With concerns raised about cancer, cellular phone's safety remains on hold

February 05, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

It's a phone-away-from-home, a handy handful of high technology that replaces the lowly pocketful of change and search for a pay phone. But recently, portable cellular phones joined the ever-expanding list of Things That Might Cause Cancer.

Which is either alarming or ridiculous or something somewhere in between to the 3 million people who use the phones for everything from closing deals to calling ahead for pizza.

"I really have cut down on using my phone. And when I do use it, I hold it at arm's length and ask the person to speak very loudly," Clint Coleman, spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, says with tongue partially in cheek. "And I'm sure I'm imagining it, but now when I hang up, I have a headache."

"I have a portable, and I don't have cancer and I'm going to continue to use it. I put saccharine in my coffee, and I talk to people who smoke. I sometimes eat fatty foods in restaurants, and I'm living and enjoying my life," declares Annapolis lobbyist Bruce Bereano (who, it should be noted, has represented both tobacco and telephone interests over the years).

Cellular phones -- which carry voices over the airwaves like a radio, unlike regular phones that transmit sound across telephone lines -- have become so much a part of the communications landscape in the 10 years since their introduction that they rarely merit a second look when someone pulls one out in traffic or in a restaurant. But two recent news reports have raised concerns:

* A Florida man last month charged that the brain cancer that killed his wife had been caused by her use of a portable cellular phone, and several other users have since made similar charges.

* As Princess Diana and Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder have learned, cellular phone conversations are actually broadcasts -- anyone with an old police scanner or other receiving device can listen in. Thus was Princess Di allegedly caught blowing kisses to a man who proclaimed his love for her and called her "Squidgy," and thus was Governor Wilder caught speculating about the rumored extramarital affairs of his rival, Virginia's U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb.

Only portable cellular phones have been implicated in the cancer scare -- such phones contain transmitters in the handset itself, and thus the radio waves could hit the user's head en route to the nearest receiver. Cellular car phones, by contrast, have their antennas mounted outside the vehicle, so the user is not as directly in the path of the radio waves. And, finally, the cordless phones used in so many homes, while they do have antennas on the handsets, operate on much weaker signals because they only need to reach the base unit nearby in the house.

The stock of cellular phone manufacturers has dropped due to the scare, and scientists have called for further study. Manufacturers have warned customers not to allow the antennas of their cellular phones to touch any body parts, and the Food and Drug Administration has advised users to limit the amount of time they spend on the phones.

In the meantime, most portable phone owners continue to use them, industry representatives said.

"It's a wonderful convenience. You can take it with you wherever you go -- Christmas shopping, the golf course," says Deborah Ketcham, a real estate agent with O'Conor Piper & Flynn in Roland Park who graduated from a car phone to a portable phone several years ago. "I like it for the safety aspect, too. Sometimes I'm showing a vacant property at night, and there won't be a phone there. You can be anywhere and still do business."

She is perhaps typical of cellular phone users -- someone whose living depends on being able to communicate with clients throughout the day, but someone who also is away from the office much of the time.

Mr. Bereano, the lobbyist, is totally plugged in yet wired out: He has cellular car phones in two of his five cars, and a cellular portable. Which is why he racks up $600 to $800 a month in cellular phone bills -- well above the $68 average.

"I talk a lot," he says with some understatement.

While he's had cellular phones since they were introduced, he still marvels at the wizardry involved -- he once had a 30-minute conference call while driving to Baltimore with four people spread out in Rhode Island, Texas, Louisiana and California.

"It went on for 25, 30 minutes, and never faded out," he recalls. "Even though I understand the technology, it still blows my mind. I have a legal client in Barcelona, Spain, and it still amazes me that I can talk to him on my car phone."

Mr. Coleman says his portable cellular phone has become a vital link between the mayor and the media, both of whom are continually juggling schedules that may or may not put them in the same place at the same time.

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