Are children really safe using cell phones? That's how industry-affiliated scientists interpret a widely publicized report in the Journal of The National Cancer Institute. Further, are cell phone users spared from health risks? That's what a recent report in Fortune magazine deduces based on the absence of a current brain cancer epidemic.
Hold your horses!
In fact, official commentary on the JNCI report draws an astonishing, disturbing and deeply misleading conclusion when they deduce that children face no special risks from cell phones. A study of Northern European children found that 352 children with brain tumors between the ages of seven and 19 had not used cell phones more than those without the disease from 2004 to 2008.
This result is hardly surprising or reassuring. There has been a quadrupling of cell phone use in just the past few years. If you asked whether people who had smoked for only four years had an increased lung cancer risk, you would come up empty-handed.
If brain cancer has a minimal latency of a decade, then the 7-year-olds in this study would have been minus three in age when first using a phone, and those aged nineteen would have begun regular cell phone use at age nine -- in 1994.
Those of us who can remember 1994 as if it were 17 years ago can offer a reality check. Drumroll please. At that time -- more than three generations of cell phones away -- cell phone users consisted chiefly of business and medical professionals -- less than 5 percent of the U.S. population. Cell phones were not being handed out like lollipops with special cartoon themes for children of all ages as they are today. Close to half of all 8-year-olds have phones and the other half clamor for them.
Interestingly, the researchers who conducted this study advocate taking simple precautions, including the use of a headset and speakerphone. To conclude -- as an editorial written by industry-associated scientists accompanying the article does -- that that there is no problem with cell phone use by children, does a profound disservice to the public and ignores a positive finding. Table 5 of the JNCI report notes that those who had subscribed to a cell phone for more than four years, or had made more than 2,638 calls in their lifetimes, had three times the rate of brain cancer. Talk about a truly inconvenient truth!
Given the restricted timeframe of the JNCI study, and the fact that children's skulls and brains are thinner and more absorptive of radiation, this finding of a tripled risk in a short time period is hardly assuring -- even though the authors chose to dismiss its import.
Christine Hoch, Executive Director of Center for Safer Wireless, observes, "Our children are not protected by this misleading information. Wireless devices can disrupt the young nervous system. Our concerns do not simply relate to long-term risks like brain cancer, but include immediate impacts on our children's health."
Hoch makes an important point. In fact, the risks to children from cell phones are far greater than brain tumors and include learning problems, autism, behavioral changes, insomnia, attention disorders and a broad array of disturbances to the developing nervous system. Also, a growing body of experimental and human studies reveals that such radiation damages both exposed mothers and the brain, liver and eye of their offspring.
Most disconcerting are findings from Prof. Nesrin Seyhan, the NATO-supported founding chairman of the Biophysics Department at Gazi University in Ankara, Turkey, who reports that prenatally exposed rats and rabbits have fewer brain cells -- and those that survive sustain more damage.
So why don't we have a massive epidemic of brain cancer now? Could Fortune magazine be right that we are really home-free already? Not quite. Maybe you can trust Fortune with your money, but certainly this is not the best source to rely on for predicting brain cancer risk. Contrary to what the article reports, brain tumors are known to have very long latency periods. Analyses of those some 90,000 who survived the atomic bombs dropped on Japan detected an increased incidence of meningiomas among survivors more than four decades after the end of World War II -- in 1994 and 1995 --when Shibata et al. demonstrated a higher incidence of meningiomas in Nagasaki survivors. In 1997, Shintani et al. published similar findings with Hiroshima survivors.
Cell phones were not heavily used until quite recently. Three out of every four cases of brain cancer occur in someone over age 60 -- a group that had not used cell phones extensively even a decade ago. In contrast, every major study ever conducted has found that those who use cell phones for half an hour a day or more have a doubled risk of brain cancer, and those who began using cell phones as teenagers have four to five times more disease in less than 10 years.
Concerned about the growing evidence that cell phone radiation damages membranes of living cells, many nations are acting now to reduce cell phone radiation exposures to the young brain. With its latest expert determination that cell phones are a possible cause of brain cancer, WHO joins with medical specialists in Israel, Finland, France, Russia, India and Brazil, all of whom agree that cell phone radiation should be reduced now, rather than waiting for the deadly confirmation we received with tobacco and asbestos.
Spinning new studies as proof of safety does not assure their validity. We need a massive training and research program on cell phones and other wireless devices that can easily be revenue neutral -- funded by a dollar-a-phone fee for the next five years that all parents would easily provide. Only when we have such independent research -- free from the direct or indirect influence of industry funding that spawned the latest reports -- will we be able to know the extent to which living in a sea of microwave radiation affects our health.
The future of our children's brains is far too important an issue to be resolved through deft public relation moves.
Follow Devra Davis, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DevraLeeDavis