Experts Raise Concerns about Cell Phone Safety to Congress

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

The first part of this article is dedicated to legislative awareness of the possible health risks associated with cell phones. In the second part, we’ll tell you about consumer-protective bills that concerned legislators have begun introducing, often against the threat of industry retaliation. In the third, we’ll get on the soapbox about social hindsight being 20/20, and indirectly suggest that you exercise your democratic rights by voicing your opinions about cell phones with your local Senators.

The number of people using cell phones use has exploded over the past decade: an estimated 91% percent of Americans and 4 billion people worldwide are reportedly using mobile phone technology. As cell phone usage patterns and technology have changed dramatically since 1996, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted the current mobile phone safety standards, people have raised concerns about the adequacy of these standards to protect the American public.

Existing studies do not conclusively prove either safety or risk of adverse health effects of cell phone use (under current safety standards). There is speculation as to whether source of study funding has influenced existing study results. In light of evidentiary uncertainties, and to help avoid a potential public health crisis, various individuals and organizations have been attempting to create change, both state- and nationwide, at the legislative level.

I. Legislative Awareness: Experts Raise Concerns about Cell Phone Safety to Congress through the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations Hearings on “The Health Effects of Cell Phone Use”

In September 2009, medical and environmental experts convened to generate awareness about possible health risks associated with cell phone use. Following a 3-day Expert Conference on Cell Phones and Health organized by Devra Lee Davis, PhD, MPH, various experts testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations about “The Health Effects of Cell Phone Use.”

Most of the experts agreed that existing evidence, including that of the Interphone Study, does not conclusively prove that cell phone use is either safe or hazardous to health, and that extensive additional research, is necessary for any definitive conclusions.

Major points made during the hearings:

•    Any statements which claim the safety of cell phone use are premature. Current safety standards for cell phones are outdated and need to be revised in order to be sufficiently protective. They were based on recommendations made 18 years ago, and do not reflect the latest scientific findings, especially with regard to children.

•    Children, generally, absorb more radiation through their heads than adults. Because their nervous tissues are still developing, they are more susceptible to the effects of cell phone radiation. There is existing research that demonstrates greater carcinogenic risk for children and teens who use cell phones. Current safety standards do not adequately protect children and adolescents. Authorities in Finland, Canada and the U.K. have already issued official warnings about limiting cell phone use by children.

•    The current FCC standards for the amount of frequency that cell phones can emit are based on information provided by outside experts, many in the cell phone industry. The FCC doesn’t employ a single health expert. The standards reflect 6 minutes of use by a large man.

•    Until science is settled and the government updates its standards to reflect actual health risk or safety of cell phone use, consumers should take precautionary measures when using cell phones, such as using a headset or the speakerphone function on a low-radiation phone, limiting children’s use to emergencies, and turning phone off when not in use.

•    Through Interphone and other studies, an association between heavy cell phone use and increased cancer risk has been found. The scientific community cannot agree on whether findings of such an association are valid, or the result of methodological problems within epidemiological cell phone studies.

•    Existing studies are limited because:

1. They have not been of sufficient duration to accurately assess cancer risk. Cancer studies need to be conducted for at least 10 years, and brain cancer studies up to 40 years. Since cell phone use became widespread in the mid 1990’s, the existing studies lack the necessary follow up period with which to sufficiently detect carcinogenic effects.

2. Cell phone usage patterns have changed dramatically over recent years, as have cell phone technologies and networks. Any health risk associated with current cell phone use cannot be accurately assessed from data that does not reflect these changes. Existing data has also been subject to errors and biases due to self reported use and lack of precision in exposure assessments.

3. Most studies, such as Interphone, have focused on carcinogenic effects, rather than all biological effects which may be caused by cell phone use. Non-carcinogenic biological effects, such as changes in DNA and brain toxicity caused by leakage of the blood-brain barrier, are also possible health risks associated with cell phone use.

•    Current and future research needs to be:

1. More experimental than epidemiological, i.e. laboratory vs. questionnaire-based;

2. Independently-funded vs. industry-funded;

3. Focused not just on the development of cancer, but also on subtle biological effects such as headaches, sleep disorders andother ailments that compromise quality of life.

•    The history of regulatory interests in the matters of lead in gasoline and tobacco control have shown us that there is a downside to doing nothing. “We do not have the luxury of decades of research…the existence of scientific uncertainty should not become an excuse for inaction.” (Dr. Devra Lee Davis)

•    In consideration of the prevalence of cell phone use, especially by children and teens, we need to take precautionary action at the federal level; if even a minor health risk associated with cell phone use is found, we may find ourselves in the midst of a public health problem.

Click here for a video of the Hearings in their entirety.

Click here to access links to full written testimony submitted to the Senate Committee on Appropriations by the experts who testified.

II. Legislative Action: Effectuating Change through Emerging Bills and Ordinances Designed to Protect Consumers Against Possible Health Risks of Cell Phone Use

In early 2010, California State Senator Mark Leno introduced Senate Bill 1212, “a consumer right to know measure, which requires cell phone companies in California to list cell phone radiation levels alongside the price at the point of purchase so consumers can make better and informed choices.”  The bill, sponsored by the Environmental Working Group, would also require an update of the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) standard (i.e. how much radiation a cell phone emits). In support of this bill, Leno cited recent independently-funded studies which have linked long-term, heavy cell phone use to increased risk of various cancers, and concern for children’s safety.

On June 30, 2010, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich announced his intent to soon introduce legislation that will create a new research program to study health effects of cell phone use, require an update of the outdated SAR standard, and mandate warning labels on cell phones so that consumers can make better purchasing decisions.

“Consumers have a right to know whether they are buying the phone with the lowest – or the highest – level of exposure to cell phone radiation. They also deserve to have up to date standards, which are now decades old,” said Kucinich. Indeterminate data from the recent Interphone study results also contributed to the introduction of this bill. Although, taken as a whole, the Interphone study results were “inconclusive” due to methodological biases and limitations, some of the data showed 40% increased glioma (a type of brain cancer) risk for those using their cell phones only 30 minutes per day or more, with greater risk if users mostly talked on one side of their head.

Citing the uncertainty surrounding possible health effects of cell phone use, Kucinich said, “Some studies find links. Some don’t. But studies funded by the telecommunications industry are significantly less likely to find a link between cell phones and health effects.” Kucinich explained that until we know more, through an independently funded research program, a labeling law “will ensure that cell phone users can decide for themselves the level of risk that they will accept. Obviously, cell phone companies should not be the ones making that decision for us.”

At the Local Level:

Some city and state leaders are following the precautionary principle, and passing or attempting to pass laws designed to protect consumers until the actual health risks or safety of cell phone use becomes well known. They have done so facing possible industry backlash.

In June 2010, a new ordinance which mirrored Mark Leno’s proposed Senate bill was passed in San Francisco. The “Cell Phone Right-To-Know” ordinance, proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, mandated that cell phone retailers post the SAR value of each phone (in at least 11 point font) next to phones for sale. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance, despite threats made from telecommunications lobbyists to withdraw industry business from the San Francisco area.

After the ordinance passed, John Walls of CTIA – The International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry – issued a retaliatory statement on June 22, 2010. Through the statement, CTIA expressed disappointment in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for approving such an ordinance and stated CTIA’s decision to relocate the CTIA Enterprise and Applications Show to a city less likely to stand up to the industry. Citing that prior shows hosted in San Francisco have brought more that 68,000 exhibitors and attendees to the area and “almost $80 million to the Bay Area economy,” Walls stated, “we have already been contacted by several other cities that are eager to work with us and understand the tremendous benefits that wireless technology and our show can provide their area.” CTIA cited lack of scientific evidence for a need for SAR point-of-sale requirements in light of existing FCC standards for cell phone emissions in support of its position.

San Francisco was warned of this retaliatory action by the industry prior to approving the ordinance, and passed it anyway, demonstrating that the city’s motive to increase consumer awareness could not be defeated by economic pressures. Hopefully other cities and states will not refrain from acting in the interest of consumer safety through precautionary legislative measures in fear of industry retaliation.

In March 2010, Maine Rep. Andrea Boland presented a bill to the Maine State Legislature’s Health and Human Service Committee which would have required cell phone manufacturers to post warning labels on cell phones. This bill, entitled, “An Act to Create the Children’s Wireless Protection Act,” did not make it past legislative scrutiny; the Maine House eventually rejected it 83-62.

When it left the hands of the committee, the bill had been amended so that there were two versions: one asking for the Maine Center for Disease Control to post warning information on its web site suggesting a link between cell phone use cancer, and the other asking the wireless communications industry to fund an informational campaign in Maine to make people aware of the potential linkage between cell phone use and brain cancer.

Although Boland had cited medical evidence which linked cell phone use to cancer and provided testimony from supporters in California, the Maine Legislature did not follow the precautionary principle and pass either version Boland’s bill. Legislators in opposition of the bill cited lack of both conclusive evidence to prove health risk and testimony from local experts as reasons against passage.

III. Hindsight Guides Precautionary Measures

It is now common knowledge that cigarette smoking significantly increases a person’s risk of heart disease and cancer. Unfortunately, there was a wide gap between the time smoking became widespread and the enactment of laws designed to protect consumers against associated health risks. Dr Devra Lee Davis made the analogy between cigarette and cell phone regulation trends, when advocating the need for action in light of potential risk through her written testimony to Senators.

Truthfully, we don’t know how accurate the comparison between cell phone use and cigarette smoking is with regard to health risks. Until we can conclusively determine the actual risks associated with cell phone emission exposure, it’s in our best interests to act preventatively.

State lawmakers seem to be focusing more on cell phone legislation that covers more immediate risk of harm: increased vehicle accident risk caused by texting and calling while driving. Many states have already passed, or are in the process of passing, laws prohibiting or limiting cell phone use while driving. As with automobiles, for which laws and regulations governing emissions, licensing, and safety features have evolved, legal measures to promote cell phone safety are slowly coming of age.

Concerned individuals (generally, who have examined the existing research) have started bringing the need for preventative measures to light with various legislators; lawmakers are starting to put the precautionary principle in action, even when faced with industry retaliation. Representation of public interest, though, is often only as good as the voices making such interest heard. You can voice your comments and concerns about cell phone safety, or any other important issue, by emailing your local Senators: find your state Senators and click on their Web Form link.

The abovementioned cell-phone laws that have been proposed are a step in a healthier direction. However, as far as prevention of possible adverse health effects associated with cell phone use goes, advocating safer consumer use of cell phones, in light of scientific uncertainty, tops the list of priorities. Spread the word, folks. Public awareness could also be increased through future legislation requiring cell phone manufacturers to fund informational campaigns or conspicuously post safer cell phone practices on products for sale or phone bills.

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