First: Static? Or Frying Brain Cells? The Nasty Debate Over Cell-Phone Safety
Fortune
Journalist: David Kirkpatric
July, 1999

Hit the “talk” button on your cellular phone, and microwave radiation bombards your head. As the bursts of electromagnetic waves cross your mind, so might a few questions. Is your brain frying? Does anyone care? Are manufacturers researching this stuff enough? You wouldn’t be the only one asking these questions; they’re part of a mounting debate between scientists and the cell-phone industry.

“Researchers have been shafted,” says Ross Adey, a University of California at Riverside neurologist and longtime contract researcher for Motorola who is regarded as one of the field’s best. “The industry has fostered the view that phones have been proven safe with no evidence to back it up. I’m frustrated with the power of money to manipulate the research and government regulators.”

Meanwhile, at Motorola’s strategic-issues department, director Norm Sandler requests that we all please relax. “At the power levels and frequencies of existing cellular phones, there is no established evidence of any biological effects, much less any health effects.”

Adey: “That is simply not true. Over and over, cell-phone fields have produced effects. Industry is lying and lying and lying.”

Sandler: “Government agencies around the world are fairly comfortable with [our] position.” (He adds, “Motorola has not criticized Dr. Adey or the quality of his research.”)

What is the truth? Ever since the public outcry that followed a 1993 Larry King Live episode on which a widower said that a cell phone gave his wife terminal brain cancer, funding for research has increased, but the results have been inconclusive.

For example, Louis Slesin, publisher of Microwave News, a leading newsletter on health-related information, points to a number of disturbing studies he says have not been properly followed up on, including work relating to abnormal cell growth, DNA breakage, and increased cancer incidence in mice. And Wireless Technology Research, an independent group funded by the cell-phone industry and set up following the Larry King scare to study cell phones’ effects, has conducted a laboratory study on human blood that found genetic damage from exposure to microwaves of the type that cell phones emit. Another study that looked at actual brain-cancer cases found a more than doubled risk of one rare type among cell-phone users compared with nonusers, says WTR head George Carlo.

But get this. A study conducted by Motorola’s Adey showed that rats exposed to cell-phone fields showed a reduction in brain cancer in certain circumstances.

These are the maddening complexities of electromagnetism and health: No one knows precisely what the ubiquitous cell phone is doing to us. Thomas Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, insists the phones are safe but says the industry will pay for ongoing research as recommended by scientists and the federal government.

Just in case, Carlo uses a cell-phone headset, which distances antenna radiation from the brain. The London police recently advised its staff to limit by-the-head calls to five minutes and to use headsets for long conversations “as a precautionary measure.” If this look catches on with all those odious twits who bark importantly into their Nokias, we may help solve an undisputed cell-phone safety issue: driving. A headset means you’ve got two hands to keep on the wheel.