Cell Phones and Cancer: Myth or Malignancy?

Research from the past couple of decades has suggested possible links between cell phones and cancer. Here are some quick facts about this important issue.

| August/September 1999

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    Mobile phones are becoming more and more common among people of all ages — but is there a link between cell phones and cancer?

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In 1993, Floridian David Reynard appeared on the Larry King Live television show and announced that he was bringing suit against two prominent telecommunications companies because, he said, the cell phone his wife had carried before her death had given her a brain tumor. Last year, Dr. Andrew Davidson, an Australian cancer specialist, published reports in the Medical Journal of Australia asserting that a 50% increase in brain tumors in Western Australia could be attributed to an increase in cell phone usage from 1982 to 1992.

Though so for no substantial evidence has definitively linked cell phones and brain cancer, the public outcry of numerous individuals like Reynard, Davidson and most recently Swedish cancer specialist Lannert Hardell has sparked worldwide research initiatives to look into the possible health risks of cell phones.

After Reynard went Public in 1993, U.S. industry executives—spurred on by falling stock prices—joined together to create Wireless Technology Research, LLC. Led by Dr. George Carlo, this Washington-based, "independent" group has attracted national criticism from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and others simply for the fact that it is funded by the mobile phone industry. Critics argue that the WTR cannot have an objective stance, given its backers. But that hasn't stopped the research wheels from spinning: to date WTR investigation have cost in excess of $25 million—and have attracted at least one lawsuit surrounding the alleged use of consumers as guinea pigs. Still, on the plus side, WTR's research has prompted the FDA to set standards governing how much energy cell phones can attract—a figure 50 times lower than the amount at which radio waves have been found to affect health.

A more promising venture is under way in France, where the International Agency for Research on Cancer is heading up an eight-country project to track incidences of brain cancer and cell phone users over a five- to 10-year period. The group expects results by 2003.

Based on the current evidence (or lack thereof), many health specialists say that short-term cell phone users probably are at no more risk for brain tumors than the rest of us. The research conducted so far generally supports this point of view. Still, the big concern as more and more people go wireless is the small amount of research that's been done on long-term exposure to the low-level microwave radiation that cell phones attract. Simply put, the technology hasn't been around long enough to gather the information needed to draw any real conclusions. Until it has been, it might be a good idea to cut down on those 30-minute phone calls.

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