Stuart Cobb, 36, was a prosperous plumber in Portland, Maine, until a brain tumor disabled him 2 years ago. Luckily, Cobb’s tumor was benign, and doctors successfully removed most of it.
Cobb had no significant exposure to toxic chemicals or radiation, which are two of the things that come to mind quickly when physicians diagnose the cause of tumors. However, Cobb was a frequent cellphone user, and the tumor grew on the side of his head where he typically held his phone.
“I’m almost 100 percent positive [the tumor] was from cellphone use,” Cobb says.
Unfortunately, Cobb might never know whether that’s the case. Although plenty of studies associate cellphones with brain tumors, the scientific jury remains undecided on whether cellphones cause cancer or any other adverse health effects, such as low sperm count or brain-chemistry changes.
Still, circumstantial evidence is mounting. This year, World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified cellphones’ radiation emissions as “possibly carcinogenic.” IARC’s declaration prompted three members of Congress in June to order Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study cellphone emissions. And states are starting to get more concerned about the health risks. Lawmakers in California, Maine, Oregon and Pennsylvania have considered bills that would require warning labels for cellphones. A handful of municipalities—including Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Santa Fe, N.M.—asked the federal government to conduct more studies and allow the cities to exercise control over where cellphone transmitting towers are placed due to concern about radiation exposure.
But federal authorities haven’t set any standards or issued any precautions. Food and Drug Administration is charged with monitoring whether Americans are at risk of health problems. (Americans have a total of 303 million cellphone accounts for business and personal use, according to industry trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association.) The balance of health studies indicates that cellphones don’t cause cancer or any other health problems, says Abiy Desta, who is a health scientist for FDA.
Federal Communications Commission also says cellphones pose no health threat. The only safety standard that FCC administers is to make sure that the radio-frequency electromagnetic-field (RF EMF) emissions that come from cellphones don’t literally burn the skin of cellphone users.
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But three of the four ruling members of FCC hail from the telecommunications industry. And cellphone-safety advocates claim that the industry is worried intensely about potential liability and the loss of $160 billion per year in sales if cellphones are proven to cause cancer or if the federal government even hints that consumers should take precautions.
“The lawyers are running the show” at FCC, says epidemiologist Devra Davis, who is a former professor of public health at University of Pittsburgh and the author of Disconnect, which is about cellphones and health.
We interviewed 34 doctors, industry representatives, lawyers, scientists and cellphone-safety advocates and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and studies to help consumers to sort out the latest health information about cellphones. We found that too many industry-sponsored groups are spinning the safety debate. And in light of all of the scientific uncertainty, we believe that consumers should exercise caution when they use a cellphone. We agree with National Academy of Sciences, which in 2008 called for more research into the safety of the technology.
Although no link has been made between cellphone use and cancer, it can take decades for cancer to develop in a person after he/she is exposed to a potential carcinogen. Cellphones have been around since 1983, but their usage has become commonplace only in the past decade. Five billion people now use cellphones worldwide, so if cellphones pose even a small cancer risk, it would constitute a significant public-health problem, says Michael Wyde, who is project manager for a cellphone health study that’s being conducted by National Institute of Environmental Health Science’s National Toxicology Program (NTP).
Other nations, which include Canada, England, Finland and France, urge consumers to minimize their exposure to cellphone radiation and require telecommunications businesses to pay for independent research to address health concerns. In contrast, the approach in the United States has been to see whether bodies pile up before officials urge any change at all.
INVISIBLE WAVES. The health concerns about cellphones revolve around their RF EMF emissions. All experts acknowledge that these fields penetrate into human tissue, just like microwaves penetrate into food. The question: How much RF EMF penetration is unhealthy?
What You Can Do
To protect cellphone users, FCC in 1996 adopted a Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) limit of 1.6 watts per kilogram (w/kg) of tissue. SAR measures the amount of energy that’s emitted by cellphones and is similar to the wattage rating for a light bulb. But SAR isn’t a measure of cumulative RF EMF exposure, which is what scientists believe might cause cancer. Cellphone manufacturers must have their phones tested by FCC-approved laboratories to certify that the devices emit less than 1.6 w/kg of energy.
FCC considers SAR to be a good guideline to prevent tissue burns, but it’s irrelevant to the larger issue of cancer and other health issues. Unfortunately, no standard exists for measuring cumulative exposure to RF EMF. FCC spokesperson David Fiske says other agencies, not FCC, should set such a health standard for cellphone use.
In cellphone manuals, most manufacturers tell consumers to keep the devices some distance from the head to reduce exposure to RF EMF. For instance, Motorola recommends keeping its Backflip model 1 inch from the head, and Samsung recommends keeping its Alias 2 model 0.59 inches from the head. Of course, you won’t know how far your phone is from your head unless you use a ruler and look in a mirror.
Still, FCC says this is better than trying to purchase a phone based on its SAR, which is why it doesn’t publish those ratings. According to FCC, cellphone-emissions exposure also is influenced by how much time that people spend talking on their cellphone and where they use it. That’s because the power level of a cellphone automatically adjusts to the strength of its connection. In enclosures, such as on a train, a signal can be weak, and a cellphone will power up and thus increase the user’s exposure to RF EMF.
A cellphone’s power level also depends on where you live, according to a 2010 study in Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. Cellphones boost their power in rural areas, because cellphone towers that send and receive signals in rural areas often are more distant from users than are those that function in urban areas. Thus, rural consumers are exposed to more RF EMF while they use their cellphone.
Whatever the power level, children—because of their thin skulls—warrant special protection, says Jonathan Samet, who is a professor of medicine at University of Southern California and a member of IARC. He cautions parents “to make sure your child has the lowest exposure.” That means that parents should encourage text messaging instead of phone calls and limits on the duration of cellphone conversations, although Samet says nobody agrees on a specific time limit.
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POSSIBLE CARCINOGEN. To date, health studies that are related to cellphone use have focused on how much individuals use their cellphone, where they hold it in relation to their head, and the shape, size and thickness of the individual’s skull. Researchers also have studied potential health effects through epidemiological studies that track health effects, such as incidences of brain cancer, in people.
So far, the largest epidemiological study is IARC’s 2010 Interphone study of 14,000 longtime cellphone users who are from 13 countries. The study compared the results with a group of people who didn’t use cellphones regularly. Those who talked on their phones at least 30 minutes per day experienced a 40 percent increase in the incidence of glioma, which is a tumor that occurs in brain tissue; and a 15 percent increase in meningioma, which occurs in the tissue that lines the brain. Moreover, the study found that the tumors in heavy users tended to be on the same side of the head as where the people customarily held their phone.
Interphone was criticized by a variety of scientists. They noted that its findings could be taken with limited confidence, because the daily cellphone usage of study participants was based on their personal estimations rather than on actual billing records. Still, IARC found the study persuasive enough to designate cellphone emissions as “possibly carcinogenic.”
The designation places cellphones in the middle of the agency’s classifications for cancer risk—below “probably carcinogenic” but above two other classifications that indicate an inadequate amount of evidence of carcinogens. (For comparison, IARC also considers diesel fuel and engine exhaust as “possibly carcinogenic.”)
Samet, who led the IARC panel of 31 scientists from 14 nations, wants to see more-rigorous research on cellphones. He also wants inquiries into how RF EMF emissions might lead DNA to mutate or cause other health problems, as he suspects based on the Interphone results.
INDUSTRY STATIC. While IARC awaits more research, the cellphone industry is busy spinning the science in the opposite direction.
John Boice, who is a scientist for International Epidemiology Institute, which has performed contract research for the telecommunications industry, believes that cellphone research has proven so inconclusive that it’s time to focus research money on other priorities. He cites a July study that was released in Europe that shows no association between cellphone use and brain cancer in children. (Critics point out that the study covered only 5 years of use, although the latency period for cancer runs at least a decade.)
Instead of further study, Boice suggests that researchers watch what happens to brain-cancer rates. National Cancer Institute (NCI) data show that the incidence of brain cancer has fallen 0.3 percent in the United States since 1987.
But Dr. David Carpenter, who is a public-health physician at University at Albany (N.Y.) and specializes in the study of RF EMF, cautions that because of the long latency period for brain cancer, it’s too soon to draw conclusions from NCI’s data. He predicts that cases of brain cancer will increase between 2020 and 2030.
Boice isn’t alone in his assertions. He and other scientists maintain that RF EMF doesn’t carry enough energy to damage DNA, unlike the radiation that’s emitted from radioactive materials, such as uranium.
Several scientists have found otherwise, including Henry Lai, who is a professor of bioengineering at University of Washington. Lai has conducted studies in which cells are exposed to cellphone signals and examined for DNA damage. His research dates to 1994, and the results show that there was DNA damage.
Lai tells Consumers Digest that a cellphone-industry-funded consortium that backed his studies in the 1990s—Wireless Technology Research—tried to fire him when it learned of the results of his studies.
The consortium’s director, George Carlo, denies to us that his group requested that Lai be fired. Instead, Carlo says, he asked the university to refund the money that it was paid for the research, because Lai violated the terms of the contract by failing to follow proper procedure.
Strong-arm tactics are common, according to cellphone-safety advocates. Jerry Phillips, who is a biochemistry professor at University of Colorado, conducted research for Motorola in the 1990s. He tells us that he found that RF EMF affects DNA. Motorola offered to fund additional research if he wouldn’t publish his results, he says, but he published his data anyway in 1997 in the journal Bioelectromagnetics. The company terminated his contract and hired another team that wound up disputing Phillips’ findings.
Motorola referred our calls seeking clarification to CTIA. CTIA general counsel Michael Altschul only confirms that his association funded a $25 million research program in the 1990s that Carlo led. Altschul characterizes the research controversies as disagreements among scientists.
“Our goal is to follow the science,” says K. Dane Snowden, who is the vice president of CTIA. “When FDA says there’s no evidence of cellphones causing brain cancer, we follow that. When FCC says cellphones are safe, we follow that.”
But as we noted above, three of the four ruling members of FCC are from the telecommunications industry. Despite Snowden’s assertions, we believe that the safety of cellphones remains suspect.
REGULATORY INACTION. Until it ordered the GAO study, Congress held just two hearings over the past decade—in 2008 and 2009—on cellphone safety, says Olga Naidenko, who is a scientist at Environmental Working Group. To date, no member of Congress has introduced legislation to direct any federal regulatory initiative.
We believe that that’s because money speaks. Telecommunications companies gave almost $9 million in federal campaign contributions in 2010, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks corporate spending in politics. That year, the industry also spent more than $40 million lobbying in Washington. So it’s no surprise to us that when telecommunications companies call, Washington listens.
European Parliament displays more independence. In 2009, it adopted a report that called for nations to develop stricter regulatory standards to reduce the potentially harmful characteristics of RF EMF emissions. The report also advocated the development of education campaigns on how to cut radiation exposure from cellphones by talking less. In 2010, San Francisco Department of the Environment found that the average U.S. cellphone customer uses his/her phone 848 minutes per month, compared with 104 minutes per month in Germany and 249 minutes per month in France.
Maine is the only state that has come close to enacting any regulation. Cobb joined doctors and scientists in lobbying for a 2010 Maine State Legislature bill that sought to require cellphone labels that warned consumers about potential health risks. But the cellphone industry applied unusually heavy pressure, says bill author Andrea Boland, who is a Democratic representative. Lobbyists lined up at the door of the chamber and pressured senators as they entered for a vote, she says. Industry representatives threatened to sue the state if the bill passed, and the bill ultimately died in the Senate.
San Francisco is the only municipality that has adopted any ordinance. Scientists and health experts at the city’s Environment department helped the city’s board of supervisors to adopt a law in 2010 that requires cellphone marketers to warn consumers about potential health risks.
CTIA sued. In response, the board amended the ordinance last June to require marketers to give consumers guidelines on the safe usage of cellphones. A federal judge was expected to review the case this October. Snowden says it’s strictly up to the federal government—not states and local governments—to determine safety standards for cellphones.
Similar legislation in Oregon failed to make it out of a legislative committee this year. But many hope that in 2012, California will become the first state to enact a cellphone-labeling measure. The labels would warn consumers that if they hold cellphones directly against their bodies, they might be exposed to radiation levels that exceed FCC’s SAR limit. California State Sen. Mark Leno decided to hold the bill until 2012, when it became apparent that six Democratic senators accepted tens of thousands of dollars from the cellphone industry for their campaigns, according to MapLight.org, which tracks money in politics. Those six senators are enough to prevent a majority vote in California, where Republicans unanimously oppose almost any bill that seeks to regulate business. However, Leno believes that after lawmakers learn more about the IARC designation, which came late in the legislative season, they will change their minds in 2012.
For the record, the cellphone industry claims that the bill would violate the U.S. Constitution by compelling the industry to engage in false and misleading speech—that cellphones might be unsafe. We believe that this claim is absurd.
“The message from the industry is there should be no more discussion about this issue at all,” Leno says. “This is not a topic that’s going away.”
CLARITY AHEAD? As legislation stalls and scientific uncertainty continues, a few positive developments are taking place. Samet notes that research shows that cellphone emissions have been decreasing. (See “Know Your Limits: The Differences in Modulation.”) New models now operate at lower power levels because of modulation technologies that pack more information into their signals.
Furthermore, in 2014, the results of NTP’s study should provide some of the best data yet on the effects of cellphones. Beginning late this year, NTP will dose rats with cellphone RF EMF and examine their bodies for tumors, Wyde says. Scientists will examine whether any difference exists between the two frequency bands that are used for cellphones in the United States and the two predominant modulation systems for cellphones.
Unlike past studies that focused on brain cancer, NTP’s study will scrutinize whether cellphones affect other organs, such as the kidneys, liver or reproductive organs. Those risks never have been examined, even though people often keep their phones at waist level.
But more must be done. We would like to see an independent epidemiological study of whether heavy users of cellphones present any increased incidence of cancer or other health effects that’s based on the actual cellphone usage records of study subjects, rather than the recollections of study subjects, as in the Interphone study.
These records now date back more than 10 years for large numbers of people. And the government should mandate that researchers have access to the phone-use records of any cellphone user who wants to take part in the study. We also would like to see the cellphone industry pay for such a study, as was done in Europe.
We also believe that FCC should run an information campaign (and, if it doesn’t have sufficient legal authority or the budget for such a campaign, FCC should seek it) to instruct consumers on the best ways to limit exposure to RF EMF. Federal Trade Commission also should develop guidelines for cellphone advertising that’s aimed at children under its children’s advertising program, which covers privacy and age-appropriate content access.
Finally, FCC, FDA and the cellphone industry should launch a cooperative program to design cellphone networks that decrease exposure to RF EMF and any of its harmful characteristics.
Because the scientific verdict on cellphones is unlikely to be rendered for years, these measures would help to eliminate unnecessary exposure and decrease potential health risks in the meantime. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
William J. Kelly has written about numerous energy and environmental topics for Consumers Digest and is a correspondent for California Current.