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Devra Davis, Ph.D.

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Brain Cancer and Cell Phones: The Jury is Still Out

Posted: 12/07/09 02:22 PM ET

According to headlines trumpeted around the world, cell phones are safe.  This reassuring conclusion rests on an analysis of trends in brain cancer in Scandinavian countries up to 2003 which did NOT tie these trends in any way to actual patterns of use of cell phones.  

In fact, in Sweden, Norway and Finland, about half of all persons had cell phones in 2000.   It would be unreasonable to expect to see any general population effect from such phone use in such a short period of time.  Scientists know that brain cancer can take a decade or longer to develop in adults.  In the case of the Hiroshima bombing that ended World War Two, brain cancers associated with that one time massive exposure to radiation did not become evident until forty years later.  

The authors of this work published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute actually are much more balanced than the headline writers.   We all recognize the tremendous positive role that phones are playing around the world today.  But, their safety, and their impact on the developing brain, remains a matter of grave concern that merits serious research and will not be resolved by spinning limited studies such as this one.

 The authors of this analysis of brain cancer in adults in Northern Europe note that their findings could simply mean that their study did not follow people for long enough period of time and that their study did not determine or focus on those individuals who had used cell phones the most for the longest, especially young adults.  Instead, their analysis solely reported on the trend in this one site of cancer.  

 A number of researchers who have looked at more detailed studies on brain cancer and cell phone use have reached far different conclusions.   Only after 10 or more years of very heavy mobile phone use does a risk of brain cancer become evident.  Prof. Lennart Hardell of Sweden has found that those who begin using cell phones heavily as teenagers have 4 to 5 times more brain cancer as young adults.   In this recent study of the entire population, very few persons are likely to have been heavy users of cell phones for more than a decade and even fewer will have done so since adolescence.  

 Given the limited networks available at the time that this Scandinavian study began, and the high cost of earlier phones, proportionally few people have been heavy users for a long period of time.   To conclude that the absence of a clear trend of increased brain tumors in Scandinavia means that there will be no such trend in the future is wishful thinking that endangers all of us.

 Recent studies by scientists in many different nations have found that radiofrequency signals can directly damage DNA without producing any noticeable change in temperature, and can produce cancer-inducing free radicals, proteins known to be tied with mutation, and memory loss in both animals and humans.  (see www.environmentalhealthtrust.org for more details) Given the dramatic increase in mobile phone use in the past few years, it is foolish to assume that their safety has been established.  The technologies are changing rapidly.  We need a major international research program to evaluate their impact on health, especially how they affect the brain of the young.

 Israel, France, China, Russia, Finland, Scotland, the U.K., and the European Commission have all issued various warnings to limit the use of cell phones by children.  The brain of a child doubles in the first two years of life and is not fully mature and protected until the early twenties.

 Four billion people today are using cell phones and many of them are under the age of twenty.  In truth the jury is out on the long term impacts of cell phones on our health.  There is no scientific basis to conclude otherwise.  

 

 

 

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