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Wireless Worries
Journalist: Blaine Greteman
February 24, 2003

This is the largest biological experiment in the history of the world," shouts Leif Salford, an unusually animated neurosurgeon at Lund University, in Sweden. Salford's not talking about his own work. He's talking about the 1.3 billion people around the world who regularly chat away on their mobile phones, "freely pressing radiological devices to their brains."

Salford's own research involves much smaller samples — of mice, not men — but it is raising big questions about the safety of human mobile-phone use. In a paper that will be published in April by the U.S. journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Salford's research team suggests that even tiny levels of radiation from standard European mobiles may cause neuron damage in the brain.

Since 1992, when David Reynard filed suit in Florida against the mobile-phone industry for causing the tumor that killed his wife, American trial lawyers have been dialing for dollars, convinced that mobile phones could be the next tobacco. But unlike tobacco lawsuits, which have cost the industry over $200 billion, Reynard's suit and the host of others that followed were thrown out due to a lack of scientific evidence that mobile phones cause cancer.

Indeed, after a large study last year at Adelaide's Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science showed no increased cancer risk — contradicting a damning earlier study from the Royal Adelaide Hospital — the industry breathed a billion-dollar sigh of relief. "It may be reasonable to ask if we are like tobacco," says Michael Milligan, secretary-general of the European industry's representative group, the Mobile Manu- facturers Forum. "But the most important thing for us is that while the World Health Organization has always been very strongly against the tobacco industry, they've been very involved with mobile phones and their view is very balanced: there are no established health effects."

Yet Professor Salford's work may soon have lawyers heading back to court. Unlike most studies done so far, Salford and his team at Lund did not focus on cancer, but on the blood brain barrier (BBB) that protects the brain from the chemicals, toxins and proteins that circulate in our blood. Over 25 years ago, notes Louis Slesin, editor of New York-based Microwave News, U.S. army and government scientists showed that microwaves from sources other than phones could open up the BBB. "This stuff sticks out like a sore thumb," says Slesin, "but nobody in the mobile-phone industry has wanted to touch it."

They may no longer have a choice. With a series of studies beginning in 1992, the Lund group has shown that in laboratory rats, at least, mobile-phone radiation opens up this barrier so molecules of the blood protein albumin — which should be far too large to penetrate — can seep through. These results have recently been duplicated in another laboratory, and their latest study shows for the first time that when the bbb is breached by albumin, the excitable brain cells that allow us to think, talk and dial mobile phones — namely neurons — may die.

Many health-conscious consumers already shop around for the lowest-radiation phones. But they'll get little consolation from the Lund study: the neurons of rats died even when radiation levels were 1,000 times smaller than the current E.U.-allowed level, although the rats were only exposed for two hours. "It's a damned small little thing," says Salford. "These levels easily exist inside the brain of a human when he has the antenna next to his head."

Or maybe even when he doesn't. The group has shown albumin leakage at powers as low as 0.5 milliwatts — a level that exists as far as 1.8 m away from a mobile phone's antenna. "Passive mobile phoning, like passive smoking, may also soon be an issue," notes Salford. An even bigger issue may be the increasing use of wireless technology in everyday devices like refrigerators, ovens and computers. These gadgets are expected to provide manufacturers with much of their growth as mobile-phone use reaches its saturation point; but they will also create a cocoon of microwave radiation around our daily lives.

For the time being, though, the findings are probably most worrying for parents of the 80% of European teenagers who use mobile phones. The Lund research team used young rats (12 to 26 weeks of age), because their developing brains and thinner, smaller skulls are comparable to those of the teenagers for whom phones are a must-have accessory. "Just don't give them to children," says Salford, affirming a message delivered in 2000 by the U.K.'s Stewart Commission on the health effects of mobile phones. So far, however, such warnings have largely been ignored by the young users who send billions of text messages every month and who feed a thriving industry that pitches everything from mobile games to cartoon-themed phone covers to children.

Phone makers say they're trying to take a responsible approach to these concerns, rather than simply denying them, a la big tobacco. "We were established to contribute to research on just these kinds of issues," notes Milligan, who says it's important to test this preliminary research to confirm or disprove it.

Salford agrees, and is careful to emphasize that he thinks mobiles have saved far more lives than they'll ever cost. But when he speaks on his own phone, he uses a headset and places the handset as far away as possible. And, just before hanging up, he adds, "I also keep my conversations very short!" Until research settles the issue of mobile phones and health more definitively, that may still be the safest call.

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