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With So Many Different Findings From Cell Phone Studies, Experts Say It Is Difficult To Get Clear Answers On Health Risks
Nancy McVicar

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 cancer risk.

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 ignored.

"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 interests.

"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 scientific integrity."

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 done.

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 Organization.

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."

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