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Cell Phones Probed For Double Trouble; Driving Hazard, Cancer Link Feared
San Francisco Chronicle
Journalist: Tom Abate
October 23, 2000

With more than 100 million cell phones in everyday use, questions are being raised about whether these handy devices might boost the risk of brain cancer or increase the chances of having an automobile accident.

``There's not a lot of certainty on either side of these debates,'' said Robert R. Goldberg, editor of Pennsylvania's EMF Health Report newsletter, which has tracked the safety of radio devices for 15 years.

For consumers, the one plus in these safety debates is that cell-phonemakers are trying to lessen both perceived risks, by making it easier to track cell-phone emissions and by providing headsets and mouthpiece attachments for hands-free use while driving.

Questions about the potential cancer-causing effects of cell phones arose during the early 1990s, after a Florida man filed a lawsuit charging that his wife's fatal brain tumor was caused by her cell phone.

Although his case was dismissed for lack of scientific evidence, the suit prompted a wave of studies about the possible cancer-causing effects of cell-phone emissions.

An article in the August issue of the IEEE Spectrum, the scholarly journal of electronics, surveyed the scientific literature on the issue. It divided studies into two main types: epidemiological reports that track brain-cancer rates among cell- phone users, and lab experiments that try to establish cause and effect by exposing animals to radio signals.

Since World War II, when radar came into use, scientists have tried to ascertain which parts of the electromagnetic frequency could have health effects. EMF emissions range all the way from extremely low-frequency waves given off by power lines to ultrahigh-frequency waves from X-ray machines. Cell-phone emissions fall between the radiation emanating from AM/FM radio broadcasts and the output of microwave ovens.

During the 1970s and 1980s, some epidemiological studies showed that children living near power lines suffered childhood leukemia at double the rate of the general population (4 per 100,000 versus 2 per 100,000). But lab experiments failed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship.

As cell phones became more common, concern shifted to whether holding the phone close to the ear could induce a higher rate of brain cancer.

Studies to date are inconclusive, however. Epidemiological studies might not detect an increase in brain cancer rates among cell- phone users -- if there is any link -- because cancers can take 20 or 30 years to develop.

Meanwhile, there have been conflicting results from lab experiments designed to expose cells to the sort of radiation given off by cell phones.

The uncertainty is summed up by a recent pronouncement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: ``There is currently insufficient scientific basis for concluding either that wireless communications technologies are safe or that they pose a (health) risk to millions of users.''

In response to concerns about the cancer issue, most cell-phonemakers will begin providing some information about the emissions coming from their devices. Federal regulations define maximum emissions in terms of a specific absorption rate. This measures how much EMF radiation the device puts out at its peak point. The SAR must be less than 1.6 watts per kilogram.

Beginning in December, cell- phonemakers will put this SAR number somewhere inside the booklet that explains how to use the phone. Higher-powered phones will have SARs approaching the maximum, while phones with lower SARs will necessarily have less power. The industry is eager to avoid having consumers equate lower SARs with higher safety.

``There is nothing to suggest that the difference in the SAR levels means anything to safety,'' said Jo- Anne Basile, a vice president with the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

Meanwhile, experts suggest two easy ways people can minimize their exposure to cell-phone radiation. Avoid using phones where the signal is weak because the phone compensates by boosting its output. Second, consider getting an earpiece and mouthpiece to bring the phone away from the head.

Hands-free headsets, which are priced at less than $15, are also being advanced as a way to lessen the risk of car crashes induced by cell-phone use.

The issue of cell-phone distraction as a cause of accidents has heated up in recent years. Again, experts are divided over whether cell phones pose any greater risk than other common distractions, like tuning the car radio, changing CDs or eating or sipping coffee while behind the wheel.

Since 1995, however, 37 states have proposed bills dealing with cell phones in cars. Some have simply sought to collect data on whether cell phones were used at times of accidents. Others have sought to ban phone use while driving. Most state bills have died. Assemblywoman Audie Bock, Green-Piedmont, recently held hearings on the issue but has not yet proposed legislation.

A handful of cities has banned the use of handheld cell phones while driving, although hands-free phones are permitted.


Industry advocates point out that cell phones have obvious benefits. ``Cell-phone users make over 100,000 emergency calls a day,'' said Dee Yankoskie, another CTIA spokeswoman. Mike Bagley, a public policy spokesman for Verizon Wireless, called cell phones ``the one device you can take into the car that can save your life.''

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) held hearings on cell-phone safety during the summer. The federal regulators concluded that it is impossible to determine whether cell- phone distraction is causing accidents because accident reports don't gather data on which distractions -- cell phones being one of many -- may have caused the accident.

For instance, people involved in accidents could lie about whether a cell phone was in use. Even if a court order produced the phone record proving otherwise, such data would not enable regulators to compare cell-phone distractions to other risks, such as leaning over to tune the radio or glancing at map to look for an exit.

``We don't know the magnitude of the problem and we have no way to collect the data,'' a NHTSA spokesman said.

Even so, federal and state officials are clearly concerned that cell phones will increasingly distract drivers. For one thing, more cell phones are coming into use. In addition, manufacturers are building more features into phones. Newer models will have e-mail and Internet access.

But don't expect federal action soon. ``We're still in the study phase,'' the NHTSA spokesman said.

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