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Ticking On Health Research -- Wireless Industry Effort Leaves Issues Up In
Time is running out for Wireless Technology Research (WTR). After nearly five years and $25 million worth of research into the health effects of wireless telephone service, the group-funded by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA, Washington, D.C. will wrap up its agenda in a few months, leaving many crucial questions still unanswered.
WTR was formed in 1993 as a five-year program to address concerns over cellular phones' radio frequency (RF) emissions, an issue made public by a consumer's since-dismissed lawsuit charging that cellular phones caused brain cancer. Wireless vendors and service providers responded by contributing $25 million to the CTIA, which then founded WTR as an independent organization with a staff of about a dozen.
While WTR has documented negative effects of cell phones on pacemakers, critics have questioned its efforts in other areas. For instance, WTR has presented no findings based on research using live tissue, which scientists prefer, on the relationship between cell phones and brain tumors. Indeed, there has been a dearth of information flowing from WTR. This fact was underscored when a meeting to discuss research efforts, scheduled for Feb. 1-2, was postponed to June.
"There is a significant amount of dissatisfaction in the industry with the way that WTR carried out the program," says a high-ranking industry official who wished to remain anonymous. "People are mad that WTR didn't do a better job."
Scientists have also questioned WTR's efforts. One scientist who was awarded a contract to research the health effects of RF claims the funding was never received. "It has been a serious disappointment. I feel ... they have violated a trust of the scientific community, " says the scientist, who also requested anonymity.
WTR chairman George Carlo contends the group's purpose was to put in place a surveillance program necessary to identify any public health problems. "We have identified a couple of problems, like the interference with pacemakers. We have not identified a public health problem deriving from the use of wireless technology, but we are looking even today."
Joanne Basile, vice president of industry affairs at CTIA, confirms the organization has no plans to fund WTR or any similar program in the foreseeable future. However, she notes that "WTR has done very important work in this critical area [pacemakers]" and awaits the WTR findings that will be presented at the June meeting.
Instead of funding WTR research, the CTIA plans to support work being done by Motorola Inc., the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. federal government and other global entities, says Basile. The WHO recently embarked on a multiyear program that will review literature and research done in the cell phone area. The government, meanwhile, has set safe standards for RF levels. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) works with groups like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP) to make sure wireless service providers comply with today's RF levels.
But scientists like Dr. Henry Lai and Dr. N.D. Singh, of the bioengineering department at the University of Washington (Seattle), have participated in experiments that Lai says suggest sufficient evidence of RF's negative effects exists to warrant further research. Through research funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 1994, he says, he and Singh showed RF exposure did result in DNA breakdown. The NIH funding has since been cut off, Lai says.
Wireless constituencies have roundly rejected the Lai-Singh conclusions. Research funded by Motorola at Washington University (St. Louis) found their work to be inconclusive, says Norman Sandler, director of corporate strategies at Motorola. Lai says efforts to replicate his study at Washington University used a different methodology. Scientists also point to the 1997 Adelaide Study, funded by Australian service provider Telstra Corp. Ltd., which they say revealed a connection between mice exposed to RF and tumors.
Meanwhile, the number of people exposed to RF is on the rise. The United States alone has 61 million wireless subscribers today, up from 13 million in 1993.
Many agree that the potential health risks related to RF exposure bear closer scrutiny. But with the industry facing an apparent conflict of interest and the government bogged down with more immediate concerns, who should do the looking? And how much should be spent in the process?
Some scientists and activists have been underwhelmed by the $25 million in research sanctioned by WTR over the five years. Critics argue the sum is paltry in light of the revenue generated by the cellular phone market. The U.S. wireless services industry is now grossing $30 billion a year, up from $6.7 billion in 1992, according to the CTIA.
"This is a very healthy industry, and I'm sure they can come up with additional resources to fund the research," says Naqi Jaffery, wireless analyst for Dataquest Inc. (San Jose, Calif.) "Such research is needed, if for nothing else than to allay any concerns."
Some observers say the funding issue is a catch-22. "I'm not saying there's not concern from providers, but there's not been any research presented so far that would bring the issue to the front," says Leslie Rhodes, vice president of business services at Hicks and Ragland (Lubbock, Texas), a business and engineering consultancy. "The lack of research could be due to funding."
Candy Castle, director of external affairs at AT&T, also points out that no comprehensive research to date shows any correlation between RF and negative health effects. "It's the nature of scientists to criticize each other," Castle says of the controversy. It's impossible thus far to point to one study or another as conclusive evidence for such a big issue, she says, and more research is required.
Others say footing the bill now for more research may save money in time. "A little prevention is a lot better than a lot of suffering, " says Dr. Jerry Phillips, an independent RF researcher.