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Are Cell Phones Safe? Questions Remain
Consumer Reports
June, 2004

Because cell phones transmit and receive radio waves, they have long been suspected as a health hazard. None of the research has shown a clear danger, but scientists haven't been willing to conclude that the phones are harmless.

The latest round of research continues the uncertainty. In January 2004, a British government advisory panel reported that research hasn't proved any health hazards, but it cautioned that the possibility of harm remains. The report is one of more than 50 scientific papers published over the past year on cell-phone safety. None proved human health risks.

A study released last June did raise concerns. Investigators from Lund University in Sweden reported that laboratory animals exposed to various levels of cell-phone radiation for 2 hours, under conditions simulating normal human use, showed evidence of nerve-cell damage.

The investigators say the age of the experimental rats make them comparable with human teenagers, whose brains may be “particularly vulnerable” to cell-phone radiation. The researchers concluded: “We cannot exclude that after some decades of often daily use, a whole generation of users may suffer negative effects, perhaps as early as in middle age.”

“This study grabbed everyone‘s attention,” said Louis Slesin, Ph.D., editor of Microwave News, a newsletter that covers health issues related to electromagnetic radiation. “Industry would have you believe that cell-phone radiation is totally benign. But this and other research over the past 10 years suggests that we're not transparent to the radiation.”

Long-term animal studies funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), in Research Triangle Park, N.C., will begin next spring. The studies will use animals starting as embryos through 2 years of age--comparable with humans through their 60s--and should identify any health effects, including whether cell-phone radiation alters the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from toxins in the bloodstream.

“The sooner we get an answer, the better,” said Ron Melnick, Ph.D., the lead toxicologist in charge of cell-phone safety research at the NIEHS’s National Toxicology Program. “Say we saw an effect. I don’t think our studies would eliminate cell phones, but it would drive the technology to look for ways to reduce exposure to the radiation.”

Meanwhile, three studies overseen by the Food and Drug Administration and funded by the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, the industry's trade group, will be presented in Washington in June 2004. None of the studies has yet been published.

The FDA and the Federal Communications Commission, both of which regulate cell-phone safety, say in a joint statement that “if there is a risk from these products--and at this point we do not know that there is--it is probably very small.”

The agencies offer two sensible suggestions, which we echo, for people who are concerned about avoiding even potential radiation risks:

• Use a hands-free set and encourage children and teenagers to do the same. A cell phone's main source of radio-frequency radiation is its transmitter and receiver, so keeping the phone away from the user's head and body minimizes exposure.

• Limit the amount of time you spend on the phone to limit your exposure to radio-frequency radiation.

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