Over a year ago, I blogged about a product called a Wave Shield, sold to reduce the amount of RF (radio-frequency) radiation reaching one’s head while using a cell phone (“mobile phone” to non-U. S. readers). While I allowed that the existing body of research contained some slight indications that so-called “non-ionizing” radiation such as from a cell phone can have biological effects, the tone of my piece was pretty critical and came close to accusing the Wave Shield people of exploiting false fears. I now have cause to reconsider my words.
Back then, I wrote “The best I can tell from the decades of research is that, if there is any deleterious effect of cell-phone use in terms of causing brain cancer or other serious health problems, it is a very small effect and probably insignificant compared to most other elective hazards of daily life, such as using cell phones while driving.” I still stand by that statement, but I now have more information that makes me question my earlier critical tone.
Last week Mr. Howard Kalnitsky, who is evidently the CEO of Wave Shield, came across my year-old blog and wrote me to protest my treatment of his product. I asked him for solid evidence that cell phones can cause cancer, and he directed me to some websites and a book. The book is Disconnect: The Truth about Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family, by a biomedical researcher named Devra Davis, who has in recent years turned to writing and advocacy in the environmental health area.
Davis’s book is a history of the way scientific research into the question of whether cell-phone radiation can cause biological harm to people has been funded, manipulated, and often suppressed by the cell-phone industry and others whose interests align with that industry. I have to admit that Davis has done her homework. She has interviewed numerous prominent figures such as Om P. Gandhi, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Utah; Franz Adlkofer, a prominent German biomedical researcher; Louis Slesin, editor of the iconoclastic independent publication Microwave News; and Allen Frey, who (according to Davis) published important work about how microwaves can lower the vital blood-brain barrier as long ago as 1975.
The gist of the book is that there in fact are numerous repeatable, verifiable effects that cell-phone emissions have on living tissue. Besides the aforementioned fact that it allows substances to cross the blood-brain barrier that normally protects the brain from a variety of harmful toxins, different researchers in various labs have all demonstrated that RF radiation can break DNA strands. This is one of the hallmarks of X-rays, and is the one of the important causes of cancer in people who are overexposed to ionizing radiation (such as X-rays and radiation from radioactive materials). And though the accepted wisdom was that RF radiation, whose quanta have insufficient energy to directly cause ionization of an atom, therefore could not cause such damage, there is apparently abundant experimental evidence that it does.
Davis doesn’t stop there. She cites numerous epidemiological studies of populations that use cell phones as well, some of which reveal increased rates of brain cancer. Such studies are difficult for a number of reasons. In many advanced countries, it’s hard to find a representative group of people who do not use cell phones to be the control group. And because the technology is constantly changing as people upgrade their phones, you may start out comparing apples but end up comparing oranges, so to speak, especially if the study is a good longitudinal one covering several years. Longitudinal studies are almost necessary in this field, because one of the main illnesses of interest—brain cancer—has been shown to have a long latency period, ten to thirty years, from the initial onset of the disease microscopically until symptoms appear. So it is a nasty problem to tackle.
Nevertheless, researchers have enough evidence to say that heavy use of cell phones can lead to a doubling of your chances of getting brain cancer over the historical normal rate. If you are a young person (under 21, say) and use one heavily for ten years, the risk factor may increase to as much as four times. The Central Brain Tumor Registry of the U. S. says that the incidence of primary malignant tumors in the brain and central nervous system for the years 2003-2007 was 6.5 cases per 100,000 person-years, and about an equal number of non-malignant tumors occurred in that period. To put this in perspective, that is about one-tenth the diagnosis rate of lung cancer, for instance. So if you smoke, don’t worry about brain cancer from your cell phone. You’ve got much worse problems to think about.
On the other hand, doing something that is only 10% as hazardous as smoking, relatively speaking, is not good if you can avoid it without serious inconveniences. Davis has a two-page section at the end of her book describing practical steps you can take to minimize your risk of developing health problems from cell-phone use, short of throwing your phone away. She advises not to keep a turned-on phone next to your body all day. Use a headset so your phone isn’t next to your brain. She is ambivalent about products such as Wave Shield, because they can interfere with the phone’s transmissions and cause it to emit even more energy than otherwise. The amount of energy delivered to the brain falls off very fast with distance, so having the thing even a half-inch away from your ear is a big improvement over clamping it to your head. And Davis notes that in recent years, many cell-phone marketers have inserted fine print in the instruction books telling users not to hold the phone right next to your head. As if anybody reads such stuff except lawyers.
And lawyers are exactly why such language is included, I’m sure. The most telling fact for me in Davis’s book is the news that some insurance companies are no longer willing to insure cell-phone firms against losses due to suits involving cell-phone-related health issues. When that happens, you know things are serious. It is in fact a glimmer of hope, because while the lack of research money has stifled much good work in this area, lack of insurance money may force the phone manufacturers to both acknowledge that their products may be dangerous, and find ways to make them less so. Let’s hope so, anyway.
Sources: Thanks to Howard Kalnitsky for informing me of Davis’s book and other resources on this issue. Devra Davis’s book Disconnect was published in 2010 by the Penguin Group. Her foundation’s website can be found at http://www.environmentalhealthtrust.org/. I used statistics from the websites http://www.cbtrus.org/factsheet/factsheet.html and http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/statistics/. My original blog on Wave Shield was published on Oct. 25, 2010.