Is Your Cell Phone Killing You?
Journalist: Gordon Bass
There’s more data suggesting problems with the radiation from cell phones than the FDA had when it banned silicone breast implants. Are we all at risk?
It’s the must-have accessory of the late 20th century. It confers status and power. It gives you access to the world wherever you are, whenever you want. But what if it’s producing a tumor in your brain the size of a golf ball?
More than 80 million Americans use a mobile phone. By 2002 another 30 million people will be signed up for service. Yet there’s mounting scientific evidence that using a mobile phone is risky. After all, “for the first time in history, we are holding a high-powered transmitter against the head,” said Ross Adey, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California at Riverside. And that transmitter is about an inch from your brain.
When you talk on your mobile phone, your voice is transmitted from the antenna as radio frequency radiation (RFR) between 800MHz and 1,990MHz—a range that’s right in the middle of microwave territory. Not surprisingly, it now appears that exposure to this micro wave RFR may have serious health consequences. In 1993, following a lawsuit filed by a Florida man who claimed his wife’s brain tumor had been caused by her mobile phone, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) formed Wireless Technology Research (WTR) and granted it more than $25 million to study possible health risks of mobile phone use. After six years of study, WTR made some startling conclusions.
“We found evidence of genetic damage in human blood,” said George Carlo, WTR’s chairman. “We have suggestions of excessive mortality from brain cancers among wireless phone users, and we have very clear evidence of a statistically significant higher risk of neuroepithelial tumors. We now have more data suggesting problems with wireless phones than the FDA had when it banned silicone breast implants.”
So why isn’t the cellular telecommunications industry acting? The WTR research was funded by the CTIA, which is bankrolled by the companies that produce mobile phones and communications infrastructure. The CTIA hasn’t exactly encouraged publication of the results.
Motorola, a member of the CTIA and the world’s No. 2 manufacturer of mobile phones, has funded extensive research programs to explore possible health effects associated with the use of mobile phones. “Radio products that meet established guidelines pose no known health risk,” said Norman Sandler, director of global strategic issues for Motorola. The company can provide reams of study results that indicate an unequivocal absence of health risks. A few questionable results have been either deemed statistically insignificant or earmarked for further study.
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Jerry Phillips, who has a doctorate in biochemistry, worked with U.C. Riverside’s Adey on Motorola-funded research beginning in 1991. “The relationship [with Motorola] was pleasant for the first few years, until we began to get some data,” said Phillips. Things shifted when RFR exposure was linked to changes in the incidence of brain tumors in rats. “Motorola was adamant that Adey never mention DNA damage and RF radiation in the same breath,” Phillips said.
“Motorola has been manipulative of research that we and others have reported to them,” said Adey. “Essentially they cut us off because we were too inquisitive.” Motorola’s Sandler vehemently denies this claim. Interestingly, one of Adey’s studies found that certain frequencies of RFR actually decreased the incidence of tumors in rats. You’d expect this to be fantastic news for Motorola—imagine an ad campaign touting the health benefits of mobile phone use. But Adey said the company was unwilling to recognize results that indicated any biological effects of RFR whatsoever, either positive or negative.
Phillips, Adey, and others said they see a strong parallel between what’s happening now and the decades of denial by the tobacco industry in the face of mounting scientific evidence that tobacco was harmful. Jo-Anne Basile, vice president of external and industry relations for the CTIA, strongly disagrees. “A more inaccurate comparison could not be made,” she said. “The industry has never tried to withhold any information or any negative comments.”
It’s still unclear exactly how RFR exposure and cancer may be linked. When you’re talking on your mobile phone, some 40 percent of the radiated energy is absorbed by your head and hand. But the level of radiation generally isn’t enough to produce significant heat in the human head. So what’s causing problems? “That’s the big question,” said Phillips. “If I knew, I’d be shaking hands with the king of Sweden instead of worrying about funding research.”
Many signs point to DNA damage as the likely culprit. Adey has found a link between low-intensity microwaves and DNA damage in rat brain cells. Phillips suggests that RFR may not damage DNA but may somehow hinder the ability of DNA to repair itself when it’s damaged by natural causes.
“What we need to know is whether there’s a direct interaction between RFR and DNA,” said Phillips. Phillips said that like Carlo and Adey, he is not on a mission to bring down the telecommunications giants. In fact, all three researchers own mobile phones that they use on a limited basis. What they said they would most like is for the industry to accept their findings, allow them to be made public, and then let consumers decide how to react. “What’s wrong is keeping information from the public,” said Carlo.
The telecommunications industry and research scientists agree that more work is needed. One major study, led by the World Health Organization, is investigating RFR exposure, but results aren’t due until 2005.