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The Cell Phone Safety Disconnect
Journalist: David Kirkpatrick
August 28, 2002

A new study and a new lawsuit bring up an old question: Does radiation from cell phones cause brain tumors?

At last year's Nokia analyst meeting in New York, the scene in the hallways was telling. At every break, hordes of analysts and pundits rushed out to make calls. Nothing unusual about that. But more than half of these callers were using a headset wire with their cell phones. When the wireless experts make calls, they play it safe.

I've written about the potential health effects of electromagnetic fields from cell phones and other devices intermittently for over a decade. The conclusion of every article has been that simply not enough is known to say whether cell phones are safe, and that in the absence of reassurance from science, caution--like that displayed by the Nokia analysts--is wisest.

Publicity about cell phone safety waxes and wanes--and mostly depends on whether a prominent lawsuit against the cell phone industry by a brain cancer victim is underway. Lately the issue has reemerged: Several breakthrough studies have recently been announced, and a major lawsuit could soon hit the papers.

The most potentially incendiary study was published about two weeks ago in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention. A team led by Swedish epidemiologist Lennart Hardell demonstrated that users of analog (non-digital) cell phones were significantly more likely to develop a brain tumor than non-users: the longer the use of the phones, the greater the risk of cancer. The study also found that people who had brain tumors were more likely to have them on the side of the head where they held their cell phones. This second result applied not only for analog cell phones, but also for digital ones and even for cordless home phones--even though for non-analog cell phone users there was no evidence that the use of the phones was associated with the onset of the cancer itself.

Separately, scientist Dariusz Leszczynski recently published results in a Finnish study that found clear effects in the laboratory on human cells after one hour's exposure to cell phone-type radiation. The radiation seems to affect a variety of proteins in the cells, leading them to shrink. Though there is no evidence that this is a health risk, Leszczynski says he worries that such changes in the brain--right next to the phone--might increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, which could be dangerous.

The cell phone industry basically dismisses all this research. They say that the studies are poorly conducted, irrelevant, or they use whatever other argument will yank the data out of the news. Such behavior would be more respectable did not the same group of companies and its Cellular Telephone Industry Association (CTIA) discourage additional research. At this point there is very little work on cell phone safety being done in the U.S. Almost all the major research is going on in Europe. Official government bodies or advisory groups in France, Germany, and the UK recommend reducing exposure to phone radiation as much as possible. U.S. regulators are silent on the matter.

The industry is clearly terrified of liability. It is very much in its interest that no health risks would be found. A federal judge in Baltimore is currently conducting hearings to decide whether or not to let the case of a brain-cancer-stricken neurologist go to a jury trial. Dr. Christopher Newman has sued a variety of cell phone players--manufacturers, service providers, and the CTIA. It may be significant that Newman is represented by the firm of Peter Angelos, who has reaped huge fees from courtroom victories against cigarette manufacturers. If this goes to trial, expect major headlines this fall on cell phone safety.

Safety regulations on phones are determined by the amount a phone heats human tissue. This is because scientists have no explanation of how high-frequency electromagnetic fields like those emitted by cell phones could cause damage to human tissue other than through heating. Such non-ionizing radiation is incapable of breaking the bonds in cells, as does ionizing radiation like x-rays. Many still dismiss results like Leszczynski's because nobody has come up with a mechanism that could explain them. Therefore the presumption is that the results must be an aberration.

Louis Slesin, editor of "Microwave News," is by far the most comprehensive source of information about the safety of electromagnetic fields. I lunched with Slesin recently to ask his opinion of the re-emerging hullabaloo. Sadly, this man who tracks every result of every study was no more definitive than at our last lunch several years ago. "Anybody who tells you that cell phones are either safe or unsafe doesn't know what they're talking about," Slesin said. "It remains an open question."

Nonetheless, Slesin pointed to the recent biological data as well as extensive information documenting cognitive and sleep effects from phone use. "It shows you that the radiation gets in there and it does something! They can't figure out the non-thermal mechanisms, but nobody's really spent much time trying." He notes that the use of new techniques, like those of proteomics, are promising for pursuing an explanation for results like Leszczynski's. And earlier this year a paper published by a British scientist showed that cell phone-type radiation increased the fertility of one type of worm. Any evidence of biological effects of cell phone radiation--and there has been a steady trickle of it for years--is potentially worrisome.

About one billion people worldwide now use cell phones, and the number is growing rapidly. "Say we finally learn that the phones only affect .1% of users," postulates Slesin. "Even so the numbers will be astronomical--that's one million people."

Some have called the use of cell phones the biggest biological experiment in history. Of course we all get marvelous efficiencies from our phones that could even be worth some minor health risks. But we ought to know what we're getting into. It's shameful that the U.S. industry doesn't have even one leader like Bill Ford in the automobile industry--someone who will step up and admit that there is a credibility gap between users and the companies that must be addressed. The way to address it is through more and aggressive research.

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