By Julia Guest
Campus News Reporter
You might have received a frantic e-mail from your parents or friends with the subject line “Warning: Cell Phones Cause Cancer.” There might not be a link to an article, just a note that cell phone radiation could give you a brain tumor if you don’t hold the phone far away enough from your ear. Maybe you give into the fear. Maybe you’re curious and you’ll do your own research. Or maybe you’re immune to cancer talks so you shrug your shoulders and say, “Everything causes cancer.”
There has been no evidence of short-term effects from cell phone radiation, but the question is how to react to studies of the long-term and to the unknown. E-mails without sources show just some of the wild accusations made about cell phone radiation and the need for research and personal action. Some studies, like that of the U.K. research group INTERPHONE, reported an increase in parotid gland tumors in long-term users in Israel, but the American Cancer Society has said that there is no conclusive evidence of tumor effects in the long run.
Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, has been studying electromagnetic radiation since 1980.
“We have indications that something is going on in the long-term, so we should be very cautious,” Slesin said.
In the United States alone, 259,408,423 people use wireless phones, according to CTIA, the International Association for Wireless Telecommunications Industry. Cell phones are still a new phenomenon and health research is most often tracked after 10 years of usage. People have been using cell phones now for over 10 years, and the debate about the necessary level of concern about long-term and short-term effects is still very much at play.
Slesin says there is data on long-term problems and acquires most of his research from INTERPHONE, a cell phone epidemiological research team conducting studies in 13 countries (none of which include the U.S.) about long-term tumor effects from cell phone radiation. The studied countries are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Although none of INTERPHONE’s results have been published yet, the team has found that after 10 years of cell phone use — and in some cases less — there is an increased number of brain tumors on the side of the head the phone is used.
INTERPHONE studies three different kinds of brain tumors: acoustic neuroma, glioma, and the parotid gland tumor. Microwave News critiques the way in which some INTERPHONE tumor results are played down and deduces it is perhaps because of pressure from the worldwide wireless industry. An INTERPHONE research project in 2005 based in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway and the U.K. reported higher levels of brain tumors from cell phone use, yet claimed to the press there was no sufficient link.
Slesin awaits new INTERPHONE studies, but is concerned about the lack of biomedical research related to cell phone radiation occurring in the U.S.
“I think there’s enough data to merit attention to this problem, but it’s not happening,” Slesin said. “It’s a real problem that the American Cancer Society is not more active.”
Michael Thun, vice president of epidemiology and surveillance research at the American Cancer Society, began tracking cell phone radiation literature at least 10 years ago.
“There have been a dozen large studies on cell phone radiation and brain cancer and strong evidence suggesting no increase in risk resulting in cell phone use up to 10 years,” Thun said.
Despite certain INTERPHONE reports, Thun said it is not clear whether brain tumors are growing on the same side of the head as phones are used. If the correlation were more certain, that would show more evidence of a cell phone radiation-brain tumor link, Thun said.
Thun does not feel certain, however, that the long-term will not produce harmful effects. “There are no guarantees there won’t be a different story about the long-term,” Thun said.
Slesin pleads for caution at this point, but Thun waits for more studies to definitively say the public should revise its cell phone use.
“It’s not unreasonable to be concerned, but there is no guarantee it’s necessary,” Thun said. “Types of electromagnetic frequency radiation impact decrease with distance, so you can use devices that keep the cell phone away from your ear such as ear phones, speaker phones, or Bluetooths,” he said.
Heidi Flato, Verizon Wireless manager of public relations and employee communications, focuses her attention on the popularity of wireless phones.
“The U.S. is catching up in terms of wireless penetration, and I think that’s a testament to how comfortable people are using the technology,” she said.
Flato pointed to radio frequency emission information available on the Verizon Wireless website. She also said the FCC only allows wireless companies a certain amount of radio frequency emission levels.
“I don’t think it’s always top of mind for people,” Flato said. “Wireless services are pretty pervasive.”
The World Health Organization has been studying the biological and health effects of microwave radiation since the early 1970s. Dr. T. Emilie van Deventer, a WHO scientist for radiation and environmental health, said there are no short-term cancer effects from cell phone radiation according to the INTERPHONE study. He did not discuss individual studies when considering the long-term, however, and said WHO awaits the overall analysis from all reviewed INTERPHONE data.
“It is clear that there is public concern regarding risks from radiofrequency fields exposure,” van Deventer said. “However, there is often more concern about base station antennas than about mobile phones, and this may be due in part to a lack of control or input to the process of determining the location of new base stations.”
Christine Jude is the chief press officer of the Mobile Operators Association in the U.K., which represents five U.K. mobile phone network operators regarding health risks and base station planning. Jude said mobile phone companies and cities are careful to comply with rules on radio wave safety.
“All U.K. base stations are designed and built to operate within international health and safety guidelines,” Jude said. “The measurements from over 500 audits of base stations show that radio wave emissions are typically small fractions of those guidelines.” Jude said the closer a mobile phone is used to a base station, the less radio wave energy is used for a phone call. She also pointed out that there is little evidence about increased tumor risks from cell phone radiation, emphasizing cell phone companies’ careful compliance with the international health and safety guidelines.
With Slesin’s analysis, INTERPHONE’s findings of potential long-term risks, and no evidence of short-term risks, it is difficult to choose how to react to the information.
Second-year UCSC student Alex Smith uses her cell phone approximately eight hours a week. She said she knows there might be a brain tumor correlation sometime in the future, but does not pay too much attention to it.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m unconcerned, but it doesn’t prevent me from using my cell phone a lot,” Smith said.
Thun, Verizon Wireless, and numerous other sources suggest heavy cell phone users invest in an earpiece or hold the phone away from the ear to decrease the amount of heat and radiation reaching the body.
“I try not to press the phone against my ear, but it’s a really bad habit to break,” Smith said.
Smith thinks there is no point in worrying one’s life away with fears about the possibility of cancer. Cell phone radiation may cause some trepidation, but to those who cannot see direct effects, the unknown is just the unknown.
Thun said fear about cell phone radiation arises for some because its workings are not visible.
“People are more afraid of what they can’t see than what they can,” Thun said. Dr. van Deventer of WHO takes a similar stance: “Several reasons for public fear
include media announcements of new and unconfirmed scientific studies, leading to a feeling of uncertainty and a perception that there may be unknown or undiscovered hazards,” he said.
Although Thun tries to reduce the assumption that cell phones are harmful by looking at the short-term risks, he knows people still wonder what the device is doing to their bodies.
“Any time you have a widely-used technology that is new and emits some kind of radiation, it gets a lot of attention,” Thun said. “The word radiation strikes terror in people’s hearts.”