20 October 2004
Is There a Risk Associated With Using Cell Phones?
What was considered a novelty a little more than a decade ago has become commonplace today. The remarkable technological advances in the wireless telecommunications industry have enabled anyone to posses a cell phone. By the end of 2003 there were almost 160 million people with cell phones in the U.S., compared to just over 340,000 in 1985 (Samuelson). Wireless providers have sweetened the pot by offering plans that have unlimited calling minutes during night and weekend hours, prompting long conversations to friends and family across the country.
While these advances have undoubtedly made staying in touch and communicating with people easier and perhaps more fun to do, cell phones by their nature pose a potential health risk. Cell phones are essentially two-way radios, in that they transmit and receive voice and data through the radio frequency (RF) spectrum. The radiation emitted by the handset antenna combined with the proximity of that antenna to the user is enough of a concern for the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to mandate specific limits on the amount of radiation a particular cell phone can produce. It is this radiation that some scientists claim causes potential health risks to humans. If there really is a potential health risk related to using cell phones it therefore becomes imperative to determine not only the cause but also any remedies immediately. Cell phone manufacturers claim that the relatively low power that cell phones operate at is not high enough to cause any risks. Ironically it is this low power that is the core building block of the cellular telecommunications architecture and the main reason that wireless telephony has exploded onto the marketplace over the last ten years.
For all the technology that cell phones represent, they are incredibly simple. Each cell phone contains only a few simple components. An antenna, battery, speaker and microphone are all things anyone would expect to find, but packed onto something that fits into the palm of your hand are memory chips, microprocessors, analog to digital converters and amplifiers. Just as in your computer, the microprocessor maintains all the functionality of the phone, from lighting the display to keeping track of the time. Various memory chips provide space to store data specific to that particular phone, such as ID numbers and protocol functions. The converters do just that; they change your analog voice into a stream of 1’s and 0’s, which the amplifiers then juice up and send to the base station. The whole process is reversed to the speaker so you can hear the person on the other end (Brain and Tyson 8).
Cell phones communicate to the rest of the world through a base station or “cell” site. These sites are placed strategically throughout a geographical area to gain the best possible coverage. The antenna on the cell site not only transmits the voice signal, but also monitors the signal location and strength. High speed processing constantly checks the signal strength coming from the handset. When the signal from an adjacent cell site becomes stronger a seamless switch is made and the new site becomes the primary communicator. In this fashion a cell phone user can travel quite far and constantly be connected (Brain and Tyson 5).
This feature of being constantly connected and always available is what has spurred the incredible growth of wireless telephony. The increasing array of functions that these devices are able to accomplish solidifies their presence in our society. Even with the recent expansion of wireless telecommunications in the U.S. we are still far behind the Europeans in terms of penetration rate of the general public. In Europe nearly 90% of the population owns a cell phone, compared to about 50% of Americans and it is in Europe where the first measures to address the possible health risks associated with cellular communication are being adopted (Brain and Tyson 2). A recent article in Consumer Reports stated that:
Government agencies or advisory groups in Britain, France, and Germany have discouraged children from using cell phones largely because of concerns that their developing nervous system may be especially vulnerable. Here, the FDA notes that those advisories were "precautionary" and "not based on scientific evidence that any health hazard exists.” (Complete Cell-Phone Guide)
The latter statement by the FDA is indicative of the inconclusiveness of any scientific tests performed to date. While there are numerous tests that confirm there is a potential health risk, none have been able to positively link RF emissions to any specific health issue. The debate here then becomes one of how the RF energy affects the human body.
Larry King posed a question on his show in August of 2000 to Dr. Linda Erdreich, an independent consultant, “Dr. Erdreich, doesn't that sound --… I mean, to the layman, logical? You're putting something with soundwaves next to your head. That can't be a hundred percent OK?” While it might seem risky to put something radiating energy next to your head for extended periods of time, it’s the type of energy that is important.
In industry terms RF energy is non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing refers to the inability of the photon energy to knock electrons from atoms in living tissue. By comparison a common type of ionizing radiation with known health risks are X-rays. Dr. Robert Park of the American Physical Society addressed the issue:
“All known cancer-inducing agents -- including radiation, certain chemicals and a few viruses -- act by breaking chemical bonds, producing mutant strands of DNA,'' Dr. Park wrote. ''Not until the ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum is reached, beyond visible light, beyond infrared and far, far beyond microwaves, do photons have sufficient energy to break chemical bonds. Microwave photons heat tissue, but they do not come close to the energy needed to break chemical bonds, no matter how intense the radiation.” (qtd. In Brody)
The non-ionizing radiation coupled with the relatively low power that cell phones operate at form the basis for many of the results that refute any potential health risk. It is test results such as these that the wireless carriers and handset makers use on their websites and in court when defending themselves. However that does not mean there is no health risk.
This information has not stopped people from proclaiming the risks of cell phone usage and even bringing suits against some of the handset makers and wireless providers. The first major case to be heard in the U.S. regarding the topic of cell phone radiation as a health hazard was brought by David Reynard in 1992 on behalf of his wife who died from brain cancer. Mr. Reynard claimed the cancer was caused by her very frequent use of the cell phone. This initial case and many subsequent ones have lost in court due to lack of concrete evidence supporting a direct link. One newer case has the cell phone manufacturers concerned though.
The case of Newman vs. Motorola has been sent back down to the state court level after spending three years winding its’ way through the federal court system. The Newman case is similar to Reynard’s in that he is claiming cell phone radiation caused the cancer that he has, however the point that is keeping his case and others that have been grouped with it alive is that he wants the manufacturers to provide shields or safety equipment with the phones (Rockwell).
While these two high profile cases speak for an extremely small percentage of the population, the results of the studies that they refer to for evidence are cause for concern. Tests have been conducted that conclude overexposure to cell phone radiation can cause anything from disrupted sleep rhythms, protein damage, premature aging, slowed nerve response and even cancer in laboratory animals.
It is this last result that has drawn the most attention. In the summer of 2003 Swedish neurosurgeon Leif Salford and his colleagues at the Lund University published a report that showed evidence of laboratory rats developing brain damage after being subjected to radio frequency radiation (RFR). As Elizabeth Svoboda writes in her article in Popular Science:
His team exposed 32 rats to 2 hours of microwave radiation from GSM cell phones. Researchers attached the phones to the sides of the rats' small cages using coaxial cables--allowing for intermittent direct exposure--and varied the intensity of radiation in each treatment group to reflect the range of exposures a human cell phone user might experience over the same time period. Fifty days after the 2-hour exposure, the rat brains showed significant blood vessel leakage, as well as areas of shrunken, damaged neurons. The higher the radiation exposure level, the more damage was apparent. The controls, by contrast, showed little to no damage. If human brains are similarly affected, Salford says, the damage could produce measurable, long-term mental deficits.
While Salford himself agrees that it is too early to draw any conclusions at this point, his results have the manufacturers concerned.
"This study grabbed everyone's attention," said Louis Slesin, Ph.D., editor of Microwave News, a newsletter that covers health issues related to electromagnetic radiation. "Industry would have you believe that cell-phone radiation is totally benign. But this and other research over the past 10 years suggests that we're not transparent to the radiation." (Are Cell Phones Safe?)
Several studies are already under way to try and recreate his findings, including one by the U.S. Air Force.
In a European Union – Sponsored study mobile phone radiation was found to alter a cell’s genetic and protein expression. “The researchers compared the expression levels of 3,600 genes in cells that were radiated with low-energy EMF from mobile phones. The exposure resulted in "minor" changes in the makeup of many genes and proteins” (Caldwell). In an article published by the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, long-term users (10 years of more) of some of the first generation mobile phones had up to an 80% greater chance of developing brain tumors as those who did not use the phones at all (Reuters). An important factor to derive from this particular study is that here we are presented with the first evidence that cell phone usage causes significant health risks besides tumor causing cancers. Changing genetic and protein makeup is something that cannot be ignored and needs to be investigated further. The fact that at this point the results cannot be replicated does not mean the threat isn’t real.
Yet another article by an established scientist concurs with previous findings. Dr. George Carlo is a fellow of the American College of Epidemiology and was the Director of the Wireless Technology Research group, an industry funded project studying the possible hazards of cellular communication. While in this position Dr. Carlo wrote to C. Michael Armstrong, then CEO of AT&T:
The rate of death from brain cancer among handheld phone users was higher than the rate of brain cancer death among those who used non-handheld phones that were away from their head; The risk of rare neuro epithelial tumors on the outside of the brain was more than doubled, a statistically significant risk increase, in cell phone users as compared to people who did not use cell phones; Laboratory studies looking at the ability of radiation from a phone’s antenna to cause functional genetic damage were definitely positive, and were following a dose-response relationship. (Begich and Roderick)
Dr. Carlo went on to state that as much as the head area absorbs 60% of the RFR and that some of this energy can penetrate up to an inch and a half into the brain (Cell Phone Convenience).
Given the results of these tests, what do the handset makers and wireless carriers have to say? They all say the same thing, that no test has conclusively proven any link to cellular communication and any health risks. There is also an interesting point to discuss here. Cell phone manufacturers are not necessarily liable for anything at all. As stated earlier the FCC and FDA have determined limits that all cell phones in the United States must meet. Therefore the manufacturers really only need to meet these standards. If those standards are met, and a health risk is proven later on are they liable if their devices have been operating within the determined limits?
The FCC and FDA both have jurisdiction over cell phone usage. The FCC derives its authority to regulate wireless telephones from the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 while the FDA has its authority to regulate wireless telephones from the Radiation Control provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (originally enacted as the Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act of 1968) (FDA). The Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) for any cell phone operating in the U.S. must be less than 1.6W/kg. This limit was obtained by:
the recommendations of two expert organizations, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). In both cases, the recommendations were developed by scientific and engineering experts drawn from industry, government, and academia after extensive reviews of the scientific literature related to the biological effects of RF energy. (Official Website of FDA & FCC)
These two agencies have joined forces with the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) and come up with a “formal Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) to do research on wireless phone safety. FDA provides the scientific oversight, obtaining input from experts in government, industry, and academic organizations.” (Official Website of FDA & FCC) This shows that the federal government is pursuing the possibility that there is a health risk and they are actively seeking new information in the form of a joint study.
The unfortunate thing that none of these tests can confirm at this point is the potential effect of time. While some studies do pool subjects from time periods lasting close to 10 years, many of the risks of radiation do not reveal themselves for decades. That is the real cause for concern.
Many consumers have asked why there seems to be more anxiety than before, after all the first cellular networks began deployment in urban areas in the early 1980’s. The answer to that is just the limited exposure. In an effort to get product to the masses quickly, many companies did not pre-market test their products (Rockwell). There have been enough tests conducted at this point to determine that there is no immediate health risk to using cell phones. This was never in dispute. The problem is the long-term ramifications of a latent health related issue. If it is determined that there is a health risk, that still does not guarantee that everyone who uses a cell phone will develop a heath issue. The real apprehension now is that so many people are using cell phones that if there really is a risk an extremely large part of the population will be at potential risk.
This potential risk is what prompted Britain to restrict cell phone use for minors. This potential risk is what made Levi’s sell jeans in Europe that have a RF shield built in on the waist. A paper published by the World Health Organization sums up my belief. Many devices, particularly medical ones such as pacemakers and the like carry warnings regarding using cell phones in a close proximity. Likewise the FAA requires all cell phones to be off during takeoffs. While acknowledgment is given that cell phones interfere and affect electronics, the interference with the human body is completely overlooked (Cell Phone Convenience). It is my opinion that we should try to reduce that potential risk as much as possible. Do the research and purchase a phone that fits your needs with the lowest SAR possible. Try not to use the phone for all conversations, only emergencies, and when possible use a headset and keep the phone antenna as far from your body as possible.
"Are Cell Phones Safe? Questions Remain." Consumer Reports Jun 2004: 8. Proquest. DeVry University Lib. 24 September 2004.
This article gives a brief description of a study done in Sweden that lab animals exposed to cell phone radiation developed nerve cell damage. This study is very well known in the industry and is cross-referenced in other sources I have found. In addition the article states ways to minimize potential risk.
"Complete cell-phone guide: Are Cell Phones Safe?" Consumer Reports; Publisher's Edition Including Supplemental Guides Feb. 2003: 24. Proquest. DeVry University Lib. 24 September 2004.
This article gives point counterpoint arguments to several cell phone study findings. Introduces the possibility of protein damage. Also cites ways to minimize potential risk.
Brain, Marshall and Jeff Tyson. “How Cell Phone Work.” How Stuff Works. 1998-2004:
1-10. HSW Media Network. 2 September 2004.
This website has general information on how cell phones and their networks work.
Brody, Jane e. "Cellphone: A Convenience, a Hazard or Both?" New York Times 01 Oct. 2002, late ed. (east coast): F7. Proquest. DeVry University Lib. 24 September 2004.
Article exhibits evidence that there is nothing conclusive to suggest there is any imminent harm from cell phone emissions. Explains that radio frequency emissions are non-ionizing emissions and are not harmful.
Cardwell, Mark. "New Data Show 'Cell' Phones Have Earned Their Name: Radiation May Alter Body Cells' Genetic, Protein Expression." Medical Post 38.30 (2002): 43. Proquest. DeVry University Lib. 24 September 2004.
Article corroborates previous source that cell phones possibly cause changes in body proteins. Article also cites the Medical Post as a source, a respected medical journal.
Cell Phone Convenience or 21st Century Plague? Ed. Dr. Nick Begich and James Roderick. Earthpulse Press Inc..
This source provides numerous data on tests performed and their results. Studies explained include evidence of nerve and protein damage in laboratory animals.
“Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?” Larry King Live. Aired August 9, 2000 - 9:00 p.m. ET.
16 September 2004.
This transcript has information regarding the POV of several scientists as well as one individual trying to sue Motorola.
Reuters News Service. "Health & Technology: Some Phones Pose Risk of Tumors, Study Says." Wall Street Journal [New York] 23 Aug. 2002, eastern ed.: A8. Proquest. DeVry University Lib. 24 September 2004.
This source submits a study done and accepted by Nokia, the worlds number 1-handset maker. The study states that there is no potential health risk in using cell phones.
Rockwell, Mark. "One Win in a Long Battle." Wireless Week 07 Oct. 2002: 1-2. Proquest. DeVry University Lib. 24 September 2004.
This article describes some of the legal hurdles that people have come up against while trying to sue handset makers for health related illnesses. The article also describes how many are thrown out of court due to the lack of sufficient conclusive evidence supporting a positive link between cell phone use and health problems.
Samuelson, Robert J. "A Cell Phone? Never for Me." Newsweek 23 Aug. 2004: 63. 22 Sept. 2004. Proquest. DeVry University Lib. 24 September 2004.
This article has data that I will use to support how popular cell phones have become in the past few years as well as the penetration rate in the US. There is also information of studies done asking people if they liked cell phones or found them annoying.
Svoboda, Elizabeth. "Fresh Fears Over Cellphones; A Swedish Study Links Mobile Phones to Brain Damage. In rats, anyway." Popular Science Feb. 2004: 35. Proquest. DeVry University Lib. 24 September 2004.
This article is similar to the one published by Nokia. Motorola states here that there is no harm in using cell phones. This article supports the view of the handset makers that there is no conclusive link to cell phones and health risks.
The Official Website of the FCC and FDA. The Federal Communication Commission
and the Food and Drug Administration. 16 July 2003. 08 October 2004.