Mobile Phones: A Danger to Your Health?
By Heidi Kriz, Thu Mar 01 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Often with the advent of new technological devices, there is an almost phobic backlash against their perceived perils. Mobile phones are the latest victim.

Remember these childhood admonishments? "Don't sit so close to the TV, you'll go blind!"

Or "Don't stand so close to the microwave oven, do you want to get radiation poisoning?"

Often, with the advent of new technological devices that insinuate themselves into everyday modern lives, there has followed an almost phobic backlash against the perceived perils of the technology. Even when there is little or no scientific evidence to back up the scare. It happened with TV's, microwave ovens and other devices. And now it's happening with cell phones.

It seems as if every few months, there's a new report in the media about a study linking some disease to cell phone use. And in their wake, lawsuits against cell phone manufacturers and wireless companies have cropped up, filed by lawyers on behalf of clients convinced that they have been harmed by excessive cell phone use.

But what are the dangers really? Two of the United States' most prominent public health watchdog organizations - the American Cancer Society, and the Food and Drug Administration, both say that so far there is no substantial evidence linking cell phone use and adverse health effects.

Nevertheless, both organizations point out that cell phone technology has not been around long enough to completely rule out longer-term effects.

This article will round up the latest studies concerning cell phone use and health issues, and help separate the facts from the hype.

The Genesis of the Alarm

Travis Larson, the spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, thinks we can trace the origins of cell phone health panic to practically one moment in media.

"Back in 1993, Larry King did a show about a guy claiming that he had established a connection between cell phone use and brain cancer," says Larson. "The media picked up the story, and ran with it," says Larson.

Over the past several years, that particular fear among the general public has waxed and waned, and seems to be waxing again right now. Part of what seems to be fanning the flames again are a series of lawsuits being filed against mobile phone carriers for billions of dollars in damages.

According to a recent story in the Times of London, the law firm of Peter Angelos, who also the owner of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team, is planning on filing up to 10 lawsuits against wireless companies. The world's largest mobile phone company, Vodafone Group, is one of the companies being sued.

Angelos is one of the lawyers who successfully led suits against the tobacco industry, getting $4.2 billion dollars in damages on behalf of his clients.

According to the story, each claim will be filed against a mobile handset maker, a mobile phone network provider and a local landline telephone company.

Spokespeople for Vodafone say that so far the company has not been subject to any legal action over these issues.

Conflicting Reports

In May of last year, a group of Swedish scientists published a study claiming a link between cell phone use and brain cancer. Their findings were published in the May 4, 2000 issue of the online journal Medscape General Medicine.

The study showed a borderline statistical association between cell phone use and an increased risk for brain tumors.

In their study, the Swedish researchers found that a high level of exposure to the microwaves emitted from cell phones was linked to a two-fold increase of cancer in brain regions that are closest to the ear used for cell phone calls.

Researchers found that brain tumors were most likely to develop in the temporal, temporopariteal and occipital lobes of the brain.

But Michael Thun, M.D. and vice president of epidemiology and surveillance for the American Cancer Society, called the findings of the study "uninterpretable," because the study was so small - based on only 13 brain tumor patients. He says that with such a small number of patients studied that the findings are "barely statistically significant."

On the other hand, it's important to continue to try and discover what factors contribute to brain cancer risk, says Thun.

Currently, the only known environmental risk factor known to be linked to brain cancer is ionizing radiation, like that used in X-rays and radiation therapy, says Ted Gansler, M.D., who is the Medical Editor for Patient Information at the American Cancer Society.

Cell phones, on the hand, says Gansler, use NON-ionizing microwave radiation.

Gansler also points out that there is ample evidence that exposure to ionized radiation like that in X-rays damages DNA in animals and humans. But there is no evidence that non-ionized radiation like that used in cell phones and other electronic appliances have any effect on DNA, or any other cell components related to cancer, he says.

Gansler points to a more recent Danish study that he says is much more comprehensive than the Swedish study and even addresses the issue of long-term cell phone use.

The study involved 420,000 Danes who used cell phone from between four and 18 years. The study was carried out by scientists from the Danish Cancer Society, beginning in 1996. The findings were released in February of this year. The group concluded, based on their findings, that cell phone use, even for up to 18 years, does not increase the risk of developing leukemia, brain cancer, or cancer of the pancreas.

The Danish scientists were able to compare a list of Danish mobile phone users with the National Cancer Registry. In doing so they found the risk of getting cancer when using a mobile phone no higher than without use.

The study was sponsored in part by Denmark's largest phone company, Tele Danmark A/S, and the second largest mobile phone service in Denmark, Sonofon A/S.

Scientists from the International Epidemiology Institute in Rockville, Maryland USA also helped carry out the research.

Gansler says that he thinks one of the reasons that fear of brain cancer being linked to cell phones persists for some people, in spite of all the contrary evidence, is the very nature of that kind of cancer itself.

"Brain cancer is a very, very grave illness, and the concept of it is particularly terrifying," says Gansler.

"We also don't know very much about the causes of brain cancer, as compared to other forms of cancer. For example, we know about 99 percent of the cases of lung cancer are linked to smoking. But cancer of the brain remains very mysterious in certain ways," Gansler says.

But Gansler emphasizes, there are things that everyone can do to help protect themselves against all forms of cancer - like eating a healthy diet and staying fit. He suggests that people who are concerned visit the American Cancer Society's Web site. The site also has information about factors that have been proven to be involved in cancer.

"People who are really concerned about their health and avoiding cancer, should concentrate on things they know will help them, and not worry about something like cell phone exposure," says Gansler.

The Industry Responds

But, in spite of the fact that that there has been no definitive scientific evidence linking health problems to cell phone use, the cell phone industry is not taking the public's concerns lightly.

"Without a doubt, there should continue to be more research and investigation," says Travis Larson, with the CTIA.

Larson says that towards that end, the CTIA has just formed a cooperative partnership with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to fund and develop more studies in this area.

The partnership was just formed and will be funded in part by industry members of the CTIA. Larson says the exact dollar amount hasn't been budgeted yet. But he does know what the first study will concentrate on - exploring the effects of "micro-nucleus assay."

Larson says that there will be three branches to this study - one will examine toxicology, another branch will examine current epidemiological studies, looking at trends within the population, and then the third branch will be an overall review of the science.

Just in Case

Last year a European organization, the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, issued a statement saying, "that on the basis of the evidence currently available, there is no need for the general population to be worried about the use of mobile phones."

Nevertheless, the group did go on to suggest that users could take a "precautionary approach," to cell phone use, which might include 1) using phones for as short a time as possible, 2) using phones with low specific energy absorption rate (SAR) values, and 3) using hands free kits and other devices providing they have been proved to reduce SAR.

Meanwhile, the CTIA has announced plans to require mobile phones to carry new info revealing the rate of radiation emitted by certain models.

"Mobile phone technology is still a relatively new technology, and we want to do everything we can to give users as much information and answers to their concerns and questions as we can," says CTIA's Larson.

Heidi Kriz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Red Herring, and PC Computing.