The jury is still out on whether there is a connection between cell phones and health problems. Here’s what we do know. And here’s how to be smarter about how you use your phone.
By Megan Feldman
Ellie Marks had been married to her husband, Alan, for more than 20 years when the strange behavior began. Angry outbursts. Manic pacing. Uncharacteristic slovenliness after decades of being meticulously dressed and groomed. The couple turned to psychiatrists, but in May 2008, doctors discovered a malignant, golf-ball-sized tumor on the right side of Alan’s head.
The diagnosis came the same week as Ted Kennedy’s, and it was the same type of brain cancer. Though he suffers short-term memory loss, Alan has survived his ordeal. The Marks’ son, who interned for Kennedy, had a thought: “They were both on their cell phones all the time.” Indeed, Alan Marks had spent more than 20 years on the phone as a busy realtor. Could that have had something to do with his tumor?
Ellie began researching potential links between tumors and the microwaves emitted by cell phones. She found several studies, mostly in Europe and Israel, that correlated heavy cell phone use with conditions ranging from increased risk for tumors to fertility problems and behavioral issues in children. Of the studies she found, more than one data set found heavy cell phone users had an elevated risk of glioma, the cancer that plagued her husband.
Yet Ellie was wading into a confusing pool of disputed science, as evidenced by the disagreement among her husband’s doctors. She said that their neurosurgeon doubted Alan’s cell phone was related to his cancer, but that their general care doctor said she had seen an increase in brain tumors among her patients and suspected it was from the devices.
Ellie sent Alan’s MRI scans and phone records to several epidemiologists who suspected a correlation. “They said my husband was the poster boy for the cell-phone/brain-tumor connection because he was one of the original users,” says Ellie, who has since started the California Brain Tumor Association, which lobbies for additional research and consumer labels on phones. “He started in 1987, and we figured on average, [he] was using it more than an hour a day on the same side of the head where he got the tumor.”
But is there really a link?
Most scientists, including those at the National Institute for Cancer, stress that a causal link between cell phone radiation and cancer risk has yet to be established. But a growing chorus of epidemiologists say there’s sufficient cause for concern and encourage people to ward off radiation by using headsets and speakerphones. (Even the fine print in most phone manuals instructs users to hold the device a certain distance from the ear.) Still, anyone looking for a definitive answer to the question of cell phone safety is bound to be disappointed. It seems that for every study that links cell phone radiation to cancer, there’s another that shows zero effect.
“To come up with a flaw-free study that provides a crisp answer is tough,” says Jonathan Samet, a University of Southern California epidemiologist who has reviewed some of the research. “The way we use cell phones is not a pattern that’s been in existence very long, and with most carcinogens, you won’t be at risk [until] 20 years after exposure. These studies are very early in what could be a longer biological process. The science isn’t in yet, and it’s not going to be in for a while,” he says.
Those convinced of the dangers of using portable devices point to studies that link 10 years or more of daily cell phone use to an increased risk for a variety of head and neck tumors. The results of Interphone, a multinational study conducted in 13 countries by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, included some evidence that “heavy users,” adults who’d talked on cell phones for at least 10 years at an average of a half-hour per day (light by many people’s standards), faced a higher risk of brain tumors than non-users.
Yet the Interphone studies were flawed, with the scientists involved delaying the results for four years due to disagreements over what they’d found. One red flag was that “moderate users” were found to have a lower cancer rate than non-users—nonsensical because there’s no known means by which cell phones can protect us from cancer. A possible bias in the study was that subjects with tumors may have over-estimated their cell phone use, since the study relied on recollection, not phone records. Researchers have considered using records, but in at least one case, the wireless industry sued to stop them, according to Samet, who reviewed Interphone for the International Journal of Epidemiology. “When you read Interphone, you come away asking: Did these people make a clear claim about what they found?” Samet says. “There are clear indications of bias in the study, and they could effect under-estimation or over-estimation of risk.”
Research unrelated to Interphone also suggests links between cell phones and health problems. In one of these studies, a Swedish oncology professor Lennart Hardell found double the risk of brain tumors in people who used cell phones heavily for a decade or more. Another 2008 study published by UCLA’s School of Public Health in the Journal Epidemiology showed that the children of mothers who used cell phones while pregnant, and young children who used cell phones themselves, had more behavioral problems than non-cell users. However, the study noted that these behavioral problems may be “noncasual.”
The problem is, other studies find no correlation at all. A 2002 German study exposed mice to cell phone radiation and found no increase in brain cancer. An Australian study done the same year found no increase in lymphomas. A large-scale set of animal tests called Perform-A announced in 2007 that it had found no evidence that cell phone radiation causes cancer in exposed mice or rats. There are also studies on whether radiation damages sperm that run the gamut, with some indicating no impact and others finding a higher incidence of sperm die-off. “We need to do ongoing studies and figure it out,” Samet says. “In the face of all this murky science, what do you do? That comes down to how risk averse you want to be.”
How to minimize risk
Some argue that proactively minimizing risk instead of waiting for a definitive answer could avoid a massive public health problem. “I’m concerned the combined evidence of studies done in dozens of laboratories around the world is being completely ignored while we debate whether we have enough proof of human harm,” says Devra Davis, an epidemiologist, founding director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Environmental Oncology 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, 2010). “That’s how we got into the mess we got into with tobacco and asbestos. We kept asking, ‘Where’s the proof?’ And in the meantime we continued to expose people to these dangerous materials.” The Federal Communications Commission limits the amount of radiation emissions from phones to 1.6 watts of radiation absorbed per kilogram of body tissue, but experts like Davis say that’s not sufficient to protect against damage.
Davis, who stresses that exposure to any carcinogen can take decades to manifest as cancer, believes everyone should take precautions pending incontrovertible proof of health damage from cell phones. Some of the most disturbing lab tests, she says, have documented how microwave-like radiation from phones can disrupt living cells and even cause breaks in DNA strands. (Researchers at the University of Washington showed this in rats in the 1990s, and the results were later duplicated elsewhere.)
“No one’s saying the issue is closed,” says Louis Slesin, who runs an investigative newsletter called Microwave News. “But what studies tell us now is suggestive enough that we should be taking precautions. They’re starting to track users for 20 to 30 years, and if we’re waiting for what studies will tell us in 20 to 30 years, we’re in trouble.”
To minimize exposure, Davis and Slesin both recommend using the speakerphone function or a wire headset (if you use Bluetooth, remove it and turn it off and when you’re not talking), as well as carrying phones in a purse instead of a pocket. Children especially, they say, should avoid holding phones to their heads because they’re more susceptible to radiation. Better yet, use a wired phone. Both also warn not to use cell phones in fast-moving cars or trains, since phones emit more radiation as they work to connect with multiple tower signals. (See “7 Ways to Avoid Cell Phone Radiation” for more tips.)
As studies on cell phones’ danger or safety proliferate and scientists debate the findings, Ellie Marks is taking action. She and the California Brain Tumor Association helped Mayor Gavin Newsom pass a San Francisco ordinance requiring cell phone radiation levels be posted at the point of sale (CTIA–The Wireless Association, the industry’s lobby, sued in July to prevent the law from taking effect.), and she has testified before Congress with her husband.
But until there are definitive answers, the best we as consumers can do is take precautions.
7 Ways to Avoid Cell Phone Radiation
- Use speakerphone or a headset. A wireless headset is best; some people recommend what’s called an Airflow, which uses a plastic tube to ensure no radiation is transmitted at all. If you use Bluetooth, turn it off and take it off when done talking.
- Store your cell phone in a backpack or purse. If you must carry it mounted on your belt, turn the keypad to face your body, since the antenna is on the back. Because radiation drops exponentially by distance from the antenna, holding devices away from the body cuts doses dramatically.
- Don’t sleep with your cell phone on next to the bed. Sleep with it in a different room if it’s on.
- Talk in an area with good reception. Poor reception increases the radiation dose because the phones must power up to send the signal.
- Don’t talk while driving. Use in trains or cars causes more radiation exposure because the phones are constantly switching signals to new towers, which leads to temporary boosts in signal power.
- Text instead of talking. Unless you’re driving, which can lead to distraction and more health risk. (See “Texting and Driving” on page 58 for more information.)
- Use a phone that’s certified as emitting the least amount of radiation. Check the Environmental Working Group’s list of the best and worst phones at ewg.org.
Sources: Devra Davis of Environmental Health Trust; Louis Slesin of Microwave News; and Camilla Rees, and co-author of Public Health SOS: The Shadow Side of the Wireless Revolution (CreateSpace, 2009).
Texting and Driving
Radiation isn’t the only danger from using cell phones while driving. In September, a study released by the University of North Texas and published in the American Journal of Public Health reported that drivers who texted on cell phones killed an estimated 16,000 people from 2001 to 2007. “We were surprised by the magnitude,” says Fernando Wilson, assistant professor of public health at UNT. “When you’re taking your eyes off the road to look down, it’s substantially more dangerous. One study showed that if you text, you’re 23 times more likely to have an accident,” he says.
Read More About It
WEBSITE: MICROWAVE NEWS (microwavenews.com) Since 1981, Louis Slesin has been reporting on the potential health and environmental impacts of electromagnetic fields and radiation, particularly when it comes to mobile phones, power lines, and radar. The website—run on user contributions—maintains an updated list of news articles and scientific discoveries.
BOOK: Zapped: Why Your Cell Phone Shouldn’t Be Your Alarm Clock and 1,268 Ways to Outsmart the Hazards of Electronic Pollution by Anne Louise Gittleman (HarperOne, 2010) Anne Louise Gittleman, a PhD nutritionist who has authored more than a dozen health books, addresses the large-scale increase in devices and appliances that generate electromagnetic fields and lays out a plan for minimizing exposure to potentially harmful radiation—without giving up the gadgets that define modern life.