Every few months, a new report comes out that once again raises the alarm about the cell-phone/brain-cancer link. There’s usually a short-lived flurry of concern in the wake of such reports, and then amnesia seems to set in, and the use of cell-phones keeps growing and growing. It doesn’t help that for every scary report blaming cell phones for brain tumors and other dread conditions, another comes out insisting that the phones are just as safe as stuffed teddy bears, after all. But those reassuring studies have come under fire from two independent sources in the last few weeks. First, the International EMF Foundation just issued a 37-page report claiming that the major research to date on cell phone safety grossly underestimates the dangers that cell-phones pose. The report lists an extensive and impressive list of authors, including the former director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute; the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany; faculty from Columbia University and other US universities; plus top scientists from 13 countries worldwide.
The EMF cites 15 concerns about cell-phone safety, including the fact that even the major industry-funded studies have found significant increased risk of brain cancer and genetic damage, with that elevated risk hovering around 20 percent for each year of cell-phone use. The report also cites an independent Swedish study that found that risk of brain cancer increases by five percent for every 100 hours of use and that those who start using cell-phones as teens increase their risk of brain cancer by 420 percent. Incredibly, there has been only one other non-industry funded study, and that study also found increased risk.
The fact that only two independent studies have been completed is, in itself, reason for concern. According to the EMF report, the telecommunication industry essentially “bought” governments worldwide back in the 1990’s, pumping huge dollars into cell phone safety research and asking governments for matching grants. In other words, governments spent all their money partnering with the telecomm industry and had none left to give to independent researchers…or no desire to.
Other concerns cited in the report include the fact that FCC exposure limits fail to consider the effects of non-thermal radiation from mobile phones, “assuming the only danger from microwave radiation would come from temperature increases in our brains,” a position that, according to the report, is absurd. Also, the report claims that cell phones damage DNA and cause the blood-brain barrier to leak. And, cell phones compromise male fertility.
Finally, the EMF report says the largest study on cell phone safety to date has 11 serious design flaws. That study, funded by the telecomm industry and known as Interphone, began in 1999 with the purpose of investigating brain tumor risk. Countries worldwide participated, but publication of the results has been delayed for four years because researchers can’t come to consensus on how to interpret the data. The flaws cited include excluding certain types of brain tumors from the analyses, excluding children and young adults from the data pool, defining “regular use” as using a cell phone once a week for six months or more, and so on.
Simultaneous with the publication of the EMF report, the Environmental Working Group published a report advising consumers to exercise caution when using cell phones. The report summarizes 10 months of research analyzing 200 peer-reviewed studies, government advisories, and industry documents. Cell phone dangers cited in the report include increased incidence of brain tumors and celluloid lung cancer, increased risk of hyperactivity in children, salivary gland tumors, migraines and vertigo. The report notes that the FCC’s emissions standards for cell phones are outdated and far too generous for safety given the body of research, and that the implications for children are particularly worrisome, as kids are far more vulnerable to radiation. Lead author Dr. Olga Naidenko, says, “We would like to be able to say that cell phones are safe. But we can’t. The most recent science, while not conclusive, raises serious issues about the cancer risk of cell phone use that must be addressed through further research. In the meantime, consumers can take steps to reduce exposure.”
To that end, the EWG has published a comprehensive database listing emission levels for 1000+ cell phones. In fact, the emissions level does vary widely from one phone to the next. For instance, the lowest-emission phone on the list, the Samsung Impression, has a maximum radiation level of 35 W/KG, whereas the highest emission phone, the Motorola MOTO VU204, has more than four times that, at 155 W/KG.
The EWG recommends that cell phones should be sold with information about their emissions posted on the label, but in the interim, consumers need to do their homework and buy low-emissions phones. Other steps you can take to protect yourself include using a bluetooth device or headset (although they, too, theoretically could present problems), keeping the phone a safe distance away from your body, staying off the phone when you have a weak signal, limiting time that your kids use cell-phones (children are far more vulnerable to radiation), using the speaker instead of holding the phone to your ear, and texting instead of calling (as long as you’re not driving or operating a train).
In spite of this avalanche of warnings regarding cell phones, many scientists remain unmoved. According to Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society, “Basically the idea that there is a sea change in the evidence in the past two or three years is incorrect. Essentially this [EWG] report focuses on studies that support their hypothesis that cell phones increase brain cancer risk. The description of the evidence selectively emphasizes the studies that suggest the risk and omit the evidence that suggests no risk.”
“Selectively” being the operative word here.
With that in mind, it’s interesting how Dr. Thun “selectively” omits the fact that virtually all studies to date have been funded by the telecommunications industry, and that nearly all those studies have found at least some risk. But you can bet that the majority of cell-phone addicts out there will be reassured by remarks such as his. On a final note, I should probably acknowledge the primary knock on all the Cassandras of cell-phones. “If cell-phones are causing brain cancer, then why aren’t we seeing a big increase in brain tumors. It’s not like cell phones haven’t been in heavy use for a number of years now.”
And the simple response to that argument is that while we are not yet seeing an “epidemic” of brain tumors, the incidence in brain tumors is decidedly “surging” among certain demographics.