop on a nerve linking the brain and the inner ear. The most common
first symptom is hearing loss, but as the tumor grows it can push
against brain tissue. If not treated, it can be life-threatening. Such
tumors are very rare, occurring in about one person per 100,000 in the
"It's a natural place to look (for a problem) because this is the
area of the head that is exposed," said Anders Ahlbom, director of the
Institute of Environmental Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in
Stockholm. When a cell phone is in use, it emits radio-frequency
radiation, some of which is absorbed in areas of the head closest to
To conduct the three-year study, the Karolinska researchers
interviewed people who had developed the tumors -- asking about their
cell phone use, how many different phones they had used, the make and
model, duration of calls, whether they used a hands-free set and on
which side of the head they held the phone.
Researchers said they found no association between the tumors and
the amount of use measured in hours or cumulative number of calls, but
rather on the length of time those in the study had been regular users
of cell phones. Regular use was defined as an average of at least once
a week during six months or more.
Ahlbom said in a phone interview that the data are strong and
statistically significant, but the findings must be confirmed by
follow-up studies. He said the mechanism by which cell-phone radiation
might cause tumors remains unknown.
Dr. David Savitz, chairman of the department of epidemiology at
the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, Chapel Hill,
said the new findings "suggest something a little bit troublesome."
"It is significant in the sense that it is the first well-designed
study to show this," Savitz said. "There was an earlier study that came
out but it didn't have as many people with long-term use."
Dr. Henry Lai, research professor of bioengineering at the
University of Washington in Seattle, also said the Karolinska study is
not the first to show a link between cell phones and acoustic neuromas.
"Another Swedish researcher, Dr. (Lennart) Hardell found similar
results in 2002," Lai said, "so this is, in effect, a replication. I
think the data are quite solid and are cause for concern on long-term
cell phone use."
Lai's own research found DNA breaks in the brain cells of animals
exposed to radio frequency radiation, results which were first
published in 1994, and have been repeated by others, he said.
"We looked at DNA damage in animals, not in humans, and found that
cell phone radiation can damage DNA," he said. The body's immune system
has the ability to repair DNA breaks, but sometimes it can make a
mistake and cause a mutation, which could be the first step toward
cancer, Lai said.
Sam Milham, of Olympia, Wash., an epidemiologist and pioneer in
studying the effects of electromagnetic radiation on humans, said it
usually takes 20 years or more for solid tumors to develop.
"I'm actually astonished that they found anything like this this
early," Milham said. "If that energy can do that to normal nerve tissue
cells, what can it do to adjacent brain cells? I think it's the tip of
a big iceberg, and the peak could be at 25 years past exposure.
"What's really alarming is that in the last five years an enormous
number of people started using cell phones, including kids, so I think
this is just the beginning of it. I hope I'm wrong."
According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet
Association's Web site, updated daily, there are more than 170 million
wireless subscribers in the United States.
The safety of cell phones was first called into question by the
death of a Florida woman, Susan Reynard of Madeira Beach, from a brain
tumor. In January 1993, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published a
story about a lawsuit filed by her husband David alleging that the
cellular phone he bought her while she was pregnant, caused or
accelerated the growth of the tumor that killed her. The case was later
dismissed for lack of scientific evidence.
At the time it was filed, the cell phone industry association, the
CTIA, said thousands of studies had been done showing the phones were
safe, but then was not able to provide any. The industry pledged to
spend $25 million on research to prove the phones are safe.
At least three federal agencies, the Food and Drug Administration,
the Federal Communications Commission, and the Environmental Protection
Agency each has some role in regulating radio frequency radiation, but
only recently has the federal government committed funds to studying
the cell phone issue, and those studies are not expected to be
completed for five to seven years.
Dr. George Carlo, an epidemiologist then working at George
Washington University School of Medicine, coordinated the
industry-supported project that began in the mid-1990s. When the money
ran out in 2000, Carlo said more research was needed because one study
showed the risk of acoustic neuroma was 50 percent higher in people who
used cell phones for six years or more, and that there appeared to be a
correlation between brain tumors on the right side of the head and the
use of the phones on that side.
Carlo could not be reached on Wednesday, but the CTIA issued a statement on the Karolinska findings:
"This is just one study on this particular subject and no
conclusions can be drawn from it," said spokesman John Walls. "The
wireless industry agrees that more research is needed in this area to
provide definitive answers to any questions that might still exist.
Numerous independent scientific bodies have conducted research on
possible health effects from using wireless phones and it is widely
accepted that no conclusive link can be made."
Mays Swicord, director of electromagnetic energy research at
Motorola in Plantation, Fla., one of the world's largest manufacturers
of wireless products, said the Karolinska study has to be taken in
context alongside 1,300 other peer-reviewed publications on radio
frequency radiation and health. No consistent evidence has been
observed for an increased risk of cancer, he said.
Swicord said the Swedish study findings eventually will be pooled
with similar studies under way in 12 other countries as part of the
so-called INTERPHONE study, an international collaboration coordinated
by WHO's cancer research institute, the International Agency for
Research on Cancer.