Officials At Odds Over The
Long-Term Effects Of Cell Phone Use
October 02, 2005
Cell phones now come in
child-sized versions, some in pink for girls, some with cartoon themes
designed to appeal to boys and girls alike.
But before you buy a wireless phone for your child's next birthday, you
should know that government agencies and expert panels in several
European countries have cautioned against routine use of the phones by
children because of health questions raised by recent studies.
Some experts say research conducted during the past decade indicates
the world's 1.6 billion cell phone users are the equivalent of lab rats
in a grand living laboratory and that children, with many years of cell
phone use ahead of them, might be particularly vulnerable.
"There is evidence from the laboratory that isn't necessarily
conclusive, but does point to a possible problem in the future," said
Norbert Hankin, an environmental scientist in the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency's Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, who has studied
the effects of radio frequency/microwave radiation for 33 years. He
says some of the research findings are "worrisome."
"Once people start using cell phones, they don't change," Hankin
said. "Kids 10 years old are using cell phones. Is there going to be
any kind of effect long term? We don't know."
Research about cell-phone use hasn't received the same media or public
attention as other environmental health issues. But scientists are
engaged in an escalating debate over the potential risks -- a debate
that some researchers say parallels early public-health disputes about
secondhand smoke and toxic chemicals.
Wireless phones emit low-level radio frequency/microwave radiation as
they transmit a signal to a base station blocks or miles away. Research
has shown that some of the radiation enters the user's head, and some
researchers are concerned repeated exposures over time might pose
serious health risks, including cancer and benign tumor growth.
Two U.S. agencies with authority to regulate the radiation emitted by
the phones, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal
Communications Commission, have issued statements saying there is
nothing to fear from the phones, and that they are safe for children.
Joe Farren, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Assocation -- the
international group representing carriers, manufacturers and wireless
Internet providers -- cites the FDA and FCC stances in saying the
industry is offering a safe product to children and their parents.
"This is an issue that should be guided by science, period. And
the evidence does not show a danger to users of wireless phones,"
Farren said. "What we constantly hear from parents is that they have a
tremendous peace of mind when they give their child a phone."
Farren said some models for children allow parents to control the
phone numbers their kids can call and block unwanted callers, as well
as control the total number of talk minutes allowed, and the time of
day the phone is operational.
Walt Disney Internet Group announced in July it had created Disney
Mobile and is teaming with Sprint to provide cell phones for "the
family mobile market" beginning next year. Disney withdrew cell phone
faceplates featuring its Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters
about six years ago when health concerns were raised by cell-phone
"The FDA has said that scientific evidence does not show a danger to users of wireless," said Disney spokeswoman Kim Kerscher.
But Hankin said it is not clear how protective current safety standards
are because they are based on preventing the radiation from heating
tissue and do not take into account research that has shown biological
changes, such as DNA breaks, at much lower levels of exposure.
He also expressed concern about epidemiological studies that have
linked long-term cell phone use to an increased risk of acoustic
neuroma, a non-malignant tumor on a nerve that links the ear and brain.
Last fall researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden
reported that people who had used cell phones for 10 years had almost a
fourfold increase of these tumors on the side of the head where they
most often held the phone, compared with the other side of the head.
A group of researchers from several European countries has found DNA
damage in human and animal cells exposed to cell-phone radiation, and
said mutations were passed on to the next generation of cells grown in
the laboratory -- a process that can lead to cancer.
The research, led by Dr. Franz Adlkofer, of the Verum Foundation in Munich, Germany, was published in the June 6 issue of Mutation Research.
"We don't want to create a panic, but it is good to take
precautions," Adlkofer said when the study was released. He and other
health experts recommend using a landline phone whenever possible, and
using a hands-free headset when talking on a cell phone, despite safety issues
related to the use of headsets.
Other studies also have
linked radiation such as cell phones emit to DNA breaks, brain-cell
death, leaks in the barrier that protects brain tissue from toxins in
the bloodstream, increased risk of cancer of the eye, and memory and
learning problems. Researchers who have tried to duplicate those
studies, however, often get negative results.
"Concerns about the
potential vulnerability of children to radio-frequency fields have been
raised because of the potentially greater susceptibility of their
developing nervous systems. Their brain is more conductive,
[radio-frequency radiation] penetration is greater relative to head
size, and they will have a longer lifetime of exposure than adults."
But the WHO is still studying the need for precautionary measures.
Governmental, consumer and physician groups in England, Italy, Russia,
Germany and France also have advised a precautionary approach. In the
United Kingdom, which first advised cell-phone users in 2000 to keep
calls short or use a hands-free earpiece, the National Radiological
Protection Board said in January their latest review of the evidence
indicates those precautions should continue because studies "suggest
that [radio-frequency] fields can interfere with biological systems."
Soon after the January
UK report was issued, however, the FDA and FCC posted this response on
a joint Web site: "The scientific evidence does not show a danger to
users of wireless communication devices including children."
In a phone interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel,
the FDA's Howard Cyr said the statement was posted because cell phone
emissions are not strong enough to cause a biological effect.
"Experts have looked at this and say it cannot happen," said Cyr,
whose primary concentration was on sun lamp and tanning bed regulation
before becoming lab leader of the FDA's Center for Devices and
Radiological Health. "We regulate on the basis of science, and the
science says there is no hard evidence of adverse effects at the levels
that cell phones produce."
After the Sun-Sentinel sent Cyr a list of research studies
that reported finding biological effects, Cyr sent back an e-mail
co-authored by a colleague, Abiy Desta, a researcher in Cyr's lab,
saying some studies that have found effects were poorly done.
"There are, however, a number of well-designed laboratory studies that
have found biological effects after low levels of radio-frequency
energy exposure similar to those emitted by wireless communication
devices. These studies need to be independently verified," the e-mail
"I don't think you can say we are certain there is no effect,"
Desta said in a phone interview. "We will continue to monitor the
Ed Mantiply, a physical scientist in the FCC's Office of
Engineering and Technology, said the FCC gets guidance from the FDA,
which is charged by law with protecting the public from radiation
emitted by electronic products.
"They can set performance standards, but they have chosen not to
do so for cell phones. They've given us advice that the standards we
are using are adequate," Mantiply said.
Jerry Phillips, a Colorado Springs researcher with a doctorate in
biochemistry who has spent years studying the type of radiation emitted
by cell phones, said the federal government has made "a number of
unscientific statements" on such research.
"It's important for people to know that there is credible research to
indicate that exposure to [radio frequency] fields from cellular
telephones produces significant changes in living systems," said
Phillips, whose studies at the Loma Linda School of Medicine in
California found DNA breaks at low-level exposures. "And some of the
changes can be associated with harmful outcomes."
George Carlo, who was in charge of the six-year research program in the
1990s paid for by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet
Association, and who concluded the phones may pose a health risk, said
government agencies have been lax in addressing the issue.
"The watchdogs are not watching, or they're not barking. Whatever
they're supposed to be doing, they're not doing it," said Carlo, an
epidemiologist and chairman of Science and Public Policy Institute, a
non-profit group aimed at bridging the gap between science and
politics, in Washington.
Carlo said a significant body of science has accumulated. "The question
that needs to be asked is if you had these findings [from recent
studies] before the phones went on the market, would the government
agencies ever have allowed these phones on the market, and the answer
is no," Carlo said.
The FDA is overseeing some cell-phones health research that is being
paid for by the cell phone industry to repeat studies that found
biological effects during Carlo's research program. The agency also
supports a taxpayer-funded cell-phone research effort getting under way
at the U.S. National Toxicology Program, a division of the National
Institutes of Health.
Sam Milham, a retired epidemiologist from the Washington state
Department of Health, who spent years studying the effects of
electromagnetic radiation and cancer, calls the marketing of cell
phones to children "scurrilous."
Milham said cancer research has shown it can take 20 years or more for
some tumors to develop to the point that they cause symptoms.
Advice for parents
Researchers associated with the World Health Organization, writing in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics,
said until more is known, pediatricians "could advise parents that
their children's [radio-frequency radiation] exposure can be reduced by
restricting the length of calls or by using hands-free devices to keep
the phones away from the head and body."
The authors, including Michael Repacholi, who heads the WHO's Radiation
and Environmental Health section based in Geneva, said: "Consistent
epidemiologic evidence of an association between childhood leukemia and
exposure to extremely low frequency magnetic fields has led to their
classification by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a
`possible human carcinogen.'
In late July, a diverse group of more than 30 children's
advocates, including Nicholas Johnson, former Federal Communications
Commission commissioner, and children's entertainer Raffi Cavoukian,
signed petitions and sent letters to members of Congress asking them to
investigate the marketing of cell phones to children, said Gary Ruskin,
of Commercial Alert, a spokesman for the group.
That same month, Dr. Keith Black, one of the country's top
neurosurgeons, told CNN that he believes some brain tumors may be
linked to cell phones. Black, director of the Maxine Dunitz
Neurological Institute at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, said the brain
tumor that killed his friend and patient, attorney Johnnie Cochran, may
have been related to his many years of cell phone use. The tumor
occurred on the left side of Cochran's head, where he most often held
the phone, Black said.
Yet despite the increased call for more research and governmental
oversight of cell phone use, few federal employees are engaged in such
studies. The EPA, which used to have more than 30 people assigned to
health research related to electromagnetic fields from power lines and
radio frequency/microwave radiation, now has one person, Hankin, who
still works in the field.
Hankin said when the EPA's research program was dismantled, a wealth of knowledge was lost.
"Congress didn't appropriate the funds. None of those people are doing
this kind of work anymore. I'm about the only one left," Hankin said.
"There are some very small countries where the governments support this
kind of research and it's hard to know how they can do it and the
United States can't."