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Are Cell Phones Causing Cancer?
by Taraka Serrano
1993, a man filed a lawsuit against the cell phone industry, claiming
that his wife died from a brain tumor caused by her repeated use of the
cell phone. The tumor was located on the same side of the head where
she held her cell phone and was shaped like the cell phone antenna. The
case got widespread media attention and was featured in CNN's Larry
the claim was dismissed by the court due to lack of sufficient
evidence, it was a public relations nightmare for the wireless
industry. It also marked the beginning of the global search for a
definitive answer to the question: are cell phones safe or not? Does it
cause cancer and other degenerative diseases? Brain cancer is up
25% since cell phones became popular. Every year, there are 183,000
more cases in the US alone. Some health experts say there's a link
with cell phone use, but is there proof?
an effort to diffuse the negative publicity from the high-profile
lawsuit, the cell phone industry itself funded a $25 million dollar
research program to prove that cell phones are safe. After 6 years of
intensive research, however, the results were not what they were
looking for. Dr. George Carlo, the chief research scientist of the
program, found evidence that cell phones pose some health risks,
possibly even increasing the risk for cancer.
first evidence of cancer link that shook the cell phone industry came
in 1997. Dr. Michael Repacholi and his colleagues from the Royal
Adelaide Hospital in South Australia reported that long-term exposure
to the type of radiation that comes from digital cell phones caused an
increase in the occurrence of lymphoma in mice. The study received
widespread international media attention because it was the first time
that cancer has been linked to the cell phone in a well-conducted
RED FLAGS: SOLVING THE CANCER PUZZLE
In order to show a link between cell phone radiation and cancer, let's
look at several studies Dr. Carlo investigated that made him blow the
whistle, so to speak. These red-flag findings provide the pieces that
fit together to form the cancer picture:
- DNA Damage in Human Blood Studies
- Breakdown in the Blood-Brain Barrier
- Studies of Tumors in People Who Use Cell Phones
- Studies of Cell Phone Radiation Dosage and Response
DAMAGE IN HUMAN BLOOD
All tumors and all cancers are the result of genetic damage. Most often
that damage includes the formation of micronuclei--fragments of
chromosomes that form membranes around themselves and appear under a
microscope as additional nuclei in blood cells (which normally have
just a single nucleus). The relationship between micronuclei and cancer
is so strong that doctors around the world test for their presence to
identify patients likely to develop cancer. The presence of micronuclei
indicates that the cells can no longer properly repair broken DNA. This
deficiency is considered to be an indication of an increased risk of
In December 1998, Drs. Ray Tice and Graham Hook of Integrated
Laboratory Systems in North Carolina have shown that blood cells
exposed to cell phone radiation suffer genetic damage in the form of
micronuclei. In their studies, DNA and chromosome damage in human
white blood cells occurred when exposed to signals from all types of
phones--analog, digital, and PCS. Damage was shown even from signals
occurring at a SAR level below the government's "safety" guideline.
Using different methods, the above finding was confirmed by Dr. Joseph
Roti Roti of Washington University in St. Louis in 2000. His research
showed that human blood cells exposed to radiation at wireless phone
frequencies did indeed develop genetic damage, in the form of
micronuclei. This finding received a lot of notice because Dr. Roti
Roti is a prominent scientist who does his work under funding by
has a very serious implication. If cell phone radiation encourages the
formation of micronuclei in blood cells, and micronuclei are said
to be "biological markers" for cancer, then based on these studies
alone cell phone use could be said to increase the risk of cancer.
IN THE BLOOD BRAIN BARRIER
The blood brain barrier is a special filter in the blood vessels of the
brain that keeps dangerous chemicals from reaching sensitive brain
tissue and causing DNA breaks and other damage.
In 1994 and again, in 2002, Dr. Leif Salford from Lund University in
Stockholm, Sweden found in his studies that rats exposed to cell
phone radiation showed a breakdown in the blood brain barrier, as well
as areas of shrunken, damaged neurons.
micronuclei studies of Tice, Hook and Roti Roti and the blood-brain
findings of Salford provide a two-step explanation for how cancer could
be caused by cell phone radiation.
One: A leakage or breakdown in the blood brain barrier would
provide a pathway for cancer-causing chemicals in the bloodstream (from
tobacco, pesticides, air pollution, etc.) to leak into the brain and
damage sensitive brain tissue that would otherwise be protected. These
chemicals could break the DNA in the brain or cause other harm to reach
Two: While a number of studies showed that cell phone radiation by
itself does not appear to break DNA, the micronuclei findings suggest
that they do impair the DNA repair mechanisms in brain cells.
Micronuclei result from a breakdown of the cell's ability to repair
itself. If the brain cells become unable to repair themselves, then
carcinogenesis--the creation of tumors--induced by chemical toxins
carries the genetic material of an organism and its different cells.
Any damage that goes unrepaired affects the future generation of cells.
The change has procreated and this mutation is seen as a possible cause
IN PEOPLE WHO USE CELL PHONES
Epidemiological studies, performed by different investigators using
different methods, show some evidence of an increased risk of tumors
among people who use cellular phones.
In 1998, Dr. Ken Rothman of Eidemiology Resources, Inc. in Newton,
Mass., did a study showing that users of handheld cell phones have more
than twice the risk of dying from brain cancer than do car phone
users--whose antennas are mounted on the body of the car, far removed
from the users' heads.
- In 1998, Joshua Muscat, a research scientist from the American Health
Foundation, showed in his study a doubling of the risk of
developing neuro-epithelial tumors on the outside of the brain among
cell phone users, particularly on the side of the skull where cell
phone antennas are held during calls.
Muscat also showed in another study that people who have used cell
phones for six years or more have a 50-percent increase in risk of
developing acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor of the nerve that
controls hearing and extends from the ear to the brain. Acoustic
neuromas can cause hearing loss and can be life-threatening if
was confirmed in a separate study in Stockholm, Sweden by Anders Ahlbom
in 2004 and sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), which
finds that people who have used cell phones, this time for at least 10
years, may have an increased risk of developing acoustic neuroma.
In a study also requested by WHO, researchers headed by Dr. Lennart
Hardell of the Orebro Medical Center in Sweden examined 1,617 patients
aged between 20 and 80 who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour
between 1997 and 2000. They were then compared to healthy people. Those
who used cell phones for less than 10 years faced a 20% higher risk of
developing brain cancer. But for those who used them for more than a
decade the risk was 80% higher. The study also found that tumours
were 2.5 times more likely to be on the same side of the head as the
phone was held. The cancer of the auditory nerve, accoustic neuroma,
showed a larger increase--3.5 times greater risk.
PHONE RADIATION DOSAGE AND RESPONSE
All studies mentioned showed that an increase in cell phone radiation
exposure also increases the likelihood of the adverse effect occurring.
Repacholi's study of mice, the risk of lymphoma increased significantly
the longer the mice were exposed to the radio waves.
the research work done by Tice, Hook, and Roti Roti, the risks of
genetic damage as measured by micronuclei formation increased as the
amount of radiation increased.
the three epidemiological studies--two by Muscat and one by
Hardell--the risk of tumors was greater in the areas of the brain near
where the cell phone was held.
Salford's study, the higher the radiation exposure level the rats were
exposed to, the more damage was apparent in the blood vessels in the
brain and the neurons.
BIG CANCER PICTURE
The test tube studies by Tice and Hook; the mouse study by Repacholoi
and Selford; and the epidemiological studies by Rothman, Muscat, and
Hardell all agree in that they suggest an increased risk of cancer
among cell phone users. They fit together to form the beginnings of a
picture that everyone can see. They perhaps don't form the complete
picture yet, but there are enough already in place to warrant genuine
public health concern about cell phone safety.
to Dr. Carlo, "The big picture is disturbingly clear. There is a
definite risk that the radiation plume that emanates from a cell phone
antenna can cause cancer and other health problems. It is a risk that
affects hundreds of millions of people around the world. It is a risk
that must be seen and understood by all who use cell phones so they can
take all the appropriate and available steps to protect themselves--and
especially to protect young children whose skulls are still growing and
who are the most vulnerable to the risks of radiation." (Cell
Phones: Invisible Hazards of the Wireless Age)
- In 2000, a team of Sydney researchers published a scientific
hypothesis about how mobile phone radiation causes cancer. The report
claims that the radiation generated by cell phones causes ongoing
stress to the body cells, causing them to give off 'heat shock
proteins (HSP).' The human cells sometimes release these proteins
in response to injury or infection. Such a chronic activation of the
heat shock response affects the normal regulation of cells, which could
result in cancer.
In 2002, cell biologist Fiorenzo Marinelli and his team at the National
Research Council in Bologna, Italy, exposed leukemia cells to
continuous radio waves similar to that of cell phones. The exposed
cells had a higher rate of death than the controls initially, but after
further exposure, a curious thing happened: instead of more cells
dying, the exposed cells were replicating furiously compared to the
controls. Genes that trigger cells to multiply were turned on in a high
proportion of the cells. The cancer, although briefly beaten back, had
become more aggressive. Marinelli suspects that the radiation may
initially damage DNA, and that this interferes with the biochemical
signals in a way that ultimately triggers the cells to multiply more
Dariusz Leszczynski at the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in
Helsinki found that one-hour exposure to mobile phone radiation caused
cultured human cells to shrink. Leszczynski believes this happens when
a cell is damaged. In a human being, such changes could destroy the
blood-brain barrier. Radiation-induced changes in the cells could also
interfere with normal cell death when the cell is damaged. If cells
that are ‘marked’ to die do not, tumours can form.
WHY ARE CELL PHONES STILL AROUND?
Now with all the mounting evidence, the cell phone industry still
maintains the position that cell phnes are safe and have even begun
marketing towards children. Governments have been rather slow in
stepping in to warn people of any danger from using cell phones.
Fortunately, health officials and experts in a number of European
countries are taking the first steps and have issued public warnings to
parents urging caution about kids and cell phones,
the previous environmental issues involving tobacco, asbestos, and lead
are any indication, it takes years and even decades to accumulate the
amount of evidence that would yield a definite conclusion that would
satisfy everybody. In the case of cigarette smoking, it took two
decades of study and 100 years of consumer use to gather enough data to
meet research standards to demonstrate the need for the U.S.
Surgeon General's warning label on cigarette packs. Some experts say
that in the case of cell phones, it should not take that long as data
are coming in at a faster pace. But at the present the authorities can
only urge people to exercise caution.
of research is another issue. A study that comes out with a new finding
generally does not gain immediate acceptance in the scientific
community or the wireless industry unless another research lab is able
to replicate the work and the findings. The industry has cleverly
perpetuated an illusion of responsible follow up by always calling for
Dr. Salford published his study in 2003 showing that rat brain neurons
were dying from exposure to cellphone radiation, he warned there might
be similar effects in humans that over time could lead to degenerative
diseases of the brain. His study was written off by the industry as a
"novel" finding that needed to be replicated.
achieving the scientific standard of replication can be complicated.
Salford says if studies aren't absolutely replicated, providing an
apples-to-apples comparison, there's wiggle room to dispute follow-up
findings. Research studies also require funding, and the wireless
industry, after Dr. Carlo's revelations, has understandably been
reluctant to put money into more research, unless it is to support
their position. As for governments, again many European governments are
taking the responsible course by funding some studies, but the U.S. and
Canada are curiously lagging behind.
1999, CNN's Larry King once again interviewed a man who brought a
multimillion dollar lawsuit against cell phone manufacturers. This time
the man, a Maryland neurologist, was himself diagnosed with brain
cancer--again located on the side of the head where he held his cell
phone. The suit was yet again dismissed, and the man died not long
to WHO report, 0.1 billion people have died from tobacco use in the
20th century, and 10 times as many will die in the 21st century. No one
is suggesting that cell phones could cause as many casualties, but
do we really want to wait and find out?
FOR RESPONSIBLE TECHNOLOGY
Unlike tobacco, the cell phone has become an indispensable part of our
lives, just like the television and computer. It has enabled us to make
a gigantic leap in the way we communicate. It has even been credited
widely with saving people's lives in emergency situations. The cell
phone is a marvel of technology and is here to stay.
question is not how to stop people from using this ubiquitous device
but rather how to make it safer. The first step always is to admit
there is a problem, hence the industry and the government have to
acknowledge the health risks inherent with the present technology. This
way we can all find the proper solutions that we may more enjoy the
benefits of its use without sacrificing our health and wellbeing.
2005 Taraka Serrano
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