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Cellphones and brain tumors: Report revives nagging questions

The wireless industry has been telling us for years that cellphones don't cause brain cancer, but a new study raises doubts.

September 09, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

People have been asking for years whether cellphones can give you a brain tumor. And for years, the wireless industry has been telling us not to worry our pretty heads.

So that's settled, right? Maybe not.

A group called the International EMF Collaborative issued a report the other day warning that cellphones may be more dangerous than users have been led to believe by health authorities.

The report, titled "Cellphones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern," says the latest research indicates that regular use of cellphones can result in a "significant" risk of brain tumors.

It also says kids are at greater risk than adults because their still-developing brain cells are more vulnerable to electromagnetic radiation.

"Cellphones are causing brain tumors," the lead author of the report, Lloyd Morgan, told me. "Industry-backed studies try to hide that fact. But if you read them carefully, you can see there are risks."

The potential risks of cellphone use have been debated for years. A number of reputable organizations, including the World Health Organization and the National Cancer Institute, say there's no conclusive evidence that using a cellphone is harmful to your health.

But many consumer advocates, along with health officials around the world, say the jury's still out.

They say more data are needed and are awaiting the results of a long-delayed, 13-nation study begun almost a decade ago that was intended to settle the matter of cellphone safety once and for all.

That study, dubbed Interphone, has been held up for years by squabbling among researchers over how to interpret the data. Some say the findings show a clear link between long-term cellphone use and brain tumors. Others say no such link is evident.

The $24-million Interphone study was funded in part by the wireless industry, which some say has been pressuring researchers to soft-pedal some of the report's more troublesome findings, such as indications that using a cellphone for more than 10 years may increase your cancer risk.

The National Cancer Institute says incidence and mortality rates for brain cancer have remained relatively steady for the last decade. But according to the Illinois-based Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States, the leading database of brain cancer cases, there has been an increase in some types of tumors.

Carol Kruchko, president of the nonprofit registry, said scientists are still trying to determine the reason for the increase. She said the question of whether cellphones may be to blame is "controversial" and that more research is necessary.

CTIA -- the Wireless Assn., a U.S. industry group, insists that cellphones pose no danger to users.

"The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk," said John Walls, a spokesman for the association. "In addition, there is no known mechanism for microwave energy within the limits established by the FCC to cause any adverse health effects."

But Morgan, 67, a retired electronics engineer living in Berkeley, scoffed at this position.

"What does 'no known mechanism' imply?" he asked. "That's an anti-scientific statement on its face. All it means is that we don't know."

Morgan is a member of the Bioelectromagnetics Society, an organization of scientists and engineers who focus on the effects of electromagnetic fields. He described the International EMF Collaborative as a collection of advocacy groups concerned about electromagnetic radiation.

More than 40 scientists and officials from 14 countries have publicly endorsed the findings of Morgan's report. They include David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and Environment at the University at Albany; Jerry L. Phillips, director of the Science Learning Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; and Dr. Ronald Herberman, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

Herberman sent a memo to his staff last year urging them to limit cellphone use and to keep handsets away from their heads whenever possible.

Morgan said the wireless industry and cellphone-danger skeptics base their claims on research showing that radiation emitted by handsets is too weak to heat the tissue in your head and cause tumors to form.

"But what about non-thermal, biological effects resulting from electromagnetic radiation?" he asked.

Morgan pointed out that electromagnetic fields are routinely used to repair bone fractures. Like cellphone radiation, these fields are too weak to heat tissue.

"That tells you that there is also a non-thermal, biological effect from this energy," Morgan said.

The National Cancer Institute seems to acknowledge this possibility when it says on its website that "more research is needed to determine what effects, if any, low-level non-ionizing RF [radio frequency] energy has on the body and whether it poses a health danger."

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