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Do Cell Phones Need Warnings?
Journalist: John Greenwald
October 09, 2000 

Any cell-phone shopper who walks into one of the 120 Metrocall stores across the U.S. these days should be ready for a shock. The clerk, instead of delivering a hard sell, will whip out a one-page health-and-safety bulletin that warns of the possible dangers of using a cell phone. The leaflet cautions parents who want phones for their children to consider pagers instead, to avoid exposing the youngsters to any risks. "We try not to take sides in the argument about cell-phone safety," says Mike Scanlon, Metrocall's senior vice president for marketing. "But at least we can make our customers aware of the debate."

Metrocall may be a maverick in confronting the sensitive issue of potential cell-phone health hazards, but the rest of the U.S. will soon catch up. Soon, Motorola, Nokia and all other cell-phone makers will bow to mounting concerns about safety by disclosing just how much radiation their phones emit. The once hard-to-find data--measured in "specific absorption rates," or SAR's--will come packaged with the latest models, some of which could hit stores by Christmas. That is likely to launch a scramble by concerned shoppers to find the cell phones that put out the lowest levels of radiation.

Such a beauty contest is precisely what phone makers are eager to avoid. "There has been huge concern that this could be used for comparison shopping," says Norm Sandler, a spokesman for Motorola, the No. 2 cellular manufacturer after Nokia. To discourage what they call misleading comparisons, the companies will place a statement in boxes that declares all phones that emit radiation below the U.S. Federal Communications Commission SAR ceiling of 1.6 are equally safe. (An SAR measures the energy in watts per kilogram that one gram of body tissue absorbs from a cell phone.) "There's no evidence that any number below the threshold is safer than any other," says Chuck Eger, Motorola's director of strategic and regulatory policy for personal-communications products.

Nor does anyone expect the release of radiation figures to slow the phenomenal growth of the $50 billion cell-phone industry. More than 400 million mobile phones are in use worldwide, and manufacturers expect to sell another 400 million units this year. In the U.S., cell-phone users spend an average of 150 min. a month yakking into their beloved mobile phones. "This is the most popular product known to man," says Ed Snyder, who follows wireless technologies for the Chase H&Q investment firm. "More cell phones will be sold this year than all the computers, TVs, personal digital assistants and pagers combined."

Nonetheless, a comparison of the radiation levels for phones now in stores hints at the choices that consumers will soon face. The data first appeared on an obscure FCC website in June and has since become available on a more consumer-friendly Internet venue ( According to these figures, users of an Ericsson T28 World digital phone absorb an SAR of 1.49, while owners of a Motorola StarTAC 7860 get just 0.24. "Numbers without context do not help any consumer," says Mikael Westmark, a health-and-safety spokesman for Ericsson. Concurs William Plummer, Nokia's vice president for government and industry affairs: "All these phones on the market have passed a government safety standard."

The big problem is that scientists still haven't reached any definitive conclusions about cell-phone radiation. Given that, consumers may grasp at whatever data are available when deciding what to buy. That will be true especially for purchases made for children, whose developing brains absorb more radiation than adult brains and who could be exposed to potential harm for decades to come. That prospect has led parents like Gilbert Yablon to just say no. "I don't let my [eight-year-old] daughter talk on the cell phone," says Yablon, who runs a movie-graphics company just outside Los Angeles. "I'll take the risk for myself, but I don't want her exposed to it."

Short of throwing away that cell phone or ignoring health issues altogether, how should concerned consumers use these icons of 21st century life? In England a blue-ribbon panel of experts recently called for "a precautionary approach" that includes discouraging children from making nonessential calls and using headsets to keep radiation away from the brain. The bottom line? "Don't use a mobile phone more than you have to," says physicist Lawrence Challis, vice chairman of the British group. "If there is a choice, use a landline phone. If you do have to use a mobile phone, you should seriously look into a hands-free extension" to minimize the risk. As such advice spreads, manufacturers could find themselves marketing their phones on the basis of safety as much as on styling or battery life 

What Science Says: Mixed Message
Can your cell phone really give you cancer? The best answer science can offer so far is maybe. Researchers have discovered that cell-phone radiation can cause subtle, short-term biological effects in humans--including changes in brain-wave patterns during sleep--but their full significance remains to be determined. Given that uncertainty and the fact that everyone from the National Cancer Institute to the World Health Organization is investigating cell-phone radiation, many experts caution that it is far too early to give the phones a clean bill of health.

Cell phones work by transmitting radio waves to base stations that plug calls into a network. The waves are a form of non-ionizing radiation--unlike, say, X rays, which have the power to change the atoms in human cells to potentially hazardous ions by scattering their electrons. Non-ionizing radiation can also be dangerous. At the high levels found in radar or inside microwave ovens, it can heat and severely damage tissue. The question for scientists is whether the low-energy (and low-heat) signals from cell phones can do harm. "What this debate is really about," says Microwave News editor Louis Slesin, "is whether cell phones have non-thermal health effects."

Cancer studies have been inconclusive since 1993, when a Florida man brought an unsuccessful lawsuit that blamed his wife's fatal brain tumor on her use of a cell phone. In a frequently cited 1997 report, Australian researchers exposed mice bred with a predisposition to lymphomas to two daily 30-min. doses of cell-phone radiation for up to 18 months. The mice developed tumors at twice the rate of animals that were radiation-free. But the results haven't been duplicated, and some scientists question their relevance.

The most outspoken cell-phone critic is George Carlo, whom the cellular industry hired to investigate the issue in the wake of the 1993 case. Backed by a $25 million grant, Carlo launched a series of studies that ended last year, including one that he claims shows a link between cell-phone use and a rare type of brain tumor. That report's principal author has said the correlation could be due to chance, but Carlo is undaunted. "No one study allows you to make a definitive determination about public health," he says. "It's how all the pieces fit together that counts." For now, the best advice science can offer about cell phones is handle with care.

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