Are Your Cell Phone and Laptop Bad for Your Health?
By Stan Cox, AlterNet
Posted on July 31, 2007
In the wee hours of July 14, a 45-year-old
Australian named John Patterson climbed into a
tank and drove it through the streets of Sydney,
knocking down six cell-phone towers and an
electrical substation along the way. Patterson, a
former telecommunications worker, reportedly had
mapped out the locations of the towers, which he
claimed were harming his health.
In recent years, protesters in England and
Northern Ireland have brought down cell towers by
sawing, removing bolts, and pulling with tow
trucks and ropes. In one such case, locals bought
the structure and sold off pieces of it as
souvenirs to help with funding of future
protests. In attempts to fend off objections to
towers in Germany, some churches have taken to
disguising them as giant crucifixes.
Opposition to towers usually finds more socially
acceptable outlets, and protests are being heard
more often than ever in meetings of city
councils, planning commissions, and other
government bodies. This summer alone, citizen
efforts to block cell towers have sprouted in,
among a host of other places, including
California, New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois, North
Dakota and north of the border in Ontario and
British Columbia. Transmitters are already banned
from the roofs of schools in many districts.
For years, towers have been even less welcome in
the United Kingdom, where this summer has seen disputes across the country.
Most opponents cite not only aesthetics but also
concerns over potential health effects of
electromagnetic (EM) fields generated by the
towers. Once ridiculed as crackpots and Luddites,
they're starting to get backup from the scientific community.
It's not just cell phones they're worried about.
The Tottenham area of London is considering the
suspension of all wireless technology in its
schools. Last year, Fred Gilbert, a respected
scientist and president of Lakehead University in
Ontario, banned wireless internet on his campus.
And resident groups in San Francisco are
currently battling Earthlink and Google over a proposed city-wide Wi-Fi system.
Picking up some interference?
For decades, concerns have been raised about the
health effects of "extremely low frequency"
fields that are produced by electrical equipment
or power lines. People living close to large
power lines or working next to heavy electrical
equipment are spending a lot of time in
electromagnetic fields generated by those
sources. Others of us can be exposed briefly to very strong fields each day.
But in the past decade, suspicion has spread to
cell phones and other wireless technologies,
which operate at frequencies that are millions to
tens of millions higher but at low power and "pulsed."
Then there's your cell phone, laptop, or other
wireless device, which not only receives but also
sends pulsed signals at high frequencies. Because
it's usually very close to your head (or lap)
when in use, the fields experienced by your body
are stronger than those from a cell tower down the street.
A growing number of scientists, along with a
diverse collection of technology critics, are
pointing out that our bodies constantly generate
electrical pulses as part of their normal
functioning. They maintain that incoming
radiation from modern technology may be fouling those signals.
But with hundreds of billions in sales at stake,
the communications industry (and more than a few
scientists) insist that radio-frequency radiation
can't have biological effects unless it's intense
enough to heat your flesh or organs, in the way a microwave oven cooks meat.
It's also turning out that when scientific
studies are funded by industry, the results a lot
less likely to show that EM fields are a health hazard.
Low frequency, more frequent disease?
Before the digital revolution, a long line of
epidemiological studies compared people who were
exposed to strong low-frequency fields -- people
living in the shadow of power lines, for example,
or long-time military radar operators -- to similar but unexposed groups.
One solid outcome of that research was to show
that rates of childhood leukemia are associated
with low-frequency EM exposure; as a result, the
International Agency for Research on Cancer has
labeled that type of energy as a possible
carcinogen, just as they might label a chemical compound.
Other studies have found increased incidence of
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly called
ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), higher rates of
breast cancer among both men and women, and
immune-system dysfunction in occupations with high exposure.
Five years ago, the California Public Utilities
Commission asked three epidemiologists in the
state Department of Health Services to review and
evaluate the scientific literature on health
effects of low-frequency EM fields.
The epidemiologists, who had expertise in
physics, medicine, and genetics, agreed in their
report that they were "inclined to believe that
EMFs can cause some degree of increased risk of
childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, Lou
Gehrig's disease, and miscarriage" and were open
to the possibility that they raise the risks of
adult leukemia and suicide. They did not see
associations with other cancer types, heart disease, or Alzheimer's disease.
Epidemiological and animal studies have not been
unanimous in finding negative health effects from
low-frequency EM fields, so the electric-utility
industry continues to emphasize that no cause-and-effect link has been proven.
Now the most intense debate is focused on
radio-frequency fields. As soon as cell phones
came into common usage, there was widespread
concern that holding an electronic device against
the side of your head many hours a month for the
rest of your life might be harmful, and
researchers went to work looking for links to
health problems, often zeroing in on the possibility of brain tumors.
Until recently, cell phones had not been widely
used over enough years to evaluate effects on
cancers that take a long time to develop. A
number of researchers failed to find an effect
during those years, but now that the phones have
been widely available for more than a decade,
some studies are relating brain-tumor rates to long-term phone use.
Some lab studies have found short-term harm as
well. Treatment with cell-phone frequencies has
disrupted thyroid-gland functioning in lab rats,
for example. And at Lund University in Sweden,
rats were exposed to cell-phone EM fields of
varying strengths for two hours; 50 days later,
exposed rats showed significant brain damage relative to non-exposed controls.
The authors were blunt in their assessment: "We
chose 12-26-week-old rats because they are
comparable with human teenagers -- notably
frequent users of mobile phones -- with respect
to age. The situation of the growing brain might
deserve special concern from society because
biologic and maturational processes are
particularly vulnerable during the growth process."
Even more recently, health concerns have been
raised about the antenna masts that serve cell
phones and other wireless devices. EM fields at,
say, a couple of blocks from a tower are not as
strong as those from a wireless device held close
to the body; nevertheless many city-dwellers are
now continuously bathed in emissions that will
only grow in their coverage and intensity.
Last year, the RMIT University in Melbourne,
Australia closed off the top two floors of its
17-story business school for a time because five
employees working on its upper floors had been
diagnosed with brain tumors in a single month,
and seven since 1999. Cell phone towers had been
placed on the building's roof a decade earlier
and, although there was no proven link between
them and the tumors, university officials were taking no chances.
Data on the health effects of cell or W-Fi towers
are still sparse and inconsistent. Their
opponents point to statistically rigorous studies
like one in Austria finding that headaches and
difficulty with concentration were more common
among people exposed to stronger fields from cell
towers. All sides seem to agree on the need for
more research with solid data and robust statistical design.
San Francisco, one of the world's most
technology-happy cities, is home to more than
2400 cell-phone antennas, and many of those
transmitters are due to be replaced with more
powerful models that can better handle text
messaging and photographs, and possibly a new
generation of even higher-frequency phones.
Now there's hot-and-heavy debate over plans to
add 2200 more towers for a city-wide
Earthlink/Google Wi-Fi network. On July 31, the
city's Board of Supervisors considered an appeal
by the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free
Union (SNAFU) that the network proposal be put
through an environmental review -- a step that up
to now has not been required for such telecommunications projects.
In support of the appeal, Magda Havas, professor
of environmental and resource studies at Trent
University in Ontario submitted an analysis of
radio-frequency effects found in more than 50
human, animal, and cellular-level studies published in scientific journals.
Havas has specialized in investigating the
effects of both low- and high-frequency EM
radiation. She says most of the research in the
field is properly done, but that alone won't
guarantee that all studies will give similar
results. "Natural variability in biological populations is the norm," she said.
And, she says, informative research takes time
and focus: "For example, studies that consider
all kinds of brain tumors in people who've only
used cell phones for, say, five years don't show
an association. But those studies that consider
only tumors on the same side of the head where
the phone is held and include only people who've
used a phone for ten years or more give the same
answer very consistently: there's an increased
risk of tumors." In other research, wireless
frequencies have been associated with higher
rates of miscarriage, testicular cancer, and low sperm counts.
Direct current from a battery can be used to
encourage healing of broken bones. EM fields of
various frequencies have also been shown to
reduce tissue damage from heart attacks, help
heal wounds, reduce pain, improve sleep, and
relieve depression and anxiety. If they are
biologically active enough to promote health, are
they also active enough to degrade it?
At the 2006 meeting of the International
Commission for Electromagnetic Safety in
Benevento, Italy, 42 scientists from 16 countries
signed a resolution arguing for much stricter
regulation of EM fields from wireless communication.
Four years earlier, in Freiburger, Germany, a
group of physicians had signed a statement also
calling for tighter regulation of wireless
communication and a prohibition on use of
wireless devices by children. In the years since,
more than 3000 doctors have signed the so-called
"Freiburger Appeal" and documents modeled on it.
But in this country, industry has pushed for and
gotten exemption from strict regulation, most
notably through the Telecommunications Act of
1996. Libby Kelley, director of the Council on
Wireless Technology Impacts in Novato, California
says, "The technology always comes first, the
scientific and environmental questions later. EM
trails chemicals by about 10 years, but I hope we'll catch up."
Kelley says a major problem is that the
Telecommunications Act does not permit state or
local governments to block the siting of towers
based on health concerns: "We'll go to hearings
and try to bring up health issues, and officials
will tell us, 'We can't talk about that. We could get sued in federal court!'"
Industry officials are correct when they say the
scientific literature contains many studies that
did not find power lines or telecommunication
devices to have significant health effects. But
when, as often happens, a range of studies give
some positive and some negative results, industry
people usually make statements like, "Technology
A has not been proven to cause disease B."
Michael Kundi, professor at the Medical
University of Vienna, Austria and an EM
researcher, has issued a warning about
distortions of the concept of cause-and-effect,
particularly when a scientific study concludes
that "there is no evidence for a causal
relationship" between environmental factors and
human health. Noting that science is rarely able
to prove that A did or did not "cause" B, he
wrote that such statements can be "readily
misused by interested parties to claim that
exposure is not associated with adverse health effects."
Scientists and groups concerned about current
standards for EM fields have criticized the World
Health Organization (WHO) and other for
downplaying the risks. And some emphasize the
risk of financial influence when such intense
interest is being shown by huge utilities and a
global communications industry that's expected to
sell $250 billion worth of wireless handsets per
year by 2011 (that's just for the instruments,
not counting monthly bills). Microwave News cited
Belgian reports in late 2006 that two industry
groups -- the GSM Association and Mobile
Manufacturers Forum -- accounted for more than 40
percent of the budget for WHO's EM fields project in 2005-06.
When a US National Academy of Sciences committee
was formed earlier this year to look into health
effects of wireless communication devices, the
Center for Science in the Public Interest and
Sage Associates wrote a letter to the Academy
charging that the appointment of two of the
committee's six members was improper under federal conflict-of-interest laws.
One of the committee members, Leeka Kheifets, a
professor of epidemiology in UCLA's School of
Public Health, has, says the letter, "spent the
majority of the past 20 years working in various
capacities with the Electric Power Research
Institute, the research arm of the electric power industry."
The other, Bernard Veyret, senior scientist at
the University of Bordeaux in France, "is on the
consulting board of Bouygues Telecom (one of 3
French mobile phone providers), has contracts
with Alcatel and other providers, and has
received research funding from Electricite de
France, the operator of the French electricity
grid." The NAS committee will be holding a
workshop this month and will issue a report sometime after that.
A paper published in January in the journal
Environmental Health Perspectives found that when
studies of cell phone use and health problems
were funded by industry, they were much less
likely to find a statistically significant
relationship than were publicly funded studies.
The authors categorized the titles of the papers
they surveyed as either negative (as in "Cellular
phones have no effect on sleep patterns"), or
neutral (e.g., "Sleep patterns of adolescents
using cellular phones"), or positive, (e.g.,
"Cellular phones disrupt sleep"). Fully 42
percent of the privately funded studies had
negative titles and none had positive ones. In
public or nonprofit studies, titles were 18
percent negative and 46 percent positive.
Alluding to previous studies in the
pharmaceutical and tobacco industries, the
authors concluded, "Our findings add to the
existing evidence that single-source sponsorship
is associated with outcomes that favor the sponsors' products."
By email, I asked Dr. John Moulder, a senior
editor of the journal Radiation Research, for his
reaction to the study. Moulder, who is Professor
and Director of Radiation Biology in the
Department of Radiation Oncology at the
University of Wisconsin, did not think the
analysis was adequate to conclusively demonstrate
industry influence and told me that in his
capacity as an editor, "I have not noted such an
effect, but I have not systematically looked for
one either. I am certainly aware that an industry
bias exists in other areas of medicine, such as reporting of clinical trails."
Moulder was lead author on a 2005 paper
concluding that the scientific literature to that
point showed "a lack of convincing evidence for a
causal association between cancer and exposure to
the RF [radio-frequency] energy used for mobile telecommunications."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has
questioned Moulder's objectivity because he has
served as a consultant to electric-power and
telecommunications firms and groups. Moulder told
me, "I have not done any consulting for the
electric power and telecommunications industry in
years, and when I was doing consulting for these
industries, the journals for which I served as an
editor or reviewer were made aware of it."
A year ago, Microwave News also reported that
approximately one-half of all studies looking
into possible damage to DNA by
communication-frequency EM fields found no
effect. But three-fourths of those negative
studies were industry- or military-funded;
indeed, only 3 of 35 industry or military papers
found an effect, whereas 32 of 37 publicly funded studies found effects.
Magda Havas sees a shortage of public money in
the US for research on EM health effects as one
of the chief factors leading to lack of a
rigorous public policy, telling me, "Much of the
research here ends up being funded directly or
indirectly by industry. That affects both the
design and the interpretation of studies." As for
research done directly by company scientists,
"It's the same as in any industry. They can
decide what information to make public. They are
free to downplay harmful effects and release
information that's beneficial to their product."
Meanwhile, at Trent University where Havas works,
students using laptops are exposed to
radio-frequency levels that exceed international
guidelines. Of that, she says, "For people who've
been fully informed and decide to take the risk,
that's their choice. But what about those who
have no choice, who have a cell-phone tower outside their bedroom window?
"It's the equivalent of secondhand smoke. We took
a long time to get the political will to
establish smoke-free environments, and we now
know we should have done it sooner. How long will
it take to react to secondhand radiation?"
For more information, visit
National Center for Biotechnology Information.
<mailto:[log in to unmask]>Stan Cox is a plant
breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas. His book
Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine will be
published by Pluto Press in Spring 2008.
© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/58354/