With So Many Different Findings From Cell Phone Studies, Experts
Say It Is Difficult To Get Clear Answers On Health Risks
October 02, 2005
One lab finds a high
rate of cancer in mice exposed to cell phone radiation, but another
lab, after making changes in the design of the study, finds no such
A pair of researchers finds DNA breaks in rat brain tissue exposed
to radio-frequency radiation, but another lab, performing the test a
different way, shows no DNA damage.
With so many conflicting findings on cell-phone safety, consumer
advocates and scientific experts say it is difficult to get a clear
picture of human health risks. In part, this is because the devices
have been in widespread use only a few years and because the research
agenda has been flawed, they say.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has authority to protect
consumers from radiation emitted by electronic products, has largely
relied on the industry to conduct health-related cell phone studies.
The telecommunications industry has criticized research that shows
harmful effects might result from long-term use of the phones now owned
by more than 190 million Americans. Industry leaders also have argued
that none of the research showing a potentially harmful biological
effect has ever been repeated with the same results and should be
"I think we have to look at studies that have been replicated, and
there hasn't been one yet," said Joe Farren, spokesman for the
Washington-based CTIA, the Wireless Association, an international
association representing carriers, manufacturers and wireless Internet
providers. "This issue should be guided by science."
But health advocates argue that many of the studies cell phone industry
leaders say support their no-risk position have been funded by vested
"Whose science? This is manufactured science," said Libby Kelley,
executive director of the Council on Wireless Technology Impacts, a
California-based consumer group concerned about the safe use of
technologies that use electromagnetic radiation. "This is not science
in the public interest. It's not independent science. We need
She advocates funding from federal sources -- such as the National
Institutes of Health or the FDA, which has authority to regulate cell
phones -- to take the lead in determining potential public health risks
from radio frequency radiation emitted by the phones.
"But in the Congress it's difficult or impossible to get any research money," Kelley said.
Much of the research in this country has been paid for by the telecommunications industry since 1993, when the South Florida Sun-Sentinel first
reported on a lawsuit alleging that Susan Reynard of Madeira Beach died
from a brain tumor caused by her cell phone. Her husband, David, said
the tumor lined up exactly where the antenna was when she held the
phone to talk.
The case was later dismissed for lack of scientific evidence, but not
before the CTIA, then called the Cellular Telecommunications and
Internet Association, had pledged at least $25 million for research to
allay public fears.
Initially, the industry said the FDA could oversee the studies,
but set up a new group called Wireless Technology Research (WTR) to do
it and hired George Carlo, a Washington, D.C., epidemiologist, to head
it up. Others in the industry, including Motorola Inc., which has a
facility in Plantation, had their own study programs.
But critics say the industry's research agenda during the past 12 years
has not settled serious questions raised by earlier studies. The
studies linked radio frequency radiation to DNA and chromosome damage,
breaches of the blood-brain barrier -- nature's way of protecting brain
tissue from toxins in the bloodstream -- increased tumor risks, memory
loss, learning difficulties and other problems.
Louis Slesin, publisher of Microwave News, has been
covering research on how electromagnetic fields affect cells, animals
and humans for two decades. He said Carlo's agenda did not tackle the
more important questions.
"We're still living with his legacy," he said. "He didn't do the
studies people were really concerned about, so we're not much farther
along than we were 10 years ago. A lot still needs to be sorted out."
Carlo, who had no experience with radio-frequency radiation,
defends his research agenda, which was developed by a board of
experienced advisors. At the end of the six-year program, Carlo stunned
his industry sponsors by saying radiation from cell phones "poses a
real cancer and health risk," and recommended that further research be
Under the WTR program, researchers found genetic damage inside cells
exposed to radio frequency radiation in two separate studies, an
increased risk of a non-malignant tumor called acoustic neuroma, and an
increased risk of neuroepithelial cancer, both rare brain tumors, Carlo
said. The results were reported in 1999.
"The amount of scrutiny and review that the WTR has undergone over
the years is enormous, yet the work that was done has held up and
remains critically important to safety concerns," said Carlo, chairman
of Science and Public Policy Institute, a non-profit advisory group in
Washington. Carlo, who wrote Cell Phones, Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age, is no longer doing cell phone research.
Henry Lai, who heads the Bioelectromagnetics Research Laboratory at the
University of Washington in Seattle, said of the 271 studies done in
recent years, about 60 percent have shown a biological effect in cells
or animals exposed to radio frequency radiation.
Lai, who has published
33 peer-reviewed articles on electromagnetic research since 1980, said
when he analyzed study results from around the world according to who
paid for them, he found a large discrepancy. Nearly three-quarters of
the non-industry-funded studies -- 128 of 181 -- found a biological
effect, while 30 percent -- 27 out of 90 -- of the industry-funded
studies did, Lai said.
Lai said he has no explanation for the discrepancy.
Prof. Michael Friendly of the Statistical Consulting Service at York
University in Toronto also analyzed the studies according to their
funding and came up with similar results.
Not all biological effects are harmful, Lai and other researchers said,
because the body's immune system has repair mechanisms to overcome
them, but with repeated exposures the repair process might break down.
Lai and colleague Narendra Singh conducted research that found DNA
breaks in the brain cells of rats exposed to radio frequency radiation
and wanted to do the studies again at cell phone exposure levels.
Lai and Singh later contracted with the WTR to conduct two
follow-up experiments. But under the WTR contract, the work of exposing
the animals to cell phone radiation was done by someone WTR hired. The
first study showed no effect, and the second showed a high level of
damage in the group of mice that were not exposed to radio frequency
radiation -- conflicting findings that Lai found puzzling.
"We were suspicious about the data. We did not expose the animals and
at the end we asked to see the log to recheck the exposure of each
animal," Lai said. "We have no proof that something was wrong, but it
was strange they wouldn't show us the log."
Carlo said Lai broke the terms of the contract by reading the
slides that were supposed to be "blinded" -- reviewed without knowing
whether they were from exposed or unexposed animals. Lai and Singh's
payment for the study was held up while lawyers sorted out the details,
Carlo said, but they eventually were paid.
Motorola also paid for a repeat of the Lai-Singh work, contracting with
Joseph Roti Roti, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis,
to do it. Roti Roti did not find DNA breaks, but he used a different
method of assessing the DNA damage than Lai and Singh used, one Lai
says is much less sensitive.
"We never got an explanation why they used that method," Lai said.
"You have to use exactly the same method to replicate an experiment."
Roti Roti said his method works just as well, and that he found no effects.
Slesin, who has covered the research field for 20 years, said many scientists now support the approach used by Lai and Singh.
"The industry had no interest in finding out why the two labs got
different results. Their position was that Roti-Roti was right, Lai was
wrong," Slesin said, "but at least three or four other labs have done
the work using [the Lai-Singh approach] and shown the DNA breaks."
Other studies, conducted in the United States and Europe, have raised additional concerns.
Research by Leif Salford, reported in 2003, found that the brains of
young rats were damaged after two hours of exposure to cell-phone
radiation. The findings were published in 2003 in Environmental Health Perspectives, a U.S. National Institutes of Health journal.
A review of nine studies of cell phone users' health conducted as of
mid-2004 in the United States, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Germany
found an increased risk of cancer, according to an analysis by Michael
Kundi of the Institute of Environmental Health medical faculty at the
University of Vienna. The review -- conducted with three researchers at
Oerebro University in Sweden -- was published last fall in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.
A similar review of cell phone users' health by members of the
International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection said the
findings are inconsistent and lack convincing evidence that cell phone
use is harmful, but that more study is needed and that children's use
of phones may be of special concern.
One critical piece of research -- a 1997 study by Australian
researchers showing exposure to cell phone radiation might contribute
to cancer -- raised a great deal of interest among scientists. The
researchers found lymphoma-prone mice exposed to cell phone radiation
got cancer at a rate two and a half times greater than lymphoma-prone
mice that were not exposed.
Dr. Michael Repacholi, lead researcher for the study, said at the time
that the results were a surprise, and marked the first time cell phone
radiation had shown an adverse biologic effect. Repacholi now heads the
radiation and environmental health unit at the World Health
Carlo called the study "very important," but said it must be repeated
by other scientists to be validated, a common practice in research. He
did not fund a follow-up study.
In an interview with the Sun-Sentinel, Carlo said his
advisers recommended against repeating Repacholi's study because his
method was new and the findings were contrary to the scientific
consensus at the time.
Five years went by before another group of Australian researchers repeated the study, but it was not carried out the same way.
"They changed almost everything about it," Slesin said. And the findings, published in the journal Radiation Research, were confusing, he said.
The CTIA industry group released a statement saying the study reliably refuted Repacholi's findings.
Lai says enough researchers besides himself have found DNA breaks,
including a multi-center study in Europe within the past few months,
for scientific concern, but the FDA and other government agencies
aren't paying attention.
"If they're wrong, the problem will be a big problem in the future," Lai said. "It will show up in years to come."