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Cell phone safety

Posted by Molly Rauch, MPH on October 1, 2010

Recently I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Devra Davis, a member of PSR’s Environmental Health Policy Institute, speak about her new book, Disconnect: the truth about cell phone radiation, what the industry has done to hide it, and how to protect your family. In it she argues that cell phone radiation damages DNA and can cause cancer, and that evidence to that effect has been mounting for decades. She describes the science behind her convictions and the PR juggernaut of the cell phone industry in fascinating detail.

Cell phones are actually small microwave radios, Dr. Davis explains. And such radiation – pulsed digital signals – is problematic in the brain for two reasons. It can damage DNA, and it weakens the blood-brain barrier, providing any toxic substances that may be circulating in the blood with easy entry into the sensitive brain.

In addition to learning about the potential health risks of exposure to non-ionizing radiation, I found myself struck with the familiarity of the story, if not the exact content: when cell phones first entered the market, they did so with unknown health effects and unknown profit margins. As cell phones have come into wider and wider use, a vested industry has tirelessly worked to ensure that scientists publish results favorable to its product. Industry attempts to discredit unfavorable results; researchers producing unfavorable results lose their funding, and their jobs. Dr. Davis pointed out that most studies showing no ill effects from cell phone usage – and there have been many – have been sponsored by the cell phone industry. “Human studies have not addressed heavy use for long enough,” Dr. Davis says. Instead they’ve explored average cell phone usage in the range of minutes per day instead of hours per day, and tracked users over years instead of decades. They’ve also looked at adults, not children. “The lack of definitive human evidence should not lead us to assume that cell phones are safe.”

Does this sound familiar? Think about how toxic chemicals are regulated in consumer products. Some researchers have insisted for years that the everyday chemicals to which we are routinely exposed through consumer products such as toys, furniture, and household cleaners affect children more acutely than adults. They’ve argued that cancer is not the only endpoint of interest. They’ve pointed out that some chemicals appear to damage health at very low levels of exposure, not just very high levels of exposure. They’ve produced provocative evidence supporting their hypotheses. Meanwhile, the chemical industry has worked to make such concerns seem sensationalist, and worse. We’ve also seen the American Chemistry Council claim it wants reform of our out-of-date chemical laws – only to balk when a strong bill was introduced in Congress this summer (the Toxic Chemical Safety Act, HR 5820, introduced by Representative Bobby Rush of Illinois), claiming such commonsense provisions as required pre-market safety testing of all chemicals are extreme measures based on flimsy evidence of harm. This is the story of environmental health in America, and we may be seeing it play out all over again with cell phones.

The burden of safety should rest squarely on the company manufacturing a product – whether it be a chemical or a cell phone. The cell phone industry, like the chemical industry, should be doing more to ensure the safety of its products.

I don’t know whether or not cell phones cause brain cancer or other health problems. But Dr. Davis has raised enough questions for me that I will think twice before putting my cell phone to my children’s heads so they can talk to their grandparents. (According to Dr. Davis, children absorb more cell phone radiation, and deeper into their brains, than adults do.) Besides, as Dr. Davis said, “Do we really want to wait until we have an epidemic of brain cancer? The point is prevention.”


Jill Lewis said ..

This is really scarey. So many babies become obsessed with a parent's cell phone, and often parents let them play with it. Plus, we all know the feeling of a hot head from talking too long on a cell. Thanks for this important information!

December 1, 2010

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