Federal Investigation Will
Examine Safety Of Cell Phones
Journalist: Nancy McVicar
November 17, 2003
More than 10 years after the safety of cellular telephones was called into
question by the death of a Florida woman from a brain tumor, the federal
government is preparing to launch a multimillion dollar investigation into
potential cancer-causing or toxic effects associated with the phones.
When Susan Reynard, 33, of Madeira Beach, Fla., died in 1992, 10 million
people in this country were using cell phones. Today 150 million Americans,
including children and teenagers, put the phones up against their heads
every day, yet no government agency vouches they are safe.
With 1.5 billion people using wireless phones worldwide, and more devices
such as personal computers rapidly switching to wireless technologies,
getting answers to the health questions has become crucial.
Gary Brown, an adjunct professor in technologies at
Florida's Nova Southeastern University, said people don't realize the issue
of cell phone safety has not been settled.
"The industry says there's no problem and the public remains ignorant.
Adults can do what they want, but where the issue becomes critical is with
children," Brown said.
The new federal research will follow up on studies that have been going on
in 15 other countries around the world under a World Health Organization
research agenda developed since the Reynard case prompted consumer worries.
At least one of those studies has caused concern that children and teens
might be adversely affected.
Dr. Lief Salford of Lund University in Sweden, who
has called the evolution of wireless phones "the largest biological
experiment in the history of the world," reported in June that cell phone
radiation damaged neurons in the brains of young rats.
The study showed cells in the parts of rats' brains that control sensation,
memory and movement died after being exposed to various cell phones at
different levels of radiation for two hours.
"The situation of the growing brain might deserve
special concern, since biological and maturational processes are
particularly vulnerable," Salford said.
He cautioned that it is possible that after decades of daily use a whole
generation of users may suffer negative effects as early as middle age. The
paper was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a U.S. National
Institutes of Health journal.
Plans for the new federal research - what will be studied, how the studies
will be done, what types of animals will be used, and how they will be
exposed to the radiation - will be determined by the U.S. National
Toxicology Program, a division of the National Institute of Environmental
Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health. The program will
also get some guidance from the FDA and the National Institute of Standards
Because of the time it takes to plan such a project and seek proposals for
carrying out the research, the work is not expected to get underway until
2005 and won't be completed for six to seven years.
Ron Melnick, a toxicologist and director of special programs at NTP, said at
least $10 million has been earmarked for the research initiative.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has health-related jurisdiction
over the phones but no money for research, recommended the NTP get involved,
"There's also been a fair bit of interest from the U.S. Congress about what
the U.S. government is doing and why aren't we doing more," Melnick said.
U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., both
requested the U.S. General Accounting Office investigate the issue of cell
phone safety. The GAO has produced two reports, one in 1994 and another in
2001, both calling for more research.
Wireless phones emit radio frequency radiation as they transmit a signal
that can be picked up by a base station miles away. The radiation is called
non-ionizing and is on the same part of the radio frequency spectrum as
microwave ovens and radar. Some of the low-level radiation enters the user's
head, and the concern is that such exposures might lead to health problems.
The United Kingdom and some other countries have
issued cautions about cell phone use, particularly warning parents to limit
the amount of time a child spends talking on a cell phone, because not
enough is known about the effects of the radiation on developing brains.
The FDA and the Federal Communications Commission, agencies that both have
some jurisdiction over the phones, have a joint Web site that says: "The
available scientific evidence does not show that any health problems are
associated with using wireless phones. There is no proof, however, that
wireless phones are absolutely safe."
In January 1993, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel
published a story about a lawsuit filed by David Reynard of Madeira Beach
alleging that the cellular phone he bought his wife, Susan, caused or
accelerated the growth of a brain tumor that took her life in May 1992. The
story was picked up by other media, including CNN, and worries from the
public caused wireless stocks to temporarily plummet.
The wireless industry at first said thousands of studies had proved
emissions from the phones were safe, but when asked to produce them, said
none or few had been done at cellular phone frequency levels.
The FDA issued an advisory recommending that people keep their calls short,
saying, "if there is a risk from these devices - and at this point we don't
know if there is - it is probably small."
But an internal memo written in April 1993 by two scientists in the FDA's
Center for Devices and Radiological Health shows the agency was concerned.
"There are a few reported experiments which bear directly on the question of
cancer progression and chronic low-level exposures," said the memo,
co-authored by Mays Swicord, who now works for Motorola in Plantation, Fla.
"This small and incomplete database strongly suggests that under at least
some circumstances these exposures do indeed accelerate the development of
cancer by some unknown mechanism," said the memo obtained this year by
Microwave News, a New York-based publication that has covered the industry
for two decades.
The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, the trade
association that represents cell phone manufacturers and service providers,
pledged in mid-1993 to pay for the necessary research to prove the phones
cause no harm.
Jo-Anne Basile, vice president of the CTIA, said she could not provide a
list of the studies paid for with the CTIA's $25 million or their findings.
"It was completed in 1999, and there was some frustration in the fact that a
number of the studies did not get published. The projects ended and they
were never submitted for publication," Basile said.
Instead, she pointed to reviews of hundreds of studies done by scientists in
"To date they've found nothing to suggest there was any adverse health
effects with cellular phones," Basile said, "but some said more research is
needed before we can be definitive about this."
Critics say the CTIA's research agenda was ill conceived.
"(The industry) never funded the real work - the blood-brain barrier work,
the sleep work, the DNA breaks - the things people were concerned about,"
said Louis Slesin, publisher of Microwave News.
"We still don't really know much. You can't say they're safe; you can't say
they're not safe, but what we've learned certainly doesn't allow us to
discount the risk, " Slesin said.
Dr. George Carlo, an epidemiologist at The George Washington University, who
was in charge of the industry's $25 million research program, announced in
1999 at the conclusion of his contract that two studies showed a possible
cancer risk and that more research should be done.
The industry agreed to pay for the follow-up studies, but that work, which
is being monitored by the FDA, is not yet complete. Carlo could not be
reached for comment.
At the time of the Reynard case, many scientists dismissed any health risks
by saying the phone emissions were not strong enough to heat tissue, and
that heating was necessary to cause damage.
W. Ross Adey, distinguished professor of physiology at Loma Linda University
School of Medicine in Loma Linda, Calif., said that attitude is changing,
even among military researchers who are working on non-lethal microwave
weapons that could alter consciousness by interfering with brain activity or
be used to stun.
"In a report in 2002, they point out that old notions that we knew
everything about microwave interactions with tissue based solely on heating
is worthless, and we have to deal now with non-thermal effects," he said.
"It involves a whole new area of science," said Adey, who has done research
in the field for 40 years.
"Tissue has its own communication system, and that communication system
allows cells to whisper together with a faint and private language that has
not been realized until very recently," Adey said.
Cell phone radiation may interfere with that communication, he said.
Some animal and test-tube studies have found no ill effects from radio
frequency radiation, but others have found evidence of breakage in DNA
strands, sleep and memory problems, brain cell death or damage, leakage
through the blood-brain barrier (nature's way of protecting brain tissue
from toxins) and other problems.
Swicord, now director of electromagnetic energy research at Motorola, one of
the world's largest manufacturers of wireless products, who wrote the FDA
memo in 1993 about possible dangers, says now there is no reason for
"In the last 10 years, the world has spent $200 million on this research,"
To be considered valid, scientific studies must show the same or similar
results when repeated by other researchers, and that has not happened, he
Dr. Henry Lai, research professor of bioengineering at the University of
Washington, who found DNA breaks in animals exposed to RF radiation, has
done his own review of the research findings from around the world and has a
"There are 172 studies up to today that I can find, and quite a lot of them,
about half, found some kind of effects," Lai said.
"Some came up with very interesting data, including a series of studies by (Lennart)
Hardell, of Sweden. He published several papers and found depending on which
side you use the phone, there tends to be a higher rate of cancer on that
side of the head," Lai said. "But some people think it's still too soon to
see any cancer effects, because usually, brain tumors take many years."
Some brain tumors have a latency period of 10 to 20 years before they become
large enough to cause symptoms.
Hardell published some of his findings in the International Journal of
Oncology in February. He found a 30 percent greater risk of developing a
brain tumor among people who had used cell phones, compared with a similar
population of people who did not.
Studies looking for an increased incidence of cancers among cell phone users
in this country found none, however. The studies were published in late 2000
and early 2001 in two prestigious medical journals, the New England Journal
of Medicine and JAMA. The researchers said, however, that the studies did
not answer questions about long-term use of the phones.
Reynard's lawsuit eventually was dismissed for lack of scientific evidence,
and many similar cases during the past decade have met the same fate. To
present scientific evidence in court requires that it be widely accepted in
the scientific community, and so far there is no consensus.
Robert Kane, a former engineer with Motorola and author of a book called
Cellular Telephone Russian Roulette, sued his employer after developing a
brain tumor. He alleged the tumor was caused by exposures from a prototype
phone he tested. His case also was dismissed.
"The issue really is what happens to a cell phone user 10 years from now.
There are more than a billion people using these phones, and a fairly strong
body of literature that says there could be a problem," Kane said.
"More testing has been done that indicates
biological damage than with other products that have been removed from the
marketplace," Kane said, "but this is an economy-driven society, and the
device is not going to be taken out of the hands of the public."