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Cell Phone Cancer Risk Debated
More than a decade ago, the University of Washington's Henry Lai and his colleague Narenda "N.P." Singh reported that cell phones appear to emit enough electromagnetic radiation to cause the kind of DNA damage to brain cells that can lead to cancer.
Few paid much attention, and mobile phone use exploded. But the UW scientists said they became targets of an industry strategy aimed at discrediting and suppressing studies raising health concerns about cell phone radiation.
"They even wrote letters to the UW trying to get me fired," said Lai, a gentle man who laughs easily despite being on the losing side in a war between business and science.
The latest skirmish to shine a spotlight on this battle – which has moved mostly to Europe because of lack of research funding for it in the U.S. – came last week when a prominent cancer researcher, Dr. Ronald Herberman at the University of Pittsburgh, warned parents against letting young children ever use cell phones.
"Recently, I have become aware of the growing body of literature linking long-term cell phone use to possible adverse health effects, including cancer," Herberman wrote in an advisory that included brain imaging scans showing how radiation from cell phones penetrates much deeper into the heads of children compared with adults.
Herberman suggested that the electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell phones should be of concern to adults as well, citing "unpublished data" from large studies done in Europe that – though not yet definitive – link cell phone use and brain cancers.
Lai, for his part, chuckled at the media frenzy Herberman caused.
"I guess it's only newsworthy when a cancer doctor, who hasn't done any of the research himself, discovers it," Lai said, grinning widely. "We've been saying this for more than a decade."
The UW bioengineering professor emphasized that there is no direct evidence showing that cell phone use causes cancer.
But in the decade since he was attacked by the cell phone industry – Motorola, to be specific – Lai said further epidemiological studies done in Europe show some indication of a cancer link.
Not everyone agrees.
"I consider it alarmist, premature and without any scientific basis," said Dr. Marc Chamberlain, a neuro-oncologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The most alarming studies aren't that credible, Chamberlain said, and the more credible studies done on the potential risk of cancer from cell phone use have failed to document any link.
Herberman's warnings, Chamberlain said, are basically hearsay and border on irresponsible. Brain cancer does appear to be on the increase, Chamberlain said, so it's important not to alarm the public without concrete scientific facts.
John Walls, a spokesman for the cell phone industry trade association CTIA, agreed and noted that numerous studies reviewed by the American Cancer Society, the Food and Drug Administration and other scientific organizations agree that the majority of research shows no convincing evidence of increased cancer rates among cell phone users.
"That may be due to the fact that so many of these studies have been done by scientists funded by the industry," countered Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, a newsletter devoted to getting the word out on evidence of harm from various kinds of electromagnetic radiation.
Given the hundreds of billions of dollars at stake in the cell phone market, Slesin said, the industry is also trying to discredit or redirect the independent science in Europe.
Herberman, he said, was referring to the so-called Interphone study – a 13-country, $15 million European epidemiological study of tumor rates among cell phone users – which was completed in 2005 but remains unpublished because of disagreement among the scientists (some of them funded by industry) on how to interpret the results.
"Industry doesn't like the data," said Slesin, who has quoted some scientists who say the study clearly shows increased cancer rates among cell phone users. "The problem is that we still don't know and the science has been heavily politicized. Henry (Lai) was never alarmist. He just presented his findings and refused to budge from them."
That was in the mid-1990s. Lai and Singh published their findings of DNA damage in rats exposed to relatively low levels of the kind of radiation cell phone users get. At the time, the UW researchers had been working with Motorola, sharing findings and meeting the company's scientists.
"We thought they were collaborating and interested in the science," Singh said.
"We were naive," Lai said.
As they later discovered when an industry memo was leaked to Slesin, and published in 1997 in Microwave News, Motorola had secretly drafted a "war games" memo that aimed to use media relations, industry-paid scientists and any other means possible to discredit and suppress the scientists' findings.
One industry-sponsored scientist even wrote a letter to then-UW President Richard McCormick asking that Lai and Singh be fired, according to a UW spokesperson.
Motorola spokeswoman Paula Thornton Greear, in an e-mail to the Seattle P-I, denied that the company ever sought to suppress Lai's research but rather sought out independent review of the UW's findings.
She said: "It is noteworthy that, despite numerous attempts, other scientists have not been able to confirm Dr. Lai's claims of DNA breaks. In fact, recent scientific reviews have concluded that the weight of scientific evidence demonstrates that RF (radio frequency) exposure does not induce DNA breaks."
Lai noted with a chuckle that if you subtract from the literature all of the industry-funded scientific studies, most research shows evidence of health effects from cell phone use.
Scientists at other institutions they worked with lost funding and university positions as a result of this industry campaign. Lai said the UW, however, supported them despite the industry attacks, but the campaign succeeded in effectively eliminating independent studies of electromagnetism and health in the U.S.
"It's all being done in Europe now," he said.
Well, maybe not all of it. Dr. Sam Milham, a retired Washington state epidemiologist who has for many years studied the health effects of electromagnetic radiation, continues to pursue this question on his own time.
Milham, Lai and other international scientists have formed the BioInitiative Working Group dedicated to improving safety standards for exposure to electromagnetic radiation.
Milham has long believed that even household or office exposures to electromagnetic radiation can be dangerous. But it remains a hard sell, and a hard case to make scientifically.
"Look, people love their cell phones and microwave ovens," Milham said. "Nobody wants to hear this. And even though the corporations have cut off all the research money for this in the U.S., there's plenty of new data supporting this coming out of Europe."
Lai, however, emphasized that scientists still can't say with any certainty that using cell phones causes cancer. But he won't use a cell phone or a wireless headset, which he said puts out just as much radiation.
What the professor said he does know for certain, from personal experience, is the cell phone industry has worked hard to prevent science from resolving the uncertainty.