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Two Billionth Cell Phone User In July: Health Risk Findings Still Contradictory
July 14, 2006

The world’s two-billionth cell phone user was connected up in July. The milestone is a reminder that it is still not clear if the devices are a health menace. Cell phone makers and service carriers say No, but health fears persist.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper, one of many that covered the billionth connection, reminded readers that some experts worry the constant exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) generated by the phones and base stations can lead to acoustic neuroma. The rare and benign tumor of the cranial nerve impairs hearing and balance. The article referred to a 2004 study by the Institute of Environmental Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden that found 10 years or more of cell phone use could increase the risk of the tumor.

Some users report fatigue, headaches and burning skin from using their device. There are claims that EMFs affect the body's cells, brain or immune system, and increases the risk of developing a range of diseases including cancer.

As a measure of interest in the risk question, "cell phone research" turns up 93 million results in one popular search engine and “mobile phone research” turns up 94 million.

The July 2005 issue The Ergomics Report™, a subscription publication for readers with a professional interest in human factors and ergonomics, reported studies that supported the Karolinska findings. It cited a paper published in the June 2005 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that found using a cell phone in rural areas tripled the risk of malignant or benign tumors compared to urban use. The researchers, at the University Hospital in Orebo in Sweden, also found that the risk of malignant brain tumors was eight times as high for those living in rural areas. Dr. Stephan Braune of the University Neurology Clinic in Freiburg, Germany, reported in the June 1998 issue of The Lancet medical journal that EMFs emitted by the telephones could have adverse effects on people suffering from high blood pressure or hypertension.

Other research has explored claims that some individuals are more susceptible to the emissions than others, but a study published in 2005 in Psychosomatic Medicine 67:224-232 tactfully debunks the theory. Led by Dr G. James Rubin of the Mobile Phone research Unit at King’s College, the researchers write: "The symptoms reported by ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’ sufferers can be proven experimentally, suggesting the presence of the condition is unrelated to weak electromagnetic fields."

A Swedish study published in 2002 claimed to have found a link between analogue cell phones and brain tumors, but Dr Christoffer Johansen and colleagues of the Danish Cancer Registry, part of the pan-European Interphone study, refuted the Swedish findings. They found that using a mobile phone does not increase the risk of developing a brain tumor. But Dr Johansen’s paper, published in the journal, Neurology, concludes on a faltering note: "… we still do not know the full story. We advise all people who use a mobile phone to use a hands-free set. It reduces exposure." Cell phone manufacturers are loud in their denials: "Years of scientific research reaffirm there are no health risks associated with wireless phones," said Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak. From Motorola: "Scientific experts review this issue on a continual basis. Their conclusions have been consistent over many years: the radio signals from wireless telephones, two-way radios or other portable communications devices pose no known health risk."

The disputes are fertile ground for scaremongering. Issued by a manufacturer of devices purported to shield users from harmful phone radiation, the scare runs like this: Don't accept the industry denials that mobile phones are safe. Mobile phones could be the cigarettes of the 21st century, with similar legal battles ahead!

The Guardian article points out that expert opinion tilts towards the idea that cell phones are safe to use, but adds the experts generally conclude more research is needed and that children should not be needlessly exposed to cell phones. The caveats are not reassuring.

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