Cell Phones: a new environmental hazard that can be reduced
This essay is in response to: What emerging environmental hazard should be next on the policy agenda?
Could cell phones possibly be harmful? When I first heard this possibility, I rejected it. After all, it is physically impossible for the weak non-ionizing radiation of cell phones to break the bonds that hold our cells together. While cell phones use the same frequency of radiation as microwave ovens, they use more than two thousand times less power.
The most obvious danger from cell phones arises from serious accidents that occur because of distracted driving and the increasingly rude behaviors they foster at the dinner table, restaurants, and coffee shops. But, this is hardly the sole hazard of these now universal devices on which nearly all adults and teenagers depend. Weak, pulsed signals from cell phones are not harmless but induce a host of serious biological responses. Cell phone radiation from today’s smartphones can damage DNA, lower sperm count in both animals and humans, increase the production of damaging blood markers linked to greater cancer risk, and weaken the barrier that protects the brain from harmful exposures. In devising appropriate toxic chemical policies we should of course reduce exposures, but we also need to lower cell phone radiation to achieve this goal, because such radiation enhances the uptake of all toxic chemicals.
My new book Disconnect explains the science behind all this and documents a sophisticated and hidden pattern of deceit and denial implemented by the cell phone industry—much like that of the tobacco and asbestos industries. In truth the science and engineering of cell phones is complicated and not widely understood by most physicians or scientists. This complexity has made it easy to confuse people about the risks. Whenever studies have emerged indicating that cell phone radiation can be harmful, they have been treated as inconvenient truths to be handily dispatched by attacking the science and the scientists. It’s been easy to recruit skeptics to conduct competing research that looks like replication but really is not. This strategy has worked until now, when two major things have changed. Governments where the science has advanced are issuing rules requiring warning labels and banning advertising to children, and industry has rolled out its own fine print warnings.
In countries, cities, and states around the globe--from Finland, Israel, France, and Canada, to San Francisco, Jackson, Wyoming, and Luxembourg--regulations and proclamations are being advanced that build on the strong evidence that cell phone radiation has a range of biological impacts. Standards for phones were set more than two decades ago based on avoiding acute impacts for a large, male military recruit weighing well over 200 pounds. Of the world’s four billion phones, growing numbers are being used by children, whose brains and bodies are not just smaller than this big guy but different. That’s why companies have been issuing fine print warnings that people can read after they buy phones. And that’s why San Francisco passed right to know legislation.
No matter who is in charge of a democratic government, democracy rests on the freely given consent of the governed. People have a basic right to know that cell phones are small two-way microwave radiating radios that can be safely used only when they are not touching the head or body, and they have the right to know this before they decide to purchase a device. It is an insult to the intelligence of the consuming public to package phones with notices that phones cannot be safely used in the pocket or to keep phones 15 mm or .98 inches from the body.
In his October, 2010, Skeptic column in Scientific American, Michael Shermer argues correctly that cell phones lack the power to directly break the ionic bonds that hold together the complex structure of DNA. But, Shermer is completely wrong to assert that cell phone radiation cannot cause damage to DNA through other means or that cancer arises only after such damage occurs.
Professor Frank Barnes, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, reports that radiofrequency energy can disrupt metabolic processes or cause other biologic changes such as a shift in the direction of neutrophils, which may lead to a host of other alterations. The Scientist reported this week that Tuft’s Michael Levin has found that electrical properties of one type of cell can induce other, distant cells to change their behavior, and might be "a key switch that mediates the stem cell-cancer cell distinction."
In fact, cell phones are small two-way microwave radios that rely on relatively low energy to send and receive signals. The nature of their pulsed digital signal may explain why their radiation induces DNA damage and also impairs sperm morphology, motility, and count. Twelve different European laboratories working as part of the European Union sponsored REFLEX project have found significant evidence of DNA damage from signals from modern 3G phones. Split samples of human sperm studied in six different national laboratories indicate poorer morphology, motility, and increased pathology for cell phone exposed samples.
Shermer claims that the latest World Health Organization epidemiological studies of this problem confirm that there is no overall increased risk in brain cancer tied with cell phone use. But, in fact, this project is continuing precisely because its leaders understand the need for continued surveillance. (A user in this study was defined as someone who made one cell phone call a week for six months. No Americans were included in this analysis.) Shermer may be unaware that those who had used a phone for ten years for half an hour a day—as most of us do nowadays—had a significantly increased risk of malignant brain tumors. In fact, most studies of cell phone users have not followed people who have used cell phones for more than a few years. Every study of heavy cell phone users that has lasted beyond a few years finds that they have a significantly increased risk of malignant brain tumors a decade later. Studies in Sweden have found that those who started using cell phones as teenagers have four to five times more brain cancer as adults. (The current WHO chief of this work, Joachim Schutz, and the distinguished American epidemiologist Jonathan Samet do not share in Shermer’s conviction, noting that more studies are needed over a longer time period before reaching any firm conclusion based solely on human evidence).
Have we really learned nothing from the history of tobacco and asbestos? Studies of these agents found no increased risk of cancer ten years after people began to use these known carcinogens. The cancers showed up twenty to thirty years later. In fact, the ways we use phones and the people who use them nowadays have changed radically since cell phones were first introduced.
No major research and training programs are underway in bioelectromagnetics in this nation and no major studies are planned on human impacts of these now-ubiquitous devices. The last national survey of exposure to microwave and other electromagnetic radiation took place in 1980. If cell phones are in fact safe, why have all the major manufacturers of smart phones issued fine print warnings saying that phones cannot be used directly next to the head or body without violating FCC standards? Why are secondary insurers no longer providing coverage for health-related damages from cell phones?
As a matter of public policy, we must ask--should we rely solely on the limited epidemiological studies of this now ubiquitous modern device and ignore the growing body of experimental findings? When should we have acted against tobacco and asbestos? The French, Finnish, and British governments have looked at all the information on cell phone impacts and have issued advisories to use headsets and speakerphones. In France it is now illegal to sell a cell phone without a headset or warnings about safe use, and cell phone advertising to children is banned.
Shermer has his physics right, but his biology all wrong. Taking precautions now in the ways we use two-way microwave radios makes a great deal of sense and may spare our grandchildren a tremendous health burden.