Cell phone Hang-ups

Fears, Doubt About Safety Persist

June 28, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Press a ringing cell phone to your ear and flick it on. Though you can't see it or feel it, microwave radiation is pummeling your skull.

That much nearly everyone in the scientific community agrees on. But the nettlesome question these days is this: Are cellular-telephone emissions bad for you?

Over the years, cell phones have been implicated in health problems ranging from brain cancer to memory loss. For nearly a decade, researchers have struggled to sort out these claims. And for nearly a decade they have come to the same frustrating conclusion: We don't know.

The problem is that for every study showing that cell phones might cause health problems, there's a study that shows they don't.

"No matter how you slice it, it's a gray area," says George Carlo of Wireless Technology Research LLC, an industry-backed group that has coordinated $25 million worth of cell-phone studies during the past five years.

Last week, things got even murkier. Carlo announced that several unpublished studies offer tantalizing hints that there may be something to the cell phone-cancer claim after all. The wireless industry and some other scientists were quick to dismiss the results. But the new research will fuel the debate well into the next century over whether cell phones can make people sick.

The question is of no small importance. In the 1970s and '80s, mobile phones were expensive, briefcase-sized gizmos mounted in the cars of a few affluent doctors and TV detectives like "Cannon." Today, they're the size of a deck of cards and glued to the ears of everyone from soccer moms to chatty teens. More than 70 million Americans use cell phones, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, and that number is growing every day.

The debate over cell phones and cancer ignited in 1993 when a Florida man appeared on the talk show "Larry King Live" alleging that a cell phone had given his wife a terminal brain tumor. He detailed his lawsuit against the industry. The program caused a sensation that has yet to subside.

Despite a lack of hard evidence, fear has prompted some to follow in the footsteps of the Florida widower and file lawsuits. None so far has been successful. Others, worried about the spread of wireless antennas atop schools and churches in the community, have mounted protests. "I get 10 questions on cell-phone base stations for every one I get on cell phones," says John Moulder, a radiation oncologist at the Medical College in Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

The debate crosses national borders. In Britain, concern over potential long-term health effects prompted a leading insurance company to stop underwriting wireless companies. London's bobbies have been advised by their superiors on the police force to keep cell calls to five minutes and to use headsets for longer chats.

That's because most radiation emitted by a cell phone comes from the antenna and occurs when users are on a call, scientists say. "Distance is your friend," says Louis Slesin, editor of industry watchdog Microwave News. "The further away your head is from the antenna, the better off you are."

But whether such common-sense admonitions have any grounding in science is anybody's guess. The most intriguing finding presented at least week's meeting involved tests to determine whether cell-phone emissions damage the genetic material in human cells -- a common means to determine whether something causes cancer.

One study, carried out at Integrated Laboratory Systems (ILS) in Research Triangle Park, N.C., exposed mouse and human cells to radiation from four types of cell phones, then looked for genetic damage.

Most tests came up negative. However, one type of test, a "micronucleus assay," did find chromosomal damage on exposed human blood cells.

"We don't know what this means yet," concedes Carlo, who is pushing for immediate follow-up studies. "But we do know that if it holds up, it could be a pretty serious thing for consumers."

Critics argue that such studies are like Rorschach ink blots -- too ambiguous, too open to interpretation. And just because something occurs in a test tube doesn't mean the same thing will happen in the human body.

"There still isn't enough data," says Slesin.

Theoretically, cell-phone radiation shouldn't affect living tissue at all. But other studies have shown not only that it does, but that it does so in weird ways.

How weird? Consider what British researcher Alan Preece and colleagues at the University of Bristol discovered when they attached a device that mimicked the microwave emissions of cell phones to the left ear of volunteers.

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