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Nobody knows. But studies are under way to determine the health effects of cellular-frequency radio waves.
Do Cellular Telephones
Cause Brain Cancer?
The uncertainty continues to create much concern among consumers. It also has prompted the industry to launch a three-to-five-year research effort that could cost up to $25 million. And it has threatened to become a legal nightmare for several of the largest cellular-phone makers. The most recent lawsuit was filed in December, by Robert Kane, a Motorola, Inc. engineer in Scottsdale, Arizona. Mr. Kane sued his employer in Cook County Court, Chicago, alleging that his brain cancer was caused by experiments in which he acted as a guinea pig to test a new Motorola cellular-phone antenna. Motorola, based in Schaumburg, Ill., denies the allegations.
In another high-profile case filed in January 1993, a St. Petersburg, Florida man sued NEC Corp. of America, a subsidiary of NEC Corp. of Japan, claiming that his wife got brain cancer from her NEC cellular phone. The case, filed in Pinellas County, Fla., circuit court, is awaiting trial. NEC has maintained that its phones are safe.
The First Response
"The industry hasn't told the public the full story about how there has been very little research on biological effects at low level exposures, similar to those of handheld phones," says Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, a New York newsletter and a frequent critic of the industry's handling of the safety issue.
Mr. Slesin and other critics also accuse the industry and its trade association, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. in Washington, D.C., of exaggerating any positive research that it says supports its safety claims. In August, for example, an official for the Food and Drug Administration rebuked the industry and the CTIA for suggesting that enough scientific evidence exists to support the conclusion that cellular phones are safe.
Then, in December, the industry publicized research being done by Om Gandhi, chairman of the University of Utah's department of electrical engineering.
The government, however, begged to differ. In a statement, the NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences said: "Dr. Gandhi's research for NIEHS does not include studies to determine the safety of any product." It added: "No studies assessing biological effects are associated with Dr. Gandhi's grant."
Dr. Gandhi's cellular research is also being funded in part by McCaw Cellular Communications, Inc., Kirkland, Washington., the nation's largest provider of cellular phone service, which is set to merge with American Telephone & Telegraph Co.
Until the cellular phone scare started, most of the debate over electromagnetic field effects focused on the low frequency radiation emitted by electric motors and high voltage power transmission lines. Population studies in the U.S., and more recently in Sweden, hint that cancer, miscarriages and other ill effects are more common among people exposed to these frequency fields. Now, several lab experiments indicate that radio waves that operate at high frequencies and at low power, as is the case with cellular phones, can cause leakage through the blood brain barrier, as well as cancerous cell growth and a breakdown of the calcium that coats cells and allows signals to be passed between cells.
Dr. Cleary tuned his radio equipment to frequencies of 27 megahertz, at which industrial heat-sealing equipment operates, and 2.45 billion cycles a second, at which microwave ovens operate. In both cases, the cells showed abnormal growth after two hours of exposure, and were still growing abnormally three to five days after the equipment had been turned off. Dr. Cleary didn't study the effects from cellular-phone frequencies, which are typically in the 800 to 900 megahertz range.
Borje Wamblad, a radio scientist at Sweden's Telefon AB LM Ericsson, one of the world's largest suppliers of cellular radio equipment, has said that scientists are concerned that the human head may be "some sort of lens that concentrates or magnifies the radiation to the brain." Ericsson and Televerkert Radio, the state-owned carrier, paid medical researchers at University Hospital in Lund, Sweden, to test the biophysical effects of radio waves on rats.
The Swedish scientists exposed the rats to continuous and pulsed waves in the frequency just above that used by cellular phones. The result: they were able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier, which is actually a chemical that surrounds the blood vessels and protects brain tissue from harmful toxins.
At the Pettis Veterans Administration Center in Loma Linda, Calif., W. Ross Adey, associate chief of the research department, conducted experiments that showed radio waves at about the same power as that emitted by today's cellular phones can break down the binding of calcium to the surface of cells.
Calcium is essential for virtually all living processes, including enzyme action and cell growth, Dr. Adey says. He showed that a breakdown occurred at 145 megahertz, the frequency at which ham radios operate, and at 450 megahertz, the frequency used by security guards' radio phones. European cellular systems currently operate at 450 megahertz. "We need to know the cumulative dose of radio frequencies," Dr. Adey says.
Still under way are tests announced in December by the industry-backed group, including a large-scale epidemiological study to assess the impact of exposure to radio-frequency waves, specifically on portable cellular-phone users. It is being directed by Kenneth Roghman and Nancy Dreyer of Epidemiology Resources Inc., a research outfit in Newton Lower Falls, Mass.
The industry has also asked for proposals on studies that will examine possible genetic effects of exposure to cellular-phone frequencies.
Although critics question the credibility of studies financed by an industry whose principal product is being scrutinized, Dr. Carlo insists that they will be impartial. "We have actively sought the input of scientists from academia, industry, government and the private sector who are experienced in this area of research," he says.
Meanwhile, the cellular phone boom is intensifying concerns about the industries high powered transmission towers. Pressure is mounting on politicians from communities across the country to restrict the installation of cellular phone transmission towers, especially near school yards and homes.
The debate will get more heated, thanks to personal communications services, the next generation of wireless technology, which call for the construction of tens of thousands of transmission units anywhere people stroll or need to use a phone.
Complains Mr. Slesin, the newsletter writer: "The phone industry is talking about starting a new kind of portable phone service, installing yet another source of radio frequency emissions, without settling the health issue adequately."