By John Donnelly
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; HE01
Lisa Oakley knows that some studies on long-term use of cellphones suggest an increased correlation with cancerous tumors. And she knows of a couple of people who have had brain tumors, and wonders whether their cellphones had anything to do with it.
Still, the Chevy Chase, D.C., mother, didn't think long about health hazards when she bought a phone last year for her 12-year-old son, Will. For one thing, several other studies have shown no health risks at all. And for another, Will rarely holds the phone to his head. He holds it in his hands, sending text messages to friends.
"He never talks on it, and I think this is true with a lot of kids, they seem to just text," Oakley said. "It would be different if I did see my son talk on the phone all the time. But there are a lot of questions. Are some cellphones worse than others? . . . What about living near a cellphone tower? I would love it if there were definitive data out there."
A long-awaited study by the International Agency for Cancer Research -- an arm of the World Health Organization -- will attempt to give the world's billions of cellphone users a better informed perspective; the findings are now in the midst of peer review for publication. The so-called Interphone study looks at the results of published national studies in 13 countries (the list includes Canada, eight European nations, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Israel, but not the United States) to assess whether radio-frequency radiation exposure from cellphones is associated with cancer risk.
The international study, though, will hardly be the last word. Now in motion is a 10-year, $25 million research project by the U.S. government. It will soon beam 10 hours' worth of cellphone radio waves daily into specially designed stainless-steel containers housing rats and mice to test whether cellphones pose any health risk. Preliminary results are expected in two to three years.
The truth is that after nearly two decades of widespread cellphone use, "we don't know if cellphones pose a health risk," said Michael Wyde, a toxicologist at the National Toxicity Program in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and the project leader on the ongoing U.S. study. "Everyone has to make their own decision on whether to limit exposures or not."
But some things can be explained. One of them is how cellphones work.
When you turn on your phone, it searches for a signal from a base station. When you place a call, the phone converts voice into a digital signal -- an electronic code -- that is packaged and sent via base stations such as towers to another cellphone, where it is converted back to voice. This electronic transfer uses radio-frequency, which is a form of electromagnetic radiation.
It is a non-ionizing form of radiation -- or low-frequency radiation that is not known to be associated with cancer risk. (Ionizing radiation, on the other hand, can pose a cancer risk at high levels of exposure; one example is X-ray machines.) The low level of energy from cellphone radio waves is not believed to be able to alter molecules in the body.
The WHO, American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute and the Food and Drug Administration have not found from their review of studies that wireless devices are a public health risk -- but the organizations also welcome more comprehensive research. According to the NCI, studies suggest that the cellphone's radio waves are "too low to produce significant tissue heating or an increase in body temperature. However, more research is needed to determine what effects, if any, low-level non-ionizing (radio frequency) energy has on the body and whether it poses a health danger."
The cellphone industry, which has funded several of its own studies, believes there shouldn't be a concern. "The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk," said John Walls, vice president for public affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, in a statement to The Post. "In addition, there is no known mechanism for microwave energy within the limits established by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to cause any adverse health effects."
It cites multiple scientists vouching for cellphones' safety. But scientists are not in lock step. For instance, Ronald Herberman, former director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, testified before the House Subcommittee on Domestic Policy in September 2008 that there needed to be more research on the issue. Herberman, now chief medical officer at Intrexon Corp., a biotech company based in Germantown, said that electromagnetic fields from cellphones could penetrate more deeply into the brains of children, compared with adults', because of children's thinner skulls. "I cannot tell this committee that cellphones are definitely dangerous," Herberman said then. "But I certainly cannot tell you that they are safe."
That uncertainty has started to draw the attention of some policymakers. In San Francisco, for instance, Mayor Gavin Newsom is pushing for his city to be the first requiring warnings that cellphones may pose a health risk. In Maine, state legislator Andrea Boland recently introduced legislation that requires manufacturers to use a warning label that says: "This device emits electromagnetic radiation, exposure to which may cause brain cancer. Users, especially children and pregnant women, should keep this device away from the head and body."
Boland said in an interview that she grew concerned after reading the results from a Swedish study in 2004 of 752 people that suggested regular use of a mobile phone for more than a decade was associated with a slightly elevated risk of acoustic neuroma, a type of benign tumor behind the ear and under the brain. (A Danish study of 437 people, in contrast, showed no increased risk of acoustic neuroma in long-term use of cellphones. She also noted that several European countries have taken steps to discourage cellphone use by children because of health concerns.
"I absolutely believe there is a risk," Boland said. "In Maine, we have 15,000 live births a year, and to think these prospective new parents -- hoping for a healthy, happy baby and growing period -- don't know that their using the cellphone close to where that fetus is developing could result in possible cancers, birth defects, is a crime."
Where does this leave the user of cellphones?
From random, unscientific interviews in one Washington suburb -- outside an Apple store, where one of the draws was its highly touted iPhone -- the conclusion was decidedly mixed.
For some it was an active concern. "Every time I use my cell, I hold it out here," said Robin Jahncke, 26, of Bethesda, who demonstrated by holding her arm far from her head and body.
Jahncke was pregnant, due in two months. She said she has used a cellphone for 12 years, since age 14. But now, pregnant, it's different.
"It makes me nervous," she said. "I use the speakerphone as much as I can. I keep it away from my body. I try to use it very little. But there's no denying we're completely dependent on them."
Suzy Kelly, in her 50s and also of Bethesda, doesn't think of a possible health risk at all when using her BlackBerry. "I'm waiting until the studies come out," she said. She suggested that manufacturers sell a headset with each phone -- as a way of acknowledging the uncertainty around the issue and also to make it easier for consumers.
Maurice Whitehead, 46, meanwhile, wondered what the fuss was about. "Everything is a risk. I'm a bodyguard. That's risky. You got to have a life. Cellphones don't scare me."
Same story for banker Jason Borras -- sort of. "I never think about it, it's the least of my worries," said Borras, who is 28. "Except, well, except that some studies say there may be a risk of your sperm count going down if you put your phone in your pocket. Now that would worry me."
Wyde, the scientist overseeing the 10-year study, is confident that more definitive answers on health risks and cellphones will be forthcoming. He said teams of scientists rigorously designed its lab study to mimic human use.
The studies involving 3,000 rats and mice in a Chicago lab will have cellphone radio waves passing through the containers for 10 hours daily. They will track newborn to elderly rats and mice.
"Our exposure is getting to be cradle to grave," Wyde said. "Your mother is using the cellphone with the baby in her belly, and my grandmother is using her cellphone."
And Wyde? What about his cellphone? The scientist cannot give his up. "I have become more cognizant of my cellphone usage, but I have not changed . . . my habits."