Will we one day regret our current cavalier attitude toward cellphone radiation — just as our grandparents and great-grandparents came to regret their nonchalant-ness toward such now-known carcinogens as tobacco and asbestos?
That’s the question Minnesota health writer (and occasional Second Opinion contributor) Paul Scott raises in his troubling article on cellphone and brain cancer that appears in the current issue of Men’s Health.
Here’s an excerpt:
The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the World Health Organization all regard the radio waves emitted from cellphones as safe. But another growing body of experts believes cellphone use can promote tumors, and momentum has been shifting to their side. A researcher in Sweden, for instance, recently reported that people who started using cellphones before the age of 20… have four to five times the odds of developing one type of brain tumor. An unpublished (and therefore not peer-reviewed) analysis by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute shows an increase in brain tumors among Americans in the under-30 age group.
And according to new research, studies showing that cellphones are safe tend to be (a) less rigorously designed and (b) funded by the cellphone industry, while studies showing that cellphones carry risks are (a) produced with better science and (b) have no financial conflicts of interest.
And if the slow spread of distress within the halls of government means anything, the topic no longer causes eye-rolling among lawmakers. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, has recently authorized a $25 million study to analyze rats that have been bathed in cellphone radiation for a period of 2 years. Both houses of Congress have held hearings on the issue. And in Maine, legislation may soon require warning labels on cellphones sold in that state.
The cellphone industry has responded with studies, mind you—ones that exonerate the technology, including a new study showing that tumor rates are steady in Scandinavia, where cellphones were adopted early. But if you dig deep, those findings aren’t as reassuring as you might hope. For one thing, they tend to limit their good news to people who’ve been using cellphones for less than 10 years.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer commissioned a large 13-nation study in 1998 that was supposed to help answer the question of whether people who use cell phones are more likely to develop meningioma, glioma, acoustic neuroma or parotid gland tumors than those who use (soon-to-be-extinct?) corded phones.
But, as Scott points out, nobody knows what that study found:
While partial results have been published, the report’s final conclusions are in limbo 4 years after its completion. Press accounts have asserted that the coauthors are bitterly divided over what the study found. Published sections have reported no connection between cellphones and cancer, but most of the patients studied used their cellphones for less than 10 years. That matters, because brain tumors could take decades to develop, and widespread cellphone use in the United States began only in the mid-1990s.
“It took 40 years for brain tumors to show up after Hiroshima,” says Devra Davis, Ph.D., M.P.H., founding director of the center for environmental oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI). “How can you expect to see effects from cellphones in 10?”
Studies that look at cellphone use for more than 10 years are less comforting. According to a 2002 study of more than 1,400 brain tumor patients by Swedish cancer epidemiologist Lennart Hardell, M.D., Ph.D., as well as a review by Dr. Hardell of data from other researchers’ studies, regular use of a cellphone for longer than 10 years increases your risk of some types of brain tumors.
(That’s the bad news for adults. The harm of wireless radiation on children and teenagers may be even worse, reports Scott.)
While researchers squabble over the science, you can take steps to lower the amount of radiofrequency energy bombarbing your brain, says Scott. Use earbuds or a headset. Hold your phone as far as possible from your head. Avoid talking on the phone when the battery charge is low (only one or two bars), a situation that requires the phone to boost its radiofrequency output.
Or, as Scott also recommends, take the truly revolutionary step of talking less.