The Real Risks of Cell Phone Radiation

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — When the neurologist discovered the tumor in Stuart Cobb’s brain earlier this year, he had three pressing questions for his patient.

“Do you work with dangerous chemicals?”

Cobb didn’t.

“Have you been exposed to radiation?”

To the best of his knowledge, Cobb hadn’t.

“Do you use a cell phone often?”

Surprised by the question, Cobb initially answered by saying no. But then his wife, Kristen, blurted out: “You’re on your cell phone all the time!”

Cobb admitted his wife was right. In fact, Cobb, who was just 35 years old at the time, would qualify as a cell phone addict.

He purchased his first phone when he was 19, and worked part-time at a car wash to pay for it, since cell phones were expensive back then. In the 15-plus years since, Cobb says he has owned more than 30 different cell phones.

“I always wanted the latest greatest thing,” he told MainStreet. “I always liked having new gadgets.”

Indeed, Cobb, who has worked as a plumber in Portland, Maine, for ten years, needed to be on his cell phone constantly for his job to communicate with his coworkers and clients while running between houses.

Hearing this, Cobb’s neurologist posed another question: “Which side of your head do you usually place the cell phone to?”

Cobb explained he’s right-handed, and almost always presses the phone against that side of his head. Sure enough, the brain tumor was on the right side of his brain.

To date, there is no conclusive evidence linking cell phones to brain cancer. One paper published last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute refuted any link between the two outright, while another long-term study out this year suggested there was a slight possibility that cell phones cause brain cancer, but that it required more investigation to prove a connection.

So the verdict, according to every major health organization from the Federal Drug Administration to the World Health Organization, is that cell phones are safe, for now.

But for Cobb and his wife, who works as a medical transcriptionist, their experience has led them to conclude there must be a link. Stuart was an otherwise healthy 30-something man with no history of brain cancer in his family. Of all his relatives, only his grandmother suffered cancer of any kind (skin cancer). Moreover, several of the doctors Cobb consulted suggested the cell phone may be a possible cause, though none would say for sure.

More proof, in the couple’s mind, came in the weeks after Cobb’s operation. Doctors successfully removed part, but not all, of his tumor as some of it had become tangled up in blood vessels in his brain. Following the surgery, Cobb went to a rehab center to regain his strength, and there, he and his wife heard from doctors and patients that there had been an increase in the number of brain cancer victims in their 20s and 30s.

Suddenly, Stuart and Kristen, who had never known about any potential risks from cell phone use, came to believe that cell phones were the force behind this phenomenon.

“I was extremely shocked about the whole thing,” Cobb said, his speech mildly impaired from his surgery. “But now I really think there is going to be an epidemic of brain tumors in the future.”

What Research Does (And Doesn’t) Tell Us

Some might call Cobb’s prediction the doomsday scenario, and others might call it paranoia.

As with any new technology, when cell phones were first introduced several decades ago, consumers and researchers worried they might pose some health risks. Through the years, the focus has been primarily on the impact of radiation emitted from the cell phone’s antenna as it transmits a wireless signal. Yet, after hundreds of studies have been published looking into the risks of this radiation, the verdict remains the same: Either cell phones will kill us or they won’t.

“In spite of years of research, we still do not know whether mobile phone radiation causes any health effects or not,” said Dariusz Leszczynski, a research professor at the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland, who has authored several studies on cell phone health risks. “In fact, what can be considered astonishing, is we still do not know for sure whether the human body reacts to mobile phone radiation.”

Part of the problem, according to researchers, is that even if cell phones do cause cancer, it could take as long as 30 years to manifest itself.

“In the U.S., everyone really started to own cell phones around 2000, so if cancer is 20 or 30 years down the road, we’re not even there yet,” said Sean Gray, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit public health group that has studied cell phone radiation.  “We’re completely in the dark right now.”

Still, ominous research papers have begun to pile up from around the world, linking cell phone radiation to pretty much every possible malady except cancer. In recent years, prolonged cell phone use has been found to negatively affect sperm, to cause insomnia, headaches and depression, to increase the chances of tinnitus and memory loss. Just this week, a study was published arguing that using a cell phone while pregnant can cause behavioral problems in the child. And that doesn’t even take into account the numerous risks that may be caused by Wi-Fi, which now comes standard on many phones.

Several countries have been motivated by these and other studies to take preventative steps against cell phone radiation risks. France, Israel and Finland have each urged advertisers to stop marketing cell phones to children, due to concerns that kids are more susceptible to any health risks there may be from cell phone radiation.

In the U.S., some regions have attempted to issue their own precautions. Back in July, San Francisco passed a law requiring retailers to advertise the amount of radiation emitted by each cell phone they sell. Likewise, in Maine, where the Cobb family lives, legislators tried and failed to force manufacturers to place warning labels on cell phones stating the product may cause brain cancer.

Needless to say, these efforts have been met with resistance from the cell phone industry itself, which argues that public health advocates are simply trying to scare consumers into making different purchasing decisions, without actually having the proof to back up their warnings.

“It’s the overwhelming consensus of government agencies that there is no adverse health effect,” said John Walls, vice president of public affairs for the CTIA, the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry, which sued San Francisco for passing what the group deems an unconstitutional law. “We would urge consumers to listen to what these agencies have to say and then guide their thinking based on that.”

So what exactly does the U.S. government have to say about cell phone radiation?

According to the FDA, there is “no increased health risk due to radiofrequency energy … emitted by cell phones." Under the current law, the only real regulation comes from the Federal Communications Commission, which requires that they not have a specific absorption rate (SAR) of radiation that exceeds 1.6 watts per kilogram, an amount that the CTIA contends is well below anything that would be remotely dangerous.

Of course, the radiation absorption rate varies widely from one cell phone to the next. The Blackberry 8820 has an SAR of 1.58 W/kg, just skirting under the limit, while the Sanyo Katana II has an SAR of just 0.55 W/kg.

And while the government’s public statements about cell phone dangers may put consumers at ease, the companies that produce these products slip warnings into the user manual that appear menacing, to say the least. Regardless of which phone you have, if you review your manual, you will likely see a note suggesting you should hold the phone at least an inch from your head, and that you should keep it in a holster, rather than in your pocket.

If you’re reading this now and realizing you don’t follow those instructions, don’t worry. You’re certainly not the only one.

What if the Cell Phone Industry is Wrong?

By the middle of 2010, the number of cell phones in use worldwide had topped a staggering 5 billion, a fifth of which had been added during the previous year and a half alone.

But what happens if, in the next few years, researchers definitively prove some or all of the health risks listed above? What happens if, as Stuart Cobb and his wife fear, serious maladies like brain cancer become epidemics as a result of cell phone radiation?

For starters, it’s worth noting that not everyone who uses a cell phone is as susceptible to radiation risks.

“The younger you are when you start using the phone, the greater the risk,” said Devra Davis, author of Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation and Your Health and a National Book Award finalist. Children and teenagers face starker repercussions since their brains are still developing and their skulls are also more permeable to radiation than older adults.

The problem though, is that even if children don’t own their own cell phone, they may still be susceptible to what Davis refers to as “secondhand cell phone radiation” from those using cell phones in proximity to them, much in the same way that people can get sick from secondhand smoke. If this turns out to be the case, given the prevalence of cell phones worldwide, it could theoretically lead to a whole generation of young people who get sick later in life.

But for the moment, this is a reality that cell phone companies, and for the most part, the U.S. government, won’t consider, and therefore won’t plan for.

“There is no contingency plan that I’m aware of,” said Walls, the spokesperson for CTIA, which represents the cell phone industry as a whole. “You can use an ear piece if you’re concerned, or you can theoretically talk less, but the science tells us that those kinds of measures are not necessary.”

Likewise, individual cell phone companies we spoke with, including Motorola and Nokia, argued there is no reason to consider the ultimatum, but insist they would comply with any and all federal safety guidelines.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the FDA said the agency would consider recalling any phone if a “radiation safety defect” was discovered and could potentially impose a monetary penalty on any product that proved dangerous. But as the spokesperson notes, “the FDA would require scientific and validated evidence convincing us that there was a real problem for this to occur.”

Many researchers, on the other hand, argue that cell phone companies and the government should be planning now and get more aggressive if the worst ever happened.

According to Davis, the U.S. Congress should immediately begin placing warning labels on cell phones, much as Maine proposed, as well as launching a “massive public education program” to teach consumers about the risks of using cell phones and safety tips for minimizing that risk.

Davis says that if and when it is ever proven that cell phones do cause cancer or another serious ailment, the government would need to take three additional steps. First, it should make it illegal for companies to sell cell phones without also including a headset free of charge. Second, government agencies would need to force cell phone companies to make safer phone designs that emit lower levels of radiation. And finally, it should crack down on how cell phones are marketed to kids, perhaps even imposing a minimum age for buying a cell phone, much in the same way as cigarette purchases.

Similarly, Gray, from the Environmental Working Group, recommends that the government adjust its acceptable radiation exposure limits and add warning labels to the products.

Interestingly though, none of the researchers and advocates we spoke with suggested consumers be told to stop using cell phones altogether. In fact, the one point that the cell phone industry and those who want to regulate it seem to agree on is that consumers will continue to use cell phones – no matter what.

Would Consumer Demand Be Affected?

After cigarettes were proven to be cancer-causing agents in the mid-‘90s, cigarette sales did decline consistently for much of the next decade, but not by as much as one might think.

According to annual data from the FTC, 484 billion cigarettes were sold in 1996, and 343 billion were sold in 2006. That might sound substantial, but think about it this way: Enough people in the U.S. wanted to smoke something that had been proven deadly that more than 300 billion cigarettes were sold.

In the same way, it’s very likely that consumers would continue to purchase and use cell phones, even if they were proven to be dangerous.

“Cell phones are a product that is so engrained in our lives at this point that it’s very difficult to imagine consumers giving them up completely,” said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group, which monitors consumer electronics and wireless industry trends.

Instead, it’s more likely that consumers would change the way they use the phone, but not the phone itself. Several researchers suggested that consumers might focus more on texting or just using the Internet on their phones, rather than talking on them, since it would keep the product away from their head.

“It could end up being a kind of retro-hybrid situation,” Rubin said. “Consumers might use their cell phones to handle their data needs, but might hold off making a call until they get to a landline, unless they have a headset on them.”

To some extent, cell phone companies may actually fare even better than cigarettes did in the ‘90s.

“The difference between cell phones and tobacco is that cell phones do play a positive role in our society,” said Davis, who notes that cell phones have revolutionized the way we do business with one another and can be useful in emergencies.

And, if one needs proof about just how hard it is to get rid of a cell phone, just look to Stuart Cobb who, even though he believes cell phones gave him brain cancer, continues to use a cell phone when he goes to work three days a week. Rather than ditch the phone, Cobb says he now practices safer phone habits, relying on a headset or the speaker phone in order to keep the phone away from his head.

“All my coworkers talk on their headsets now, too,” Cobb said.

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