Cell phones and cancer: More research needed

On Sept. 25, while many legislators on Capitol Hill were debating how best to confront potential dangers of the financial crisis, a handful of lawmakers and physicians were airing concerns over a different would-be danger: prolonged use of cell phones. Their conclusion is that more research is needed, especially when it comes to kids.

During a hearing before the House subcommittee on domestic policy, Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, used visual aids to drive his point home. Herberman held up model brains, one of an adult and another of a 5-year-old, each with a cell phone held to a corresponding ear.

Cell-phone radiation travels about two inches into an adult brain, but penetrates beyond the center of a child's brain, Herberman explained. 'I cannot tell this committee that cell phones are dangerous, but I certainly can't tell you they are safe,' said Herberman, who in July issued a memo (BusinessWeek.com, 8/5/08) urging his 3,000 staffers to limit cell-phone use among themselves and their children. 'We urgently need to do a study [to resolve this question],' he told the subcommittee, chaired by Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

No conclusive connection

Herberman and several other doctors urged Congress to commission a massive study to determine whether heavy, long-term cell-phone use poses a health threat, particularly to children, who are using cell phones at an increasingly younger age. A survey of more than 2,000 teens in July by market research and consulting firm Harris Interactive (HPOL) showed that 17 million teens, or 79%, use cell phones, up 36% from 2005, according to CTIA, a wireless industry association.

Scientific studies have not shown a conclusive causal connection between cell-phone use and cancer, the physicians acknowledged. Still, much of the existing research hasn't examined long-term exposure to cell phones, and it's possible that standards used to determine what constitutes healthy emissions need to tightened, professionals have said.

Indeed, three massive studies published since 2000 have found no correlation between cell-phone use and certain types of cancer. The American Cancer Society's site claims evidence so far 'shows no consistent association between cell-phone use and overall risk of brain cancer.' Yet, the people tracked in these studies used cell phones for an average of three years. Use of cell phones for a longer period could increase the risk of developing certain types of tumors, Herberman said. 'It seems likely that brain cancers can take 10 or 15 years to develop,' Herberman said. Cell phones have come to be widely used in the U.S. in the past decade.

Contradictory study results

The issue of wireless exposure has not been examined by Congress for at least 15 years, according to Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). And there's been a dearth of large-scale studies of the health effects of cell-phone use in the U.S. since the 1990s, David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health & the Environment at the University at Albany, said at the Sept. 25 hearing.

Studies done outside the U.S. have produced contradictory results. A 2006 study by the Swedish National Institute for Working Life found increased incidence of cancer among heavy users. But that was based on outmoded wireless technology, and a more recent Scandinavian study found no link.


Results of a multinational study coordinated by the International Agency for Cancer Research are due to be released in late 2008.

Besides conducting more research, the U.S. also needs to redefine what constitutes acceptable levels of radiation emissions, some experts say. Current standards, developed by the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers and administered by the Federal Communications Commission, have been in place since 1997, when most Americans didn't have cell phones. 'The existing standards for public safety are inadequate to protect public health,' according to a report issued in August 2007 by an international working group of researchers, including those from Columbia University and the University of Washington.

The CTIA, which represents such companies as AT&T (T) and Sprint Nextel (S), declined Kucinich's invitation to testify at the hearing. 'There's a consensus among the global scientific community on this issue,' says CTIA spokesman Joe Farren. 'Published scientific research shows no connection between wireless usage and cancer.'

That shouldn't stop scientists from examining the issue further, doctors and government representatives say. The Food & Drug Administration's Web site states, 'It is generally agreed that further research is needed to determine what effects actually occur and whether they are dangerous to people.'

Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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