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Hold The Phone? Radiation From Cell Phones Hurts Rat's Brains
Journalist: Kendall Morgan
February 22, 2003
A single 2-hour exposure to the microwaves emitted by some cell phones kills
brain cells in rats, a group of Swedish researchers claims. If confirmed, the
results would be the first to directly link cell-phone radiation to brain damage
in any animal.
No such evidence exists for people. But with cell-phone use skyrocketing, some
scientists recommend precautionary measures—for example, avoiding excessive
gabbing on the phones.
Digital cell phones send out compressed information through microwave pulses of
electromagnetic radiation. In the United States, standard phones emit 50 such
pulses per second, while so-called GSM phones—which operate under the
international standard called Global System for Mobile Communications—emit 217.
Those pulses scatter low-level microwave radiation across the brain. To date,
convincing evidence linking the phones to serious health problems, such as
cancer, is lacking, says Leif G. Salford of Lund University Hospital in Sweden.
Even so, he and his colleagues are still looking for such connections. About 10
years ago, they showed that cell-phone radiation causes the protective barrier
in rats' brains to leak, permitting blood proteins that are normally kept away
from brain tissue to contact neurons.
Now, Salford's team reports in a forthcoming Environmental Health Perspectives
that this breach of the so-called blood-brain barrier is accompanied by the
death of brain cells.
Adolescent rats were exposed for 2 hours to GSM phones at one of three power
levels: 0.01, 0.1, or 1 watt (W). Rats in a control group were not exposed. Cell
phones typically operate at a peak output power of 0.6 W.
Examination of the animals' brain tissue 50 days later revealed that up to 2
percent of the brain cells of rats that had received cell-phone radiation
exposures of 0.1 watt or greater were dead or dying. The hippocampus, cortex,
and brain stem suffered the most damage. The other groups showed no significant
Salford cautions that the results may not apply to real-world cell-phone use. On
the other hand, he notes, "there might be negative consequences in the long
"It's quite intriguing," says Henry C. Lai of the University of Washington in
Seattle. "The energy absorbed by the rats was really low compared to what a
person gets when using a cell phone." Particularly if the effects add up over
time, Lai says, regular use of cell phones could be problematic.
And it's not just the phones. In the modern, wireless office, people are
increasingly exposed to a "sea of microwaves," says neuroscientist W. Ross Adey
of Loma Linda University in California. "You have to ask, How much can people
handle before it becomes a significant problem?" he says.
For the record, Salford himself does use a cell phone. To limit his exposure,
however, he cuts calls short.
Salford, L.G., et al. In press. Nerve cell damage in mammalian brain after
exposure to microwaves from GSM mobile phones. Environmental Health
Perspectives. Abstract available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.6039.
Bower, B. 2003. Cell phones distract drivers, hands down. Science News 163(Feb.
8):94. Available to subscribers at http://sciencenews.org/20030208/note14.asp.
Pickrell, J. 2002. Cell-phone buzz: Contradictory studies heat up radiation
question. Science News 161(June 29):404. Available at http://sciencenews.org/20020629/fob3.asp.
Raloff, J. 2000. Two studies offer some cell-phone cautions. Science News
157(May 20):326. Available to subscribers at http://sciencenews.org/20000520/fob5.asp.
______. 2000. Researchers probe cell-phone effects. Science News 157(Feb.
12):100. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/20000212/fob1.asp.
W. Ross Adey
Loma Linda University
31866 3rd Avenue
Redlands, CA 92374
Henry C. Lai
University of Washington
Department of Bioengineering
Seattle, WA 98195
Leif G. Salford
Lund University Hospital
Department of Neurosurgery
S-221 85 Lund
From Science News, Vol. 163, No. 8, Feb. 22, 2003, p. 115.
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