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Investigative Report

A Bad Connection: Cellphone Radiation & Health Risks

No scientific proof exists to support claims that cellphone use causes brain cancer or any other health problems, but plenty of evidence indicates that the connection between cellphone-radiation emissions and health risks must be researched more thoroughly. Unfortunately, the federal government has been slow to act or recommend any safety guidelines.

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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).

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