Calling on Caution

Watchdog groups urge cell phone users to be wary of increased cancer risk.

By Eric Schneider

November/December 2011


When Stuart Cobb was diagnosed two years ago with a type of brain tumor called a benign glioma that led to physical impairment, visual disturbances and memory problems, he and his family suspected that his longtime cell phone use was the culprit. Cobb, a Portland, Maine, plumber, was a 15-year user averaging two to five hours on the phone each day.

“A cell phone is how we would communicate with our coworkers from service call to service call,” Cobb, 36, recounts. “I would also use my cell after work to communicate with friends and family.”

Stuart’s wife, Kristen, a medical transcriptionist, says, “The two questions that were raised by his doctor the day he was diagnosed that I cannot seem to get off my mind were ‘How often do you use your cell phone?’ and ‘Which side do you hold your cell phone on?’ We put two and two together, and we were shocked to find out that our state tried to pass a law requiring cell phones to come with warning labels.”

Although Maine’s effort to get mobile devices sold with warnings did not pass, emerging studies are giving researchers more ammunition to call for a change in standards applied to cell phone use and to caution consumers about exposure to cell phones and other wireless equipment, such as microwave ovens, baby monitors, cellular phone towers and cordless phones.

Watchdog organizations advocating more restrictions recently celebrated what is said to be the first cell phone ordinance in the United States, adopted in San Francisco. It requires consumer education at the point-of-sale recommending limited cell phone use by children and the use of headsets or speaker phones.

San Francisco retailers are also to recommend that consumers keep a cell phone away from the body, avoid areas with weak signals (where the phone uses more power) and reduce the frequency and length of calls. Retailers were required to comply by the end of October.

Long-Term Risk

The problem with cell phones is that low-level radiation is still radiation. That emitted by the devices is weaker than that of X-rays, for example, giving a false sense of security to consumers, says
Devra Davis, PhD, MPH, founder of the Environmental Health Trust (EHT, www.environmentalhealthtrust.org) in Teton Village, Wyoming, and author of Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It and How to Protect Your Family (Dutton Adult). Cell phone emissions are non-ionizing, meaning they are too weak to break ionic bonds that hold chemicals together. “But even though it’s too weak to break those bonds,’ Davis says, “it can cause damage in other ways.”

The main health issue surrounding cell-phone radiation is its possible link to cancer, especially of the brain, auditory nerve and parotid gland, a salivary gland in the cheek near the ear, says David O. Carpenter, MD, director of University at Albany’s Institute for Health and the Environment in Rensselaer, New York.

“These relations are quite well established,” Carpenter says. “They occur in individuals who have used a cell phone intensively for many years, and the risk is elevated only on the side of the head where the phone is regularly used.”

Though the major research that has been conducted thus far—much of it funded by the mobile-phone industry itself—might not seem to support this, one large study found an increased risk of glioma among those who reported the highest percentage of cell-phone use (International Journal of Epidemiology 5/17/10).

What makes this association difficult to draw is time. Says Davis, “Brain cancer can take 40 years to develop. People say, ‘Well, look, there’s been no increase in brain cancer, so cell phones are safe.’” Since mobile phones have only been in heavy use by many people for less than a decade, however, the long-term effects may not be known for years.

Danger for Children

Evidence is mounting that the risk of cell phone use is heightened in children. “A study from Sweden indicates that use before the age of 20 gives a fivefold greater risk than if you start after the age of 40,” says Carpenter. France is leading the push to curb use by children; it has banned mobile-phone advertising aimed at those under age 12. And other countries, including Israel and England, have begun to actively discourage cell use by kids.

“Children should not use a cell phone at all,” Carpenter says, “except in emergencies.”

Carpenter and others who monitor the industry aren’t happy with the status quo when it comes to standards. The standard of radiation exposure is quantified by specific absorption rate (SAR), which Davis says is “based on a man in the 90th percentile of military recruits in 1989 who was 6’2” and weighed over 200 pounds, with a head about 11 pounds. He spoke originally for six minutes and then for a half hour, which was thought to be how long you could speak without heating your brain. That standard, based on that head, has not changed in close to 20 years.”

So how can exposure to cell-phone radiation be limited? Carpenter suggests using a landline when possible. The EHT adds that using a headset or speakerphone puts your cell device further from your head, reducing radiation exposure.

Further, your phone emits radiation even while it’s not in use, so it’s important to keep your cell away from your body and even off your nightstand. Another scenario to avoid is using your cell phone when it has a weak signal—exposure to radiation can increase at these times.

“If phones were drugs,” says Davis, “we’d have surveillance systems underway for them. If phones were cars, we’d have federal reporting. If phones were planes, we’d have investigations every time there was a report of something abnormal. But we assume that cell phones are safe.

“That’s what I wanted to assume when I started to get into this,” Davis adds, “because I like my phone. It’s very convenient. We’re not telling people to give them up. We’re just telling them to use them in a smarter way.”

 

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