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Neuroscience: A Swedish Study Links Mobile Phones to Brain Damage
Popular Science, February 2004
safety of cellphones has been called into question, again. This time
the scientific community is paying very close attention.
Last summer neurosurgeon Leif Salford and colleagues at Lund University
in Sweden published data showing for the first time an unambiguous link
between microwave radiation emitted by GSM mobile phones (the most
common type worldwide) and brain damage in rats. If Salford's results
are confirmed by follow-up studies in the works at research facilities
worldwide, including one run by the U.S. Air Force, the data could have
serious implications for the one billion?plus people glued to their
The findings have re-ignited a longstanding debate among scientists and
cellphone manufacturers over cellphone safety.
Many of the hundreds of studies performed during the past decade
suggest cellphone use may cause a host of adverse effects, including
headaches and memory loss. Other studies, however, have shown no such
effects, and no scientific consensus exists about the effect of
long-term, low-level radiation on the brain and other organs. A
comprehensive $12 million federal investigation of cellphone safety is
currently under way but will take at least five years to complete.
Meanwhile, the research world is scrambling to replicate Salford's
surprising results. His team exposed 32 rats to 2 hours of microwave
radiation from GSM cellphones.
Researchers attached the phones to the sides of the rats' small cages
using coaxial cables -- allowing for intermittent direct exposure --
and varied the intensity of radiation in each treatment group to
reflect the range of exposures a human cellphone user might experience
over the same time period. Fifty days after the 2-hour exposure, the
rat brains showed significant blood vessel leakage, as well as areas of
shrunken, damaged neurons. The higher the radiation exposure level, the
more damage was apparent. The controls, by contrast, showed little to
no damage. If human brains are similarly affected, Salford says, the
damage could produce measurable, long-term mental deficits.
The cellphone industry so far has been quick to dismiss the data,
saying emissions from current mobiles fall well within the range of
radiation levels the FCC deems safe (body-tissue absorption rates of
under 1.6 watts per kilogram). "Expert reviews of studies done over the
past 30 years have found no reason to believe that there are any health
hazards whatsoever," says Mays Swicord, scientific director of
Motorola's Electromagnetic Energy Programs. Dr. Marvin Ziskin, chair of
the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Committee on Man
and Radiation, is similarly skeptical. "The levels of radiation they
used seem way too low to be producing the kinds of effects they're
Salford is the first to admit that it's too early to draw any
conclusions, but contends the unusual results deserve a closer look.
"The cellphone is a marvelous invention; it has probably saved
thousands of lives," he says. "But governments and suppliers should be
supporting more autonomous research." Meanwhile, Salford advises users
to invest in hands-free headsets to reduce radiation exposure to the
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