THE BLOG
04/30/2013 10:52 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2013

Cicadas and Cell Phones: Welcome to the 21st Century

What does the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) have in common with the cicada bug? They both follow 17-year cycles. In 1996, the first and last time the agency considered standards for cell phones, cicada carcasses clogged Washington, D.C. streets, a stamp cost 32 cents and there was no email. Its Good Friday afternoon announcement that the FCC would seek advice on cell phones is long overdue.

Five years ago, Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, head of Pittsburgh's Cancer Institute, recommended simple steps to reduce microwave radiation exposures from cell phones. Since then more than a dozen other tech-savvy nations -- including Israel, India and Finland -- or expert groups, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, have offered similar advice. Just this week, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer published a detailed explanation of their 2011 determination that cell phone and other wireless radiation was a "possible human carcinogen."

In a new publication, Santosh Kesari, M.D., Ph.D., chief of neuro-oncology at the University of San Diego, believes that evidence mounted since 2011 warrants the classification of cell phone radiation as a "probable human carcinogen," warning that resources to treat new cases of this highly-malignant tumor cannot meet the projected increase in demand. He notes that the only studies in the world to include those who began using cell phones as teenagers find that younger users develop between four to eight times more malignant brain tumors than those whose use starts in their 20s.

The wisdom of Herberman's advice from 2008 has more than withstood the test of time. Just as the Government Accountability Office advised in its report to Congress this past July, it's long overdue that the FCC questions the use of 20th century methods to handle 21st century technology.

Current standards for phones mistakenly assume that weak pulsed radiation cannot possibly produce any heat or other biological impact. In fact, Memorial Sloan Kettering radiation physicist David Gultekin and Bell Labs electrical engineer Lothar Moeller reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that this assumption is wrong. Low levels of pulsed microwave radiation emitted by today's cell phones create tiny hotspots -- as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit -- in cow brain tissue kept alive in the laboratory. Scientists understand that warming the brain should be avoided at all costs, as this can lead to nervous system damage, hearing loss, and potentially, cancer.

Other recent research led by Yale University chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology Hugh Taylor finds that prenatally-exposed mice develop damaged brains and serious learning and behavioral problems. Experiments produced by NATO-supported teams led by Nesrin Seyhan in Turkey have also found that offspring of rabbits, rats and mice exposed in utero to cell phone radiation have damaged brains, liver, skin and eyes.

Smart phone manufacturers understand that new science requires new policies and now include warnings to keep phones off the body. Apple advises that iPhones are tested and should be used at least 10 millimeters away -- advice that can be found within the phone by going to settings/general/about/legal/radiofrequency radiation. Blackberry users are told in fine print to keep phones an inch from the body and avoid exposure to the pregnant or teenaged abdomen. Tawkon and Cell Spacer are but two of a number of growing apps that squawk or light up to warn users when their devices exceed approved limits.

Based on these and other developments, the Russian National Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, the Austrian Medical Association, the Israeli Dental Association and the European Environment Agency, have also issued precautionary advice about phones and other wireless devices. Israel, France and Finland are among those nations urging that phones be used with speakerphones or headsets and that wired connections are safer, faster and more secure. Belgium and Turkey have banned sales and advertising of phones for young children. Professor Erik Peper, an award-winning expert on computer safety, generally advises that simple precautions are appropriate to reduce direct wireless exposures.

Unaware of these growing concerns, American parents are providing their youngsters with more and more of these devices at younger ages. In light of growing use of these two-way microwave-radiating devices by toddlers and young children, the FCC's notice is a case of better late than never.

Left unaddressed in this FCC announcement is the troubling fact that the U.S. has no major training or research program underway to identify potential health impacts of these ubiquitous devices. Most physicians have no training in electrical engineering, and most engineers remain unaware that these remarkable technologies can have important health impacts.

Cell phones today are like cars were in the 1960s -- essential devices for which safety standards can improve efficiency and reduce risks. Simple reprogramming and other software reconfiguration can save battery life and reduce radiation exposures and network demand. If phones sought signals from towers every 10 seconds rather than every 0.9 seconds and went into airplane mode whenever signals were weak, body and brain absorbed radiation would be reduced and batteries would last longer.

The FCC's overdue request for advice on how to update its standards provides a welcome chance to get rid of outmoded assumptions of current standards and provides a rallying point for those concerned with protecting brains and bodies from avoidable exposures to microwave radiation. If distance is kept between the phone and the body, extending the life of batteries could also improve that of humans.

For more by Devra Davis, Ph.D., click here.

For more health news, click here.