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Cell Phones and Brain Cancer: The Real Story

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The long awaited World Health Organization Interphone study of more than 5,000 brain tumors that occurred between 2000-2004 and cell phone use failed to deliver a knock-out punch. This thirteen country report found what every study that has ever examined people who have used phones for a decades or more has determined-- top users of cell phones had a doubled risk of malignant tumors of the brain. When looking at all those in their study who had used cell phones to make one call a week for six months or more, compared to those who used cell phones less no such risk was evident. This is unsurprising.

The story behind the story needs to be told. First of all, although the news reports so far do not acknowledge this fact, Interphone is not the only study to find an increased risk in brain tumors with prolonged cell phone use. All studies that have been able to examine people a decade after heavy use began have found increased risk of brain tumors. Second the Interphone study completely ignored the fact that there is a growing experimental literature showing that pulsed microwave-like radiation from modern cell phones disrupts living cells and causes our DNA to become unstable -- signs of cancer and other chronic disease. Third, the Interphone study was delayed close to six years, while authors debated how to present their results. Completed in 2004 and promised by 2005, publication was delayed til now.

Among the leading epidemiologists on the team are those from Israel, Spain and Australia, who proclaim that we know enough now to tell people to take precautions. Others from Canada and Sweden are convinced that we lack sufficient evidence of harm and we should wait twenty years to find out whether or not current patterns of cell phone use in children and the rest of us will produce an epidemic of brain cancer. Much of their work happens to be sponsored by the cell phone industry and forms the basis for a study being launched of a quarter million people in Europe.

In fact, the Interphone study necessarily evaluated out of date technology in use long ago and included no children or teenagers, left out those who are most highly exposed, like rural users who get higher exposures because phones in remote areas emit more radiation trying to reach more distant antennas, did not take into account other experimental or epidemiologic studies on the subject and did not include cordless phone use--which can be just as high as that from cell phones. While most of the cell phone users in the world today are under age thirty, none of those in the study was. Scientists understand that brain tumors often take three or four decades to develop and less than one in ten people in this study had used a phone for even one decade.

Professor Joel Moskowitz of University of California Berkeley combined information from all other studies ever done on brain tumors and cell phones and found "consistent evidence that heavy cell phone use for a decade or longer increases brain tumor risk at least 30%." My colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh also reported similarly elevated risks of tumors of the hearing nerve in long-term cell phone users just last year.

No wonder the public is confused. Headlines of some U.K. papers proclaimed: Long term brain cancer risk increased in heavy cell phone users, while those of the National Cancer Institute's in-house online zine noted -- no general risk from cell phone use. In fact, both headlines are technically true, and there's the rub. All scientists agree that more research is needed. The question is what do we do, while we wait for that research? Should taxpayers in America stand by while information on this issue from other countries is amassed? The United States of America did not participate in this largest study of brain cancer and cell phone use ever carried out and currently there is almost no public health research underway on the questions of cell phone use and autism, chronic neurologic disease or cancer.

Studies by physician-researcher Lennart Hardell of Sweden -- regarded as some of the best efforts in the world on this challenging topic -- concur with the Interphone and Moskowitz results -- those who have used phones heavily for a decade have a doubled risk of brain tumors and teenagers who begin heavy cell phone use have between four to five times more brain tumors by their late twenties. In fact, the French are not waiting for further research on this matter, and are taking steps based on the notion that it is better to be safe than sorry--codifying advice from the European Environment Agency, the Finnish Nuclear Regulatory Safety Authority and the Israeli Health Ministry among others . Both chambers of the French legislature have recently passed legislation requiring a host of simple actions to reduce direct exposures to the brains from cell phones. For starters, all cell phones must be sold with an earpiece or headset to limit direct brain exposure to radiofrequency signals. Advertising to children below age fourteen is banned, as is giving cell phones to children under the age of six. In schools, the use of cell phones is forbidden during all teaching activities. Finally, phones must be sold with labels indicating potential risks from excessive use and the reported exposure in terms of the SAR (specific absorption rate).

In France, Professor Daniel Oberhausen--a leader in cell phone safety -- advises, "The absence of definitive human evidence at this point in time should not be misconstrued as proof of cell phone safety." Prof. Moskowitz, experts from a number of countries and I agree with the French policies: cell phone use should be curtailed in children and should include warning labels, After ten years of use, increased risks from tobacco and asbestos were not clearly evident, yet nobody today doubts that we waited far too long before addressing these important health hazards. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we should promote simple precautions to reduce direct exposure to the brain by using headsets, speaker phones and texting. This will protect us from whatever health hazards may emerge decades later and also encourage safer development of this revolutionary technology in the meantime.

Award-winning scientist and author, Devra Lee Davis is Founder of Environmental Health Trust, a National Book Award finalist, Carnegie Science Medal winner, author of Disconnect--the truth about cell phone radiation and health, what the industry has done to hide it, and what you can do to protect your family, Dutton, coming September, 2010, and Visiting Professor, Georgetown University. She was the Founding Director of the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology at the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, 1983-1993, a Presidential appointee in the Clinton Adminstration to the National Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, and Founding Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, 2004-2009.

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