Cell Phones: Assessing and Preventing Risks

05/31/2011 03:45 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2011

The risks attached to the use of cellular and wireless phones are still substantially uncertain, but there are studies that hint at possible harms. In a report issued today (5/31/11), the WHO / International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" based on an increased risk for glioma associated with wireless phone use.

Given the massive and growing exposure to cell phones, the precautionary principle requires that even uncertain harms be treated with care and respect.

Few have advocated more ardently for higher standards of 'cell(f) defense' than Joel M. Moskowitz, PhD. Dr. Joel Moskowitz, a friend and colleague, is on the research faculty at the University of California, Berkeley and directs the Center for Family and Community Health in the School of Public Health. He has conducted research on health promotion and chronic disease prevention for more than thirty years, with a recent focus on wireless phone use.

Here, Dr. Moskowitz answers my questions about the talking we all increasingly do -- and offers his advice on how best to take stock, and control, of the risks involved. On the chance you have not heard Dr. Moskowitz' voice on this important topic before, I hope you can "hear him now!"

Q: How did you get involved in the study of cell phone effects?

A: I got involved when a colleague, Dr. Seung-Kwon Myung, an epidemiologist from the National Cancer Center of South Korea, spent a year working with us at UC Berkeley. He specializes in meta-analysis, a method by which data are combined across studies to generate more robust conclusions. In one study, we reviewed research that examined the association between cell phone use and tumor risk.

Q: Why in general are you concerned about potential harms from cell phones?

A: When we grouped the 23 studies based on the quality of the research, we found strong group differences. In the 13 studies which failed to meet scientific best practices, we found what appeared to be reduced tumor risk. The ten higher-quality studies found a harmful association between cell phone use and tumor risk. Also, the higher quality studies had no funding from the cellular industry whereas the lower quality studies had at least partial industry funding.

Initially, I was skeptical about the results, but as I read more of the science I am persuaded that long-term exposure to cell phone radiation increases tumor risk.

Since our study was published in 2009 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, I have reviewed many other cell phone radiation studies. There is evidence that cell phone radiation may damage sperm and increase male infertility, increase brain glucose metabolism and alter EEG readings, and may create neurological, memory, and sleep problems for some individuals.

Q: How adequate do you think the science is to date?

A: I'm cautious in reading the literature because many studies are poorly executed or biased. We need more research on the short- and long-term health effects. We don't know enough about long term risks; risks to children and adolescents who are more vulnerable; or risks of newer technologies.

We need to understand better the mechanisms that contribute to health effects. Most scientists who trust the research that demonstrates biologic reactivity believe there are mechanisms other than heat at work. Our government regulations only address heat produced by cell phone radiation.

Q: Can you provide some kind of estimate of the risks -- upper and lower bounds, perhaps? What are the best and worst case scenarios?

A: It's premature to estimate long-term tumor risk because tumors can take three or more decades to develop. A few studies suggest that the risk of glioma, a serious brain tumor, doubles after 10 years of cell phone use. This could amount to an additional 10,000 cases per year in the U.S.

Many people have come to rely on their cell phones over land lines, and many children have begun to use cell phones, so we may see increased risk in the future. On the other hand, patterns of use (e.g., hands-free, texting) are changing which could reduce long-term risk. The technology is also changing, but we don't know if the newer technologies are safer.

Q: How do you compare the risk/benefit trade-offs for cell phones (the 'benefits' being convenience, etc.) to other routine practices, such as driving, or drinking alcohol, or going to the beach? Is there any reasonable way to place cell phone use on some kind of rank list of 'things to worry about'?

A: Obviously, there are substantial benefits to wireless technology, but we can be both practical and safer in terms of potential health risks by changing how we use these devices. Given the limited research, I think it's premature to estimate the risks.

Q: Are all cell phones, and cell phone carriers, created equal in this regard? If not, why not?

A: The amount of cell phone radiation your phone emits depends on various factors throughout the day, including your location and distance from cell towers. Some cell phones generate as much as eight times more radiation at the upper limit of the range than others. This measure, called the SAR, can be looked up on the internet for every cell phone. However, you can't find out how much radiation a phone generates during average daily use, which may be more important in terms of cumulative health risk. Some low SAR phones may generate more radiation on average than high SAR phones.

Your cell phone carrier may matter more than your cell phone. One study shows that GSM phones (e.g., AT&T, T-Mobile) emit 28 times more radiation on average than CDMA phones (e.g., Verizon, Sprint). Another study shows GSM affects EEG readings more than CDMA. More comparative studies on different carrier standards are needed.

Q: What do you recommend individuals do?

A: Keep a safe distance at all times. The amount of radiation is related to the square of the distance so keeping your phone 10 inches away reduces your exposure 100-fold compared to an inch. Use a headset, especially a corded device, or other hands-free method such as a speakerphone or text. Don't keep the phone near your head or reproductive organs when it is turned on. Children are more vulnerable, and their cell phone use should be very limited.

Q: What do you recommend for policy?

A: Although more research on cell phone radiation is needed, we cannot afford to wait for conclusive evidence. There are 300 million cell phones in use in this country, and two-thirds of children over the age of seven use them. The government's regulations are outmoded and need to be revised.

About a dozen nations have issued precautionary health warnings. It is time for our government to do the same and to publicize simple steps people can take to minimize their personal health risk.

An annual assessment of $1 on each cell phone would generate $300 million annually for vitally needed research and education.

Q: What do you do?

A: I usually use the speakerphone or a corded headset. I keep the phone on my desk or keep it turned off when I have it in my pocket, and turn it on periodically to check for messages, or I check for messages from a land line.

Here are Dr. Moskowitz' takeaways:

* Keep your cell phone away from your body whenever it is on. Use a corded headset, speakerphone or text.

* Minimize cell phone use among children, teens, and pregnant women.

* Demand that the federal government revise regulations, fund research, and issue precautionary health recommendations.

And here are some websites he recommends for more information, and keeping current:

My thanks to Dr. Moskowitz for a very informative and electromagnetically safe exchange! You now know the state-of-the-art in cell(f) defense; the practice of it is up to you.

Dr. David L. Katz;