Jury Still Out On Health Effects
Of Cell Phone Use
Newhouse News Service
Journalist: David Wood
September 01, 2006
Six years ago, about a year after he began using a cell phone, Nathan Parr's left temple began to ache.
The stabbing pains would come two to three times an hour, lasting five
to 10 minutes at a time. For six years, the headaches continued,
subsiding when he left his cell phone at home in Portland, Ore., during
regular travels to India.
Reflecting on questions about cell phones from his massage therapist
and his qigong practitioner, he began to draw a connection between his
headaches and the fact that he often held his cell phone against his
Today, his headaches are disappearing.
"I started using my cell phone less," says the 34-year-old travel
agent, who believes that cell-phone use was one of several factors that
created his headaches. "I use the speaker phone on my cell."
Despite Parr's experience, scientific studies worldwide so far suggest
that complaints such as his have little to do with cell phones.
"There is no scientific evidence to date that proves that wireless
phone usage can lead to cancer or a variety of other health effects,
including headaches, dizziness or memory loss," the Federal
Communications Commission tells consumers on its Web site, echoing the
conclusions of other federal agencies, the World Health Organization
and other nations.
On the other hand, there remains no conclusive proof that cell phones don't create harmful effects.
"Although most of the epidemiological and laboratory studies conducted
on the issue have found no adverse health effects," the U.S. Government
Accountability Office reported in 2001, "the findings of some studies
have raised questions about possible cancer and non-cancer effects that
require further investigation."
One series of studies, for example, found that exposing blood cells to
cellular-type radio waves changed their genetic material. Other studies
have suggested that cell-phone radiation could accelerate or contribute
to cancer in lab animals.
However, the studies that detect health hazards are, by and large,
contradicted by vastly more numerous studies that can't reproduce those
results or produce conflicting results.
The need to clear up the uncertainty has become pressing. An estimated
218 million Americans subscribe to a cell-phone service, nearly three
out of every four men, women and children. Worldwide, wireless
subscribers should top 2 billion next year, according to In-Stat/MDR, a
high-tech market-research firm.
"Given the immense number of people who use mobile phones," the World
Health Organization says, "even a small increase in the incidence of
adverse effects on health could have major public health implications."
One of the most ambitious recent studies, the so-called Reflex Project
sponsored by the British government, seeks to establish whether
low-level radio waves can wreak havoc at the microscopic level of cells
and molecules. If so, that would explain how cell phones could cause
Although conventional wisdom says such waves are too weak to affect
health, Reflex found evidence that cell-phone radiation was breaking up
strands of DNA and causing genetic aberrations in cells.
The study's authors wrote that the evidence moved illness-causing cell
phones "nearer into the range of the possible."
"Furthermore," they added, "there exists no justification anymore to
claim that we are not aware of any pathophysiological mechanisms which
could be the basis for the development of functional disturbances and
any kind of chronic diseases in animal and man."
One of the most pressing health questions -- and one that has barely
been addressed -- is the long-term effect of cell-phone use on children.
Motorola, America's leading cell-phone maker, with 32 percent of the
market, cites the World Health Organization and other authorities in
saying "there is no health-related reason to limit usage by children."
"If parents choose to provide their children with mobile phones," the
company says in a statement on its Web site, "they can do so with
comfort in the safety of those products."
The WHO, in fact, does acknowledge that international guidelines appear to protect children adequately.
"However," the organization adds, "given the uncertainty about effects
in children, the use of measures that reduce their exposure, in
addition to the adoption of international standards, seems appropriate."
Moreover, the creator of the guidelines, the International Commission
for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, notes that "almost no data are
available on the consequences of childhood exposure."
It's not surprising that few data on children exist. More than half of
all U.S. cell-phone subscribers, including children, have used their
phones for six years or less. That's too brief a time for many
potential long-term health problems to have emerged. Moreover, most
group studies have concentrated on adults -- or were conducted before
most people had cell phones.
In the United Kingdom, the government also is calling for caution about children.
"For exposure to mobile phones," the U.K.'s National Radiological
Protection Board reported in 2004, "there are conflicting reports as to
whether there is a significant increase in the SAR (a measure of
radiation) absorbed in the head, and particularly in the brain, for
children compared to adults. This is an area where clarification is
Health organizations have also identified the elderly and people on
certain medications as potentially vulnerable to low-level radio waves.
Some adult human studies have shown changes in blood pressure, brain
activity, reaction times and sleep patterns. The WHO says those
physiological effects are small and apparently benign.
"Using a cell phone is not innocuous," E. Roy John, director of New
York University Medical Center's Brain Research Laboratories, told
HealthDay News in June. "It has an effect on your brain. Whether that's
good or bad, we don't yet know, but it's definitely having an effect."
John was responding to a report in the Annals of Neurology that a cell
phone's electromagnetic field can excite some cells in the brain's
cortex next to the phone while inhibiting others. The study's Italian
authors suggested that the findings might be good news for people with
migraines, stroke or dementia, bad news for those with epilepsy.
The U.K.'s National Radiation Protection Board, in a review of work
done by other nations and scientific groups between 2000 and 2004,
noted that scientists were finding the kinds of biological effects that
the Italian researchers would find this year.
"Overall," the board reported, "the reports acknowledge that exposure
to low-level RF (radio-frequency) fields may cause a variety of subtle
biological effects on cells, animals or humans, particularly on brain
activity, but the possibility of exposure causing adverse health
effects remains unproven."
Like everyone else, the board recommended further study.
If using a mobile phone makes you nervous, you can take several steps
to reduce your exposure to the radio-frequency radiation that such
phones generate. These suggestions come from the National Cancer
Institute and from "Cell Phones: Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age"
by Martin Schram and Dr. George Carlo, the cell-phone industry's former
top health adviser.
-- Use a hands-free headset or earpiece so that the phone's antenna is
away from your head. Note: Several studies have discovered the use of a
hands-free headset or earpiece may present a higher risk than holding a
mobile phone against the ear, and few studies have assessed the safety of
increasingly popular wireless Bluetooth headsets, which use weak radio
waves to communicate with phones.
--Extend the phone's antenna as far as
-- Avoid using the cell phone when signal strength is low. The phone is
working harder -- that is, emitting more radiation -- trying to
establish and maintain a connection.
-- Avoid letting children younger than 10 use cell phones regularly.
For communication, consider giving them pagers instead.
-- Use cell phones for shorter conversations and for times when conventional phones aren't available.
-- If you have an internal pacemaker, keep cell phones at least eight inches away from the device.