Book Review

Two books on the radiation dangers of cellphones

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 8:15 PM

Zapped: Why Your Cell Phone Shouldn't Be Your Alarm Clock and 1,268 Ways to Outsmart the Hazards of Electronic Pollution. By Ann Louise Gittleman. HarperOne. 262 pp. $25.99.

Disconnect: The Truth about Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family. By Devra Davis. Penguin Group. 271 pp. $26.95.

Like many Americans, I am never too far from my BlackBerry. Though I turn it off when I go to bed, I check it for messages as soon as I wake up, and for the rest of the day it serves as my connection to colleagues, loved ones and total strangers across the globe.

It is also an endless source of fascination for my 1 1/2-year-old son, and I devote a considerable amount of energy to keeping it out of his tiny hands. I've seen enough scientific reports about the potential hazards associated with cellphones to make me concerned about his exposure, but also enough contradictory studies to leave me confused. In October, for example, the European Journal of Oncology published a study that found a link between wireless radiation and heart irregularities.

Two new books - Ann Louise Gittleman's "Zapped" and Devra Davis's "Disconnect" - promise to settle the debate about whether mobile devices are bad for you.

They don't. But they raise significant questions about our constant exposure to the electronic radiation that flows from the devices into our homes, workplaces and public spaces - questions serious enough to make me change my behavior.

In "Zapped," Gittleman tries to make a blunt case for alarm. The book is littered with grim anecdotes about people who find themselves battling unexplained ailments, from brain tumors to intense headaches, circulatory problems and severe fatigue. In each case, including her own - five years ago, Gittleman developed a benign tumor in one of her salivary glands - the author connects these maladies to electronic radiation. She congratulates readers for picking up her book: In her eyes, "it means that you're already aware - and perhaps even a little bit concerned - that, despite all the reassurances you've heard, something is simply not right in our world today." Few things are more dangerous, she suggests, than the "electropollution" permeating our lives. She offers such methods as low-level laser therapy and the acai berry to ward off the effects.

Gittleman provides some basic science, describing how electromagnetic fields can disrupt basic human cell processes. But her account of the research into electronic radiation is one-sided. She takes pains to cite every study that chronicles the potential dangers of cellphones - altered genetic material, lowered sperm count, increased vulnerability among children - but skips over those that cast doubt on these findings.

Even more disturbing, she quotes some questionable experts without mentioning any of the facts that might undermine their credibility. For example, she cites George Carlo, an epidemiologist who was paid by the tobacco and chemical industries for research that supported their medical claims and who headed the $28 million Wireless Technology Research program funded by the cellphone companies, an effort that didn't yield a single peer-reviewed scientific article. While Carlo later became a harsh critic of the wireless industry, a shift Gittleman details, she doesn't write about his other activities.

Carlo also makes an appearance in Davis's book. Davis, a PhD scientist with a master's degree in public health, quotes Carlo's criticism of wireless firms but also details his questionable history.

Hers is a far more thoughtful and better-written account than Gittleman's. While Davis cannot resolve the fundamental questions about the potential dangers of extensive electronic radiation, she deftly navigates the history of the cellphone and the scientific studies surrounding its use.

She picks apart many of the assumptions that continue to guide cellphone regulations. Charting the advances of mobile technology from its earliest days, when Motorola was racing to beat AT&T to create a brick-like phone that the wealthy could show off, Davis describes how current safety standards for exposure have failed to take into account the significantly higher levels of radiation emanating from ever more complex devices.

The rules that were established in 1996 were based on a composite human known as the Standard Anthropomorphic Man, who bears little resemblance to the current cellphone user. As Davis describes it, "SAM is not an ordinary guy. He ranked in size and mass at the top 10 percent of all military recruits in 1989, weighing more than two hundred pounds, with an eleven-pound head, and standing about six feet two inches tall. SAM was not especially talkative, as he was assumed to use a cell phone for no more than six minutes a day."

Davis makes a compelling case for U.S. authorities to update their standards, especially in light of how much we now use our devices and the number of teenagers who now have them. Even the National Cancer Institute, which says there is no consistent link between cellphones and cancer, notes that children may be at a greater risk because their nervous systems are still developing at the time of exposure.

But scientists have had a hard time keeping up with the rapid changes in the devices. A large international analysis known as the Interphone study, which involved 13 countries and released its findings in May, did not take third-generation technology into account, even though that is what many customers across the globe now use. As Davis writes, "Because cell phone use has grown so fast and technologies change every year, it is as if we are trying to study the car in which we are driving."

Davis acknowledges that it will take years to know the health impact of repeated cellphone use. The most definitive federal study on the matter won't issue its findings until 2014; brain cancer can take as long as four decades to develop. In the meantime, both Gittleman and Davis offer many of the same tips to their readers: Use a headset, don't carry a cellphone on your body, limit phone use when the signal is weak because the radiation increases as the device searches for a signal, don't leave an active device next to your bed overnight, text rather than engage in long conversations, and keep the devices away from children. While I haven't kicked my BlackBerry addiction, I now take all of those precautions, doing everything possible to make sure the radiation emitting from that tiny device doesn't pose undue harm to me or my family.

With little fanfare, wireless companies have started giving their customers similar advice. As Davis notes, "As of spring 2010, the Motorola V195 includes a warning to keep the phone one inch from the user's body; the BlackBerry 8300, 0.98 of an inch; the Nokia 1100, one-fourth of an inch, and the iPhone, five-eighths of an inch."

Take it from them - they ought to know.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's national environmental reporter and the author of the forthcoming "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks."

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