Are cell phones safe? For years, studies have provided conflicting conclusions. Today, there is still no clear answer. But experts agree on one thing: more research is needed to find out the answer.
In an effort to raise awareness among consumers and to urge government leaders to allocate more funding for research, an international group of researchers is gathering in Washington, D.C. later this month to present study findings and to lobby government officials.
The issue has already gained the attention of at least one important congressional leader. On September 14, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Democrat from Pennsylvania and the former ranking minority leader for the Senate's Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, will chair a hearing questioning scientists involved in the latest research. Researchers are hopeful that Specter, who was instrumental in increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health from $12 billion to nearly $30 billion and has long championed funding for cancer research, will introduce legislation that specifically asks for more funding for research in this area. But so far Specter hasn't indicated one way or another if he will try to get money allocated specifically for cell phone health-related research.
"There is cause for concern," said Dr. Henry Lai, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has been studying the effects of cell phone radiation on humans since 1980. "But to prove that cell phones cause cancer or other health problems will take more work. At this point the biological research suggests that long term use can have some adverse health effects, with brain cancer being one of those effects."
The conference, which runs September 13 to 15, is being sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, National Research Center for Women & Families, The International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety, The Flow Fund Circle, and the Environmental Health Trust.
Researchers from around the globe are expected to attend the event, including leading scientists from Western and Northern Europe, where cell phones have been used for much longer than they have in the U.S. Some of these researchers, including Devra Davis, professor of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh and the primary organizer of the conference, are likely to testify at the Senate hearing.
For years, researchers and scientists have debated whether radiation from radio frequencies used to wirelessly transmit phone calls could adversely affect the health of cell phone users. And as more people throughout the world use cell phones and make these devices an integral part of their lives, concerns have grown as to long-term public health issues.
In the U.S. alone, more than 270 million Americans or more than 87 percent of the U.S. population, now owns a cell phone, according to 2008 data compiled by the CTIA, the wireless industry's trade association.
Experts say the concern over cell phone use stems from a form of radiation that's produced when these wireless devices communicate with cell towers using radio frequency. High-frequency radiation, such as the kind that's used in X-rays, is known to cause cancer in high doses.
Cell phones emit much lower frequency radiation, but it's unknown whether these milder forms of RF can cause adverse biological changes to humans. But the fact that cell phones are often held close to the body either right alongside the head or in a pocket, has caused some concern among researchers who believe that radio frequency energy is being absorbed into the body and can cause damage to cells or even alter cell phone users' DNA. Even holding a phone 10 millimeters away from your head could decrease the exposure of RF radiation to the body by about 100 times, Davis said.
So far the research seems to be split in terms of the risk of this radiation exposure. An ongoing multinational initiative known as Interphone, has yielded mixed results so far. Meanwhile, some studies have found no correlation at all between cellphone use and brain tumors.
But a handful of studies that have looked at the long-term effects of using cell phones suggest that people who use a cell phone for at least an hour each day over a 10-year period are at an increased risk of developing brain tumors. This research also suggests that these tumors are more likely to be on the side of the head where the phone is most often used.
More recently, researchers have grown particularly concerned about the adverse effects that cell phone usage. Some Swedish research indicates that children are five times more likely to get brain cancer if they use mobile phones, but other research efforts have found results inconclusive.
The kid factor
One reason for concern is the fact that children who start using cell phones at a young age will inevitably be exposed for a longer period of time over their entire lifetime to cell phone radiation. But researchers are also concerned about the risk of cell phones with children, because children's nervous systems are not fully developed. Also their brains contain more fluid than brains of adults, which allows for deeper penetration of radiation. And finally, children's skulls are not as thick as those of adults.
"The reality is that the head of a child is different in terms of density of the bone and the amount of fluid in the brain than that of an adult," Davis said. "And we know that the more fluid there is an object, the more deeply the radio signal can penetrate."
Because cell phones have only really been used widely since about the 1990s, research on long-term health effects is limited. But research on the effects on children is even more scarce.
Still, there has been enough concern among public health officials in various parts of the world to warrant warnings.
For example, the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK), a government regulatory body located in the home country of Nokia, the largest cell phone maker in the world, is urging parents to restrict cell phone use for children, suggesting parents encourage kids to text rather than talk.
"Although research to date, has not demonstrated health effects from mobile phone's radiation, precaution is recommended for children as all of the effects are not known," the agency's Web site reads.
France has even proposed banning advertisements encouraging children younger than 12 to use cell phones. And it has also warned parents that children under six are particularly at risk. Legislation in France would also make it illegal to sell a mobile phone without earphones, and the government is looking into limiting the amount of radiation that a phone is allowed to emit.
The Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. does not go as far as issuing a warning. But the agency recommends minimizing any potential risk by using hands-free devices and keeping cell-phone talk to a minimum.
The Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. also requires manufacturers to report the relative amount of RF absorbed into the head by any given cell phone. This number is known as the SAR, or specific absorption rate, and the agency publishes those figures for consumers to review. CNET has used this information to publish its cell phone radiation level chart.
But researchers such as Davis say more needs to be done.
"The big question to me is why has Finland, the land of Nokia, issued a warning?" she said. "Why has France issued the same warning? And why has Israel, which doesn't even have a Clean Air Act, issued a warning on a government Website about children using cell phones? And in the U.S. we have no such warnings."
The wireless industry itself has resisted warnings or restrictions for its products. And it often points to research indicating that there is no link between cancer or other harmful health effects and cell phone use.
"The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk," the CTIA said in a statement. "In addition, there is no known mechanism for microwave energy within the limits established by the FCC to cause any adverse health effects. That is why the leading global heath organizations such as the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, World Health Organization, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration all have concurred that wireless devices are not a public health risk."
No government funding
While they have stopped short of issuing warnings, U.S. government agencies along with other governmental agencies such as the European Union, have said that more studies are needed to determine whether there are any health risks associated with cell phone usage.
But the big problem in the U.S. is that there is no government funding available for such research.
"There has been zero money available for research on the effects of cell phone radiation for about the last 10 years," Lai said. "So there has really been no independent research done in the U.S. for at least a decade. Research is being done in Europe or the Far East, such as in China or Japan or in Israel. Even Canada has made some money available for research."
Because there has been no money available in the U.S., Lai, who was a pioneer in studying the biological effects of cell phone radiation on humans, has turned his research attention toward studying medical applications for electro magnetic fields.
"Fifteen years ago, we were at the cutting edge of this research," he said. "But now in the U.S., we are not involved in the study of the epidemiology of cell phone use at all. We are like a Third World country."
This is likely what Sen. Specter, who is a cancer survivor himself and a champion for medical research funding, will try to rectify through the Senate hearings that will take place on Capitol Hill later this month.
Researchers, such as Davis and Lai, say their goal is not to demonize the cell phone industry or even suggest that the government ban the use of cell phones. But they believe that the public needs to be aware of the risks associated with using these devices and that more research is needed to identify these risks and to come up with ways to make them safer.
And while these researchers can't say definitively that cell phones pose a public health issue today, they fear that without careful study and modification, these devices could cause an epidemic of cancer and other health problems in the future, since it can take decades for cancer and other maladies to manifest.
"Cell phones are very useful," Lai said. "So I'm not saying we should throw them away. But we need to face the reality that there could be some adverse effects that come up in the next 10, 20 or 30 years. And we need to find ways to prevent or modify phones to make these devices less harmful. But to do that, we first need to understand how radiation affects us. And we need the money to conduct this research."