To Call or Not to Call? The Ongoing Cell Phone Safety Debate

In 1984, consumers flocked to buy the first mobile phones available to the public. The technology had been developed by the Department of Defense, but the cell phones had never been specifically tested for safety. It was reasoned that the devices emitted only non-ionizing radiation, waves without the power to rupture chemical bonds within cells or kick DNA into cancer-causing states. Convinced, the public fell in love with their portable phones. By 2007, 250 million Americans subscribed to a cellular-phone service, and it is estimated that there are at least 2.5 billion people chatting on cell phones worldwide.

In certain circles, the dispute over the safety of mobile phones—not to mention the towers that support them—is as great as the popularity of the gadgets themselves. Studies have linked heavy cell-phone usage with brain cancer and other ailments, but have been called into question by researchers who note the relationship has been proven only associative, not causal. Others insist that research must be done for 10, 20 or even 30 years before conclusive evidence is found. Groups like the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintain that there’s simply not enough information to deem cell phones definitively safe or unsafe.

Worry Sets In

The debate received its first significant public attention in 1993 when Florida businessman David Reynard filed a lawsuit against the cell-phone industry. He believed that heavy cell-phone usage by his late wife led to the brain cancer that killed her. The suit was dismissed for lack of evidence. Although some cell-phone companies now add clauses to their service contracts that prohibit consumers from suing them, a major case against providers has yet to be won.

Siding with naysayers, the University of Utah in 2008 examined nine studies with thousands of brain tumor patients and “found no overall increased risk of brain tumors among cellular phone users.” Recent inquiries in France, Den-mark, England and Nor-way concluded the same thing. Some of these studies are part of an ongoing, large-scale research project called Interphone, which involves 13 mainly European nations.

Though not yet published, the Interphone studies show more worrying results. A Swedish oncologist reviewed 10 European studies done between 2001 and 2007, and noted a consistent pattern between specific brain tu-mors and long-term cell-phone use. The tumors include gliomas (brain cancers); acoustic neuromas, cancers that occurs where the brain meets the ear; and cancers of the parotid, a salivary gland near the ear. A 2008 study of 500 Israelis found a 50% increased risk of parotid cancer among habitual mobile-phone users. Finnish scientists presented research in 2007 that stated there was a “significantly in-creased” risk of brain cancer after cellular phone use of more than 10 years. Also in Finland, the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority discovered that exposing human cells to the non-ionizing radiation emitted by cell phones causes a response that normally only occurs when cells are being damaged.

Safer Cell Phoning

A number of researchers were alarmed enough by these findings to issue immediate warnings. Dr. George Carlo, founder of the Safe Wireless Initiative, author of Cell Phones: Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age (Carroll & Graf Publishers) and one of the first to investigate the dangers of mobile-phone use, declares that diseases gaining strength in our wireless era include cancer, attention deficit disorder, autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson”s. He asserts that we face a wide-ranging public-health crisis.

More moderate in their warnings, three eminent neurosurgeons appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live in the spring of 2008 to encourage cautionary measures such as using headsets when speaking on cellular phones. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, sent a memo to 3,000 faculty and staff that encouraged them to do the same. He stated, “Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use.” He recommended all err on the side of caution, especially children, whose developing brains and thinner skulls may make them especially vulnerable to radiation’s effects.

Another way to play it safe may be to keep mobile phones as far from the body as possible, protecting sensitive areas such as the eyes, testes and hips, where 80% of red blood cells are formed. Using speakerphone features and land lines helps to reduce risk, as does purchasing cell phones that emit lower radiation levels. The technology news site CNET has compiled a list of these phones online. But before consulting the list to find the latest high-tech gadget, consider donating old cell phones or recycling them for a happier, healthier planet.