Why we know less than you think about effects of cell phone radiation

A report released on Tuesday by the General Accounting Office called on the U.S. government to review its standards for setting safe levels of cell phone radiation. The report had been requested by several members of Congress, including: Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.)

In a statement, Eshoo said:

“While the GAO report indicates there is no evidence to suggest using a cell phone causes cancer, it’s important that safety standards are current and account for changing trends in cell phone use and technology,” said Rep. Eshoo. “As the number of users of wireless technology grows exponentially, the FCC should reevaluate acceptable radiation emission levels to determine if they need to be adjusted.”

I wrote about this topic two years ago, in a column published in October 2010. This is a topic that causes a lot of eye rolling in Silicon Valley. But the truth is that what we know, or what we think we know, is less ironclad than most people realize. Now that it appears the government is going to take a serious look at the issue, I’m re-posting that colum: 

By Chris O’Brien 

After many years of increasingly erratic behavior, Alan Marks, of Lafayette, suddenly experienced a severe seizure in the middle of the night. His wife, Ellie, called 911 and Marks was rushed to the hospital, where tests revealed a golf-ball-size brain tumor that apparently was the cause of his personality changes.

The Markses had no doubt about what caused the tumor: It was located exactly where he had been pressing a cell phone to his head for almost two decades.

In the two years since that diagnosis, the Markses have joined an international debate over the potential health risks surrounding the low levels of radiation emitted by cell phones. The couple have testified before the U.S. Congress, been interviewed on national television, and they were instrumental in persuading San Francisco to adopt a controversial ordinance that requires mobile phone retailers to display information about the radiation levels of each model.

“I wanted to share my story because I don’t want others to suffer like we have,” Ellie Marks said.

But how can they be sure the cell phone is to blame? I’ve had a growing interest in this subject in recent months for personal and professional reasons. But what I’ve found is that nobody knows for sure whether cell phones are a health hazard. And that has surprised me and made me nervous.

Several players at the heart of this debate converged on San Francisco last week. CTIA-The Wireless Association had its annual trade show, which it promised would be the last in the city because of the new disclosure law. Marks organized several protests outside the event. And noted epidemiologist Devra Davis, a visiting professor at Harvard University, arrived for several speaking engagements about her recently published book, “Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How To Protect Your Family.”

“When I first heard that there could be problems with cell phones, I didn’t believe it,” Davis said. “I wrote the book because I was stunned to find out I was wrong to assume that these things had to be safe.”

For many years it was believed the low levels of radiation generated by cell phones and towers had no effect on human biology. Now a small but growing number of scientists and health activists are challenging those findings.

Davis’ book cites studies that point to possible links between cell phones and brain tumors and lower sperm counts. Much of this evidence has been attacked from other scientific corners as “junk science” from a lunatic fringe. Having read the book and listened to arguments on both sides, I found myself wondering how the average consumer, who doesn’t have the science background to sort through the details of studies, is supposed to come to an informed conclusion.

My interest in this topic began earlier this year when the owner of a building across the street from our kids’ school in North Oakland signed a contract with Verizon Wireless to install a handful of cell phone towers on his roof. The prospect of these radiation-emitting devices so close to the school alarmed a number of parents at the school, including my wife, who organized an unsuccessful attempt to stop them.

It turns out the 1996 Telecommunications Act contains a provision that bars local governments from considering health effects when deciding whether to grant permits for cell towers. They can only consider aesthetic issues — that is, whether the towers are too ugly for the neighborhood.

Such a restriction seemed heavy-handed and got me wondering: Why was anyone trying to eliminate debates over health effects? Surely if there was a possible health issue with cell phones or towers, someone would have told us, right?

In fact, they have told us. Every cell phone comes with a standard disclosure about the effects of radiation. Like most people, I had never read the safety and product booklet that came with my BlackBerry Curve 8310. But when I did this summer, I found a section where it talks about the amount of radiation the phone emits and then warns me to do the following:

“Keep the device at least 0.98 inches (25 mm) away from your body when the BlackBerry device is turned on and connected to a wireless network.”

If cell phones are safe, why do I need to hold it away from my body?

“Cell phones are small microwave radios,” Davis said. “And you don’t want to hold a small microwave radio next to your head.”

I asked John Walls, a CTIA spokesman, why phones include this warning when there is no government or industrywide mandate to do so.

“It’s been the legal opinions of the various companies that they should supply that warning,” he said.

Hardly reassuring. But what’s really interesting is that the cell phone industry doesn’t actually claim cell phones are safe. It claims that other people do. It points to third-party research by other groups such as the Federal Communications Commission, scientific standards bodies and organizations such as the World Health Organization.

“We don’t have concerns because that is what science has told us about our products,” Walls said. “If anyone knows any different they should let the agencies and public health organizations know. We are not scientists and we defer to their work. The overwhelming consensus is that there is no evidence that people should have cause for concern.”

But that’s not entirely true. In May, the World Health Organization released a 10-year study dubbed “Interphone” that examined the possibility of a link between brain tumors and cell phones. According to Joachim Schüz, of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the principal scientist on the Interphone study, the results were inconclusive. But the study noted:

“There are some indications of an increased risk of glioma (brain tumors) for those who reported the highest 10 percent of cumulative hours of cell phone use.”

“The results are really not as clear as we hoped when we started the study,” Schüz said. “Further monitoring of the long-term use of mobile phones is certainly necessary.”

The FCC also delivers mixed signals on the subject. An FCC representative pointed me to the portion of the agency’s website that addresses the issue:

“No scientific evidence establishes a causal link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses. Those evaluating the potential risks of using wireless devices agree that more and longer-term studies should explore whether there is a better basis for RF (radio frequency) safety standards than is currently used.”

Given the lack of clarity, what are we to do?

The FCC lists some precautions, though it wants to be clear that it “does not endorse the need for these practices” because there’s no danger. Got it? But just in case, use a speakerphone or headset, increase the distance between the wireless device and your body, and consider texting rather than talking (unless you’re driving!).

When I talked to Ellie Marks last week, she was on her cell phone getting ready to lead her first protest march to the CTIA convention. She said her husband has been doing well in recent months, but they expect the tumor to come back at some point. I noted that she hadn’t ditched her own wireless phone in the wake of all she had learned.

“I don’t believe in abandoning this technology,” Marks said. “I want the industry to make the equipment safer and be honest about the risks.”




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  • B C Webb

    No publication would tolerate, in any other field, the level of ignorance this reporter and most reporters display about science. Cell phones didn’t exist thirty years ago but now most of the world has them; meanwhile, cancer rates have fallen. The cell phone studies have gotten bigger and bigger with better and better accuracy showing no problem but the same tiny flawed studies from 15 years ago get cited again and again.

    If someone suddenly claimed that room radiators or kitchen cooktops caused cancer, everyone would laugh. Yet a warm radiator or stove is sending out tens to hundreds of watts of infrared radiation. Not only that, each infrared photon carries at least ten times the energy of microwaves.

    Cancer happens because of damage inside a cell’s DNA. Einstein won his Nobel prize for showing that there is an wavelength (energy) threshold for light to interact with the bonds between atoms. You can’t break chemical bonds with anything less energetic than short visible or ultraviolet light. This is why we need sunscreen but don’t get cancer from flashlights, radiators or cell phones. Einstein’s understanding is central to the physics that is used routinely to predict from first principles the exact properties of matter, and is also fundamental to understanding why matter can even exist at all. There is a reason that crap articles like this one make scientists eye’s roll.

  • Don Lindsay

    When a study finds a tenuous link, what that really means is that we should stop worrying. The worst-case scenario is just not that horrible, and there are much more important things to worry about. ENOUGH ALREADY.

    As Mr. Webb points out, microwaves can’t damage DNA. They can, however, make your head a bit warmer. Has anyone done a study to see if there is a tenuous link between wearing hats and brain cancer ? Given the way hats make my head warmer, I would guess it’s a huge effect. But I’m more frighened of skin cancer, so I for one will keep my hat.

  • John Allen

    As a scientist, you should know how flawed your infrared comparison is. Are you really stating that biological effects are the same for all frequencies? Comparing effects of frequencies that humans and other animals were exposed to (infrared) for millions of years of evolution to microwave exposure is meaningless.

  • John Allen

    I’m guessing that both BC and Don work for utility companies or cell providers. Same approach and same silly infrared “science” reference. I especially like the Einstein statements which are not even relevant.

  • John Allen

    BC – what does the statement “Einstein’s understanding is central to the physics that is used routinely to predict from first principles the exact properties of matter, and is also fundamental to understanding why matter can even exist at all” have to do with this?

    • B C Webb

      Einstein’s work on the photoelectric effect (presaged by Planck) was an early glimmer of what became quantum mechanics which is used to derive atomic wavefunctions and chemical bonding. Conservation of energy means that energy can be transferred from electromagnetic energy (light and electromagnetic fields) to the energy states of matter and back.Since energy can travel out as light, why doesn’t matter just radiate all of it’s energy out into space and cease to exist. The idea that matter and light has restricted energy states (quantization) solved this problem and ultimately made possible the prediction of chemical states from first principles. Claiming that cell phones are somehow unique in the entire universe is just magical thinking based on fear.

      And no, I don’t work for a utility, I’m just a scientist who hates pseudo scientific half-knowledge such as yours. There is no evolutionary history for books, computers or blogs either so an argument that evolution somehow protects us against long wavelength light unless it comes from a cellphone is drivel.

  • JE Taratuta

    My personal research has found all the FCC says is that it regulates the airwaves, not necessarily ‘safety’ per se (but it is open to any safety related information).

    Energy is energy is energy. We really don’t know what goes on at the micro-cellular level of human tissue because we lack the finely calibrated instruments to precisely probe a single cell’s electrical fields at ultra-low levels.

    Years ago, folks played around with x-rays for kicks and until a generation ago, even liquid mercury was fun to roll around in one’s hands. Perhaps a generation from now, cell-phones will fall into the same hazard category.

    In the meantime, why risk it?

    • B C Webb

      Mad as a hatter was known 150 years ago. Xrays killed when DNA was unknown and cancer was a complete mystery.

      The mystic biology argument that we don’t know “micro-cellular” detail is fatuous because we do know that the cell is flooded with much larger and more energetic electromagnetic fields over the entire long wavelength energy bands just from the thermodynamic black body radiation from the warmth of the body itself. We also know that all chemical processes require higher photon energies than cell phones can deliver. The wavelength of a cell phone signal is a few centimeters, a strand of DNA a few microns long. They live in different worlds.

      • B C Webb

        PS. There is a reason not to waste time on stupid fears. We have real problems we need to spend money on and we can’t afford to blow credibility on garbage.

        Already, the public can’t tell the difference between real problems like global warming and our food and energy supplies and superhype about flakey nutritional studies or the power of crystals.

  • Angel

    I´m from Spain. Why are you going to trust in the companys? I´m not earning money saying that the electromagnetic fields are very dangerous for our health… Why am I telling this? My mother got sick a year ago. She´s electrosensitive, a new desease. In the next future, all of you will hear about it… Meanwhile, you are under the umbrella of your WIFI. At home, I don´t have any wireless device, but I have all the technology, internet, phone…
    Can you imagine if I was right?…. think about it…

  • Anderson

    The amount of wireless energy a cell phone user is exposed to depends on the technology of the phone, the distance between the phone’s antenna and the user, the extent and type of use, and the user’s distance from cell phone towers.That’s why I did research and found a case that can reduce radiation exposure.I read about Pong Research cases, Pong technology is custom-designed for each mobile device and works to redirect radiation away from your head and body. I hesitated about it, anyway, I bought a case Pong because is the only technology proven in FCC-certified laboratories to reduce the exposure to mobile device radiation by up to 95% below the FCC limit without compromising the device’s ability to communicate.