Over the last two months, a marked shift has occurred in the public's perception about the risks of cell phones.
In early September, an International Expert Conference on Cell Phones and Health convened in Washington, D.C., to examine the issue. Experts from the conference testified in a special hearing on the subject before the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services and Education. Since then, dozens of interviews have been conducted on national TV networks and published in top newspapers; whether cell phones pose a risk to public health seems to be a question of growing concern.
Why now? What sparked this shift?
In early 2009, Finland's Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority joined agencies in Britain, France, India and Israel in warning that regular use of cell phones could damage children's brains. France and a number of other European nations are proposing to ban the marketing or design of cell phones for kindergarteners.
What do they know that we don't?
The amount of radio frequency that can be emitted by a cell phone is based on models of a man's head -- not just your average Joe, but one who ranked at the top 90th percentile of all military personnel in 1988, totaling about 200 pounds.
Few parents know that radio-frequency signals reach much more deeply into children's thinner and smaller heads than ours -- a fact established through the pioneering work of professor Om P. Gandhi, the leader of the University of Utah's electrical engineering department.
The agency that offers recommendations on cell-phone emissions in the U.S. -- the Federal Communications Commission -- doesn't employ a single health expert. The standards the FCC adopts are based on advice given by outside experts, many of whom work directly for the cell-phone industry. The Food and Drug Administration lacks the authority to set standards for cell phones and can only act if a phone is shown to release hazardous signals.
What's wrong with this picture?
The award-winning Gandhi worries that all the standards used for phones apply to the "big guy" brain. In 2004, standards became looser, because industry modelers decided to use a new approach -- basically doubling the amount of radio frequency that could reach the brain of an adult and quadrupling that reaching a child's. The brain of a child doubles in the first two years of life and keeps on developing until their early 20s. Gandhi no longer works with the cell-phone industry and none of his grandchildren use a cell phone.
What are we supposed to do now, while growing numbers of younger and younger kids clamor for fashionable phones with ring-tones, themed cartoon characters, special movies and promotions? We don't have any direct evidence that cell phones damage their brains. Yet, why should this matter? After all, our bodies are truly electric. Electric impulses allow our muscles to move and our minds to think. But the sort of charges that keep us alive are completely different from those that can power microwaves or radios or cell phones. There are deeply troubling reports from nations where phones have been used longest that children may be especially vulnerable. Lennart Hardell, a distinguished Swedish oncologist, recently disclosed that in one study children and teenagers who regularly use cell phones are five times more likely to get brain cancer as young adults.
Today, major telecommunication giants sponsor some of the nation's largest stadiums -- the Washington Wizards, at the Verizon Center, the San Antonio Spurs and the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Centers and the Jacksonville Jaguars at Alltel Stadium.
In an ideal world, these profitable companies would compete not just to promote sports but to design the safest, sleekest phones. They would support and encourage testing and development of the lowest exposure phones for all of us -- those that only work with earpieces and headsets -- and offer phones to children for text messaging at a safe distance from their brains.
Instead, American children and their parents are not provided the basic protections afforded their European counterparts and are asked simply to have faith that everything is all right. Faith may move mountains, but it is not the way to protect public health. The government should work with phone companies to protect our children and to provide data to Gandhi and to other independent researchers so that we can find the safest way to use this revolutionary technology.
Dr. Devra Davis is the founder of Environmental Health Trust, a newly created nonprofit devoted to researching and controlling avoidable environmental health threats. An award-winning scientist and writer, Davis' recent paperback, The Secret History of the War on Cancer, includes stunning new information about the ways that public relations strategies have undermined public health. Her new book, Sell Phone: What's really on the Line will be published by Dutton in the Fall, 2010.