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Are Cell Phones Safe? - October/ November 2009

Are Cell Phones Safe? - October/ November 2009

Are you current with the latest precaution news? In addition to The Networker, the Science & Environmental Health Network also publishes Rachel's Precaution Reporter, a compilation of news from around the world relating to the precautionary principle and its uses. To subscribe, click here.

The Networker
I. Editor's Note--A Classic Case for Precaution Nancy Myers
II. Why I Am Concerned about Cell Phones Devra L. Davis, PhD MPH
  I. A Classic Case for Precaution TOP
Nancy Myers This issue of the Networker features an exclusive article by Devra Davis, the scientist who has been instrumental in ramping up public attention to health risks associated with cell phones.

Reports of the September conference and Senate hearings Davis organized tell the story:  “Cell Phones: Precautions Recommended,” was the Science News headline. “We just don’t know if cell phone use causes cancer and other medical problems, and until we find out with more certainty we better apply what is called the precautionary principle,” wrote Herb Denenberg, a Philadelphia columnist.

See SEHN’s October Precaution Reporter for these and other reports that mention the precautionary principle. The hearings and conference generated a lot of additional coverage that didn’t name the principle but endorsed the idea. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who has been following the issue for a year and a half, said he always wears an earpiece when talking on his cell phone. A worldwide series of meetings is underway, from Brazil to Norway. France issued yet another official warning. The European Union is considering doing the same.

After listening to cancer and radiofrequency experts as well as industry scientists, Sen. Arlen Specter said,  “Precautions are not a bad idea. They may not be a good idea but they are not a bad idea.” (1)

Specter’s statement about precaution was ultra-cautious. The precautionary principle itself is often portrayed as the absurd extreme of caution by those who oppose it: if we had used the precautionary principle humans wouldn’t have invented fire, automobiles, or, of course, cell phones.

But the message of the hearings and conference was different. It showed how the precautionary principle works, and that experts and political leaders are learning to apply it—a skill more familiar to sensible parents.

The precautionary principle addresses a specific situation that occurs frequently in modern life: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

All statements of the principle have this combination: harm, uncertainty, and action. The principle is a go-ahead to take protective action of some kind when there is cause for concern.

For several years, scientists have been raising red flags about possible links between cell phones and aggressive brain cancers known as gliomas (the cancer that was fatal to Sen. Ted Kennedy) and other medical problems. Davis describes bringing these concerns to her boss at the time, Dr. Ronald Herberman, head of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Herberman issued a memo in 2008 to his faculty colleagues urging them to take precautionary measures in how they, and especially their children, used cell phones. Because of Herberman’s stature, the US scientific and political establishment finally began to take notice.

In September 2008 Rep. Dennis Kucinich conducted the House equivalent to this year’s Senate hearings. Herberman’s testimony at the House hearings described the classic case for precaution:

“The link between cell phones and health effects is suggestive but not solidly established. From my careful review of the evidence, I cannot tell you conclusively that phones cause cancer or other diseases. But, I can tell you that there are published peer reviewed studies that have led me to suspect that long term cell phone use may cause cancer. It should be noted in this regard that worldwide, there are three billion regular cell phone users, including a rapidly growing number of children. If we wait until the human evidence is irrefutable and then act, an extraordinarily large number of people will have been exposed to a technology that has never really been shown to be safe. In my opinion, for public health, when there is some evidence of harm and the exposed group is very large, it makes sense to urge caution.” (2)

Herberman said he recommended to his colleagues “a set of prudent and simple precautions that I felt could reduce potential risk, while awaiting more definitive evidence”:

•    Restrict children’s and young people’s use of cell phones to emergencies and texting. •    Adults should use headsets and speaker mode, limit calls, and avoid using the phone when the signal is weak. •    Choose a device with the lowest SAR possible. SAR = Specific Absorption Rate, a measure of the strength of the magnetic field absorbed by the body. (The Environmental Working Group recently issued SAR ratings for leading brands.)

Parents know how to do this, though it won’t be easy. But this is not only about individual responsibility. Davis, Herberman, and others call for more and better independent research, supported by government and with full cooperation from the industry; public warnings and labels; and pressuring manufacturers to make safer devices.

Notice that no one, at this point, is calling for an outright ban on cell phones. Dr. Herberman says he still uses his—with a headset.

That is the precautionary principle at work.

(1) Daniel Malloy, “Cell phone warnings by the earful.” Pittsburg Post-Gazette. September 15, 2009.

(2) Ronald B. Herberman, MD, “Tumors and Cell Phone use: What the Science Says.” Statement to the Domestic Policy Subcommittee, Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Washington, September 25, 2008. 


  II. Why I Am Concerned about Cell Phones TOP
Devra L. Davis, PhD MPH

In 2003 I was stunned to learn that a prestigious commission of the conservative British government had issued warnings three years earlier about children and cell phones. While I like to think of myself as an open-minded scientist, I thought the idea that cell phones could cause any harm was a bit daft, right up there with the notion that invisible radio waves could control the brain. I assumed that the lack of interest in the matter in America meant there was nothing to it.

A dogma of physics had long held sway over discussions of radiofrequency (RF). Ionizing radiation—the kind issued by x-rays—heats and sometimes burns the body and damages the basic building blocks of the genetic material that rests in the center of all living cells, our DNA. In order for any biological effect to take place, so goes the dogma, you have to have heat. Non-ionizing radiation of the sort emitted by cell phones had to be safe.  The dogma holds that without overt warming nothing harmful could happen.

Like much scientific speculation, this widely held belief turned out to be wrong. Like most humans, scientists don’t like to admit the need to correct their deepest convictions.  Intrigued and unsettled by the British report, I began to read the experimental literature on RF, as I was completing two decades of research that went into my book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer.  I found numerous studies indicating that exposures to radiofrequency at precisely the conditions posed by cell phones could cause a host of biological effects ranging from damage to DNA to leakage in the blood-brain barrier. I soon learned that the British had not been wacky, just far ahead of the rest of the world in issuing the Stewart Commission report warning that children should not use cell phones.

I remember talking with my husband one evening about all this. I came home and said, “Honey, I think I’ve found something really, really important for public health.”

He murmured, as longtime spouses do, “That’s great, sweetheart. What is it? Why are you so upset?”

“Well, if I’m right, we could be in really big trouble in a few decades.  It’s cell phones. Cell phones could turn out to be a dreadful problem.” I said.

“What on earth are you talking about?” he asked.

I explained what I was learning.  America was way behind the rest of the world on this issue.  Lennart Hardell in Sweden and Elihu Richter in Israel had produced troubling reports—cell phone signals got into the brain. The human head actually functions like an antenna taking RF signals into the brain. Worse yet, it looked like long-term use of cell phones was tied with doubled risks of brain cancer in those who used them the longest.

Why contradictory results?

The Biointiative Report came out in 2007 and sent shock waves through parts of the research community. The product of Cindy Sage, an experienced environmental consultant, and David Carpenter, a distinguished researcher and former dean of public health at State University of New York, this report by more than two dozen expert scientists provided a concise overview of studies ranging from experimental work in cell cultures and animals to the evolving and contradictory efforts of epidemiologists.

The sheer volume of evidence was daunting. Their work reviewed more than a thousand studies, many of which showed that radiofrequency exposures just like those released by phones could damage cells, impede neurotransmitters, cause leakage into the brain, and even worsen performance, insomnia, and memory loss.

However, there was no denying that most published studies of RF found no effect at all. Henry Lai of the University of Washington—a pioneer in the field—identified a peculiar sort of publication bias at work.  When he produced break-through studies in 1994 showing that RF could damage the DNA of rat brain cells, industry tried to get him fired and block publication of his research.  They also funded what is now termed ‘advocacy research’—giving money to scientists with the explicit intent of undermining suspicions that had been raised about the safety of RF.   As funding for his own work on RF dried up, Lai left the field for a while.   Sensing that what had happened to him was no accident, Lai turned his own scientific microscope on the funding for RF research over all and produced a simple finding—in looking at all the studies conducted on RF, he determined that the chances that any study would find that cell phones were harmful depended on who had paid for the work. If a study was funded by industry—as most were—the chances they would find any risk was about .2. But if studies were independently funded—and a few were—the chance that results would be positive was .8.

Still, the majority of scientists, including Nobel Laureate Robert Weinberg, who, like other scientific luminaries with no training in RF science, has been a consultant to the cell phone industry, hold to the dogma that without warming nothing can happen biologically. This view has been carefully nurtured. Public relations firms have ensured that Lai’s work was deliberately targeted and “war-gamed,” employing others to launch critical attacks on findings that RF could be harmful.  Science became simply a tool in the public relations strategy.  The notion that without generating a change in temperature there could be no biologic effect became widely bandied about as scientifically implausible-- a violation of the basic laws of physics.

Herberman sounds the alarm

As I was finalizing my book in 2006, I went to talk with my boss, Ronald B. Herberman, then director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.  As one of the world’s top cancer biologists, Herberman knew good science from bad. As a grandfather and cancer survivor, he also had a deeply personal interest in reducing risk and, like me, was disgusted with evidence of how long and hard industry had manipulated information about various hazards--asbestos, vinyl chloride, benzene, and now cell phones.  He encouraged me to lay out the facts, including the heavy hand of industry in shaping and molding public grasp of the issues and the growing number of troubling findings indicating that the dogmatic view of RF was wrong—RF signals can produce biological changes at levels that do not generate any increase in temperature.

Convinced that there was a need to warn others about the potential dangers of cell phones and of the need for basic research on the issue, Herberman began talking with colleagues about the issue and decided to do something about it.  As Director of the nation’s third busiest cancer center, Herberman issued an advisory in July 2008 to the three thousand staff members of the cancer institute. He urged them to take some simple precautions: reduce direct exposure of the head to cell phones by using a speakerphone or earpiece and avoid keeping the phone turned on while closely attached to their bodies.

Within days, Herberman’s notice made it around the world. For years, scientists like the prolific and distinguished Lai had shown that radiofrequency signals could disrupt living cells. Groups such as the International Commission on Electromagnetic Safetyand the Bioinitiative Report and others had called for such action. What was different? As the author of more than seven hundred scientific articles and one of the most influential cancer scientists in the world, Herberman was not known to take personal or scientific risks. His scientific work had set the stage for major programs of cancer research. The fact that someone of his stature had weighed in on the topic changed the equation. Concerns about cell phones could no longer be marginalized. The world began to take notice.

Just after Herberman had weighed in publicly on the matter, I got cautionary phone calls from several colleagues. “You should be very, very careful about taking this on,” advised one distinguished cancer researcher. “A decade ago I looked into this and was also quite concerned, but I was frankly told to stay out of it. This is a not a field for the faint of heart. Big, big money is involved. There’s simply no independent funding available.”

Another colleague at the University of Pittsburgh was blunt. “You can’t afford to go public here. It’s much too dangerous an issue. If you are right, you are attacking the jugular of a multibillion-dollar industry that is booming when many others are not. Think of your career and back off.”

Mounting evidence

After the Bioinitiative Report came out, I continued to read and to talk with serious scientists around the world who were conducting research on RF. I learned of the strange odyssey at the University of Vienna where charges of scientific fraud had been invoked to discredit studies showing that cell phone radiation could damage DNA. I soon found that the charges of fraud were themselves a fraud, fueled by the industry’s determination to keep the public convinced that all was well in the matter of radiofrequency. The Competence Initiative arose in an effort to inform the German-speaking public about the truth behind this story and began issuing searing indictments of the research and researchers who claimed cell phones were completely safe.

Colleagues in Israel and Finland, two countries that use radar and electromagnetic radiation intensively, opened big cracks in the notion that RF was harmless. I visited with a conservative physician and researcher, Siegal Sadetzki in Israel, who had long thought that cell phones had to be harmless. I came to understand why she had convinced the Israeli government to issue a warning about children’s use of cell phones. I also began to correspond with Darius Lezcynzki from Finland’s Nuclear Radiation and Protection Agency and found out that the Finns had issued warnings about this in 2002, 2004, and 2009.  I met with the science attaché of the French embassy in Washington, D.C. and heard of the government’s efforts to limit cell phone use of children and mandate safer technologies for the rest of us.

I spoke with my old and brilliant friend, David Gee, now with the European Environment Agency (EEA), who explained that the EEA had come under fierce, well-coordinated, and unreasonable fire for endorsing the Bioinitiative Report.

Christopher Portier of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, one of the most highly respected and talented researchers in the US government, has followed this issue for more than a decade. He pointed out that the field was full of tremendous information gaps and said that it had taken a decade to get the government to agree to carry out much needed cell culture and animal studies on this issue. The long-delayed work will be completed in 2014.

I phoned Joseph Fraumeni of the National Cancer Institute to learn whether NCI would support carrying out more studies of RF in people. Fraumeni was noncommittal. “We are waiting for the Europeans to complete their work,” he explained.

Waiting is something we epidemiologists do a lot. That’s because after exposures first take place cancer can take three or more decades to occur.  Brain tumors associated with the one-time exposure from the Hiroshima bombing were not evident until four decades later. The long-awaited European study on this issue—the World Health Organization’s Interphone project studying more than 2,000 brain cancer cases—has broken into distinct camps. Some of the researchers from a dozen countries are no longer talking to one another. They disagree about how to interpret their findings.

The more I read about the issue, the more it became clear that silence was not an option. Herberman’s advisory echoed views expressed by French experts convened by David Servan-Schreiber, a dear colleague and brain tumor survivor at Pittsburgh and in Paris. Elmer Huerte, an oncologist and past president of the American Cancer Society, issued similar warnings on his Spanish language blog.

Take precautions

When is the right time to act? That is not a scientific question but a moral one. As a public health researcher and historian of medicine, I have seen epidemics unfold in slow motion.  I have tallied the dreadful toll of our failure to act against tobacco, asbestos, and vinyl chloride—compounds long known to cause cancer.  Like David Michaels and other experts in the field, I have documented sophisticated public relations strategies to hire competing experts, produce confusing results, manipulate scientific uncertainty, and exaggerate doubt.  These so-called war games leave a toxic and lethal legacy that is far more than abstract numbers.  I am starting to hear more about that as I meet inspiring brain tumor survivors like Alan Marks (who used a cell phone for more than 10,000 hours) and his determined wife Ellie.

I no longer depend on government grants. I have been fortunate to gain support from private foundations that share my concern for our children’s brains and those of the rest of us. As a grandmother to three young children, I have seen the entertaining and addictive qualities of toy or real cell phones.  I am appalled by the rapid and unthinking proliferation of phones into elementary schools and the branding and marketing of cartoon-themed phones for toddlers.

With support from the Fine Foundation, my own nonprofit Environmental Health Trust, the Flow Circle Fund, NIEHS, and the Competence Initiative and encouragement from many others, I organized a major international conference on the topic in Washington DC in September and worked with Senator Tom Harkin and Senator Arlen Specter, himself a brain tumor survivor, to conduct the first Senate hearing on this topic in three decades. We were broadcast live on CSPAN3.  The world began to look at the question differently.  Senior representatives of the American Cancer Society actively engaged in this meeting and announced on the ACS web site the need for new research to be developed on the subject.

Of course, even at this point I cannot be certain that cell phones are a major risk to public health. But I and growing numbers of others have very good reasons for concern. Unlike tobacco, which was never used by most people at any time, cell phones are used today by many adults and growing numbers of children. The case for precautionary action is clear and strong and relatively free and painless.

If we wait for more definitive proof of human harm before acting to lower exposures to RF, we put ourselves at risk of epidemics of devastating brain illnesses including cancer. Accordingly, I am leaving my post at the University of Pittsburgh at the end of this year to focus on generating support for and conducting research on this issue and other matters where there is a clear need to inform the public about potential hazards. I am writing a book on the subject—Sell Phone—What’s Really on the Line, which will be published by Dutton.

With support provided from private donors, the Competence Initiative, and others, I am now working with colleagues around the world to identify major gaps in research and understanding, come up with strategies to fill them, and promote the adoption of precautionary approaches such as those recently urged by the French, Finnish, and Israeli governments:

•    Use your cell phones for short periods of time with an earpiece or speaker phone. •    Texting is better than talking. •    Children should only use cell phones as phones for emergencies.

Recently, Environmental Working Group published a guide to the relative emissions of various phones, bringing greater public attention to the issue.  A number of advocates recognize that current approaches to setting standards need to be radically revised—something that is under active discussion by governments in France, Finland, and Israel.

Our conference in Washington, D.C., provided a pivotal moment in the field by bringing together leading scientists on the issue of cell phones and health and forming the basis for the first U.S. Senate hearings on the topic in more than three decades.  Working groups from that meeting will soon be issuing specific recommendations for major independent research programs, extending work quickly done by the Institute of Medicine in January of last year. And while those programs are underway, taking these simple precautions will ensure that the billions of cell phone users do not pass on avoidable risks to themselves and their children.

When I eventually saw the movie version of Thank You For Smoking, the years of delay and confusion all made sense. The cell phone industry had taken their playbook from tobacco. Public relations firms have mastered the effort to spew doubt and blame any afflicted person for their own disease. Whenever science produces results indicating that the technology could produce harm, the strategy is to go after the scientists who did the studies and find and fund others to come up with contradictory results.  But that strategy has been exposed as something that potentially endangers the brains of billions at this point.

The modern history of environmental hazards is clear: It is not enough to do the research; we also need to break away from a world where science becomes an end game for public relations mavens.  I remain hopeful that the sheer weight of information amassed at this point, the number of scientists now engaged in this issue globally—as well as my forthcoming new book on the topic detailing the complexities of the matter--will allow us to resolve this matter constructively so that we can marshal this revolutionary technology safely and not find ourselves looking back with regret.

Dr. Devra Davis is the founder of Environmental Health Trust, a newly created nonprofit devoted to researching and controlling avoidable environmental health threats.   An award-winning scientist and writer,  Davis' recent paperback, The Secret History of the War on Cancer,  includes stunning new information about the ways that public relations strategies have undermined public health.  Her new book--Sell Phone--what's really on the line, will be published by Dutton in the Fall, 2010.