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.

High resistance

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!'"

High-voltage influence?

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 
Health Perspectives; 
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.
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