Research about the effects of cellphone radiation

Ronald B. Herberman, M.D.
Chief Medical Officer, Intrexon Corporation
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; 11:00 AM

"Lacking conclusive evidence one way or the other, studies relating to cellphone safety are being hurled about frenetically as cellphones grow ever more powerful and pervasive," writes Cecelia Kang in her story today about the possible effects of cellphone radiation.

Dr. Ron Herberman, former director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, was online Tuesday, June 29 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the research into the effects of cellphone radiation on adults and children.

A transcript follows.


Give it to me straight doc: Do we need to be worried about using our cellphones? What can we do to mitigate the risk of cancer?

Ron Herberman: The evidence is not definitive, but I believe there is sufficient basis for concern about possible risk for cancer, especially for children and for long term (more than 10 years), heavy users. It are quite straightforward ways to greatly reduce the possible risk for cancer: Avoid holding the phone directly against your ear, especially during a long conversation. Rather: use speaker mode or wear a wired earpiece; or text since that keeps the phone in your hand and away from your ear. Also, please note that it is not good to keep the cell phone, when turned on, in your pocket or anywhere else in direct contact with your body. Cell phones continuously receive and emit radiofrequency radiation, and long term exposure against your body can contribute to health risks.


Headsets: Are bluetooth headsets really any better than using a cellphone? Don't they use the same frequencies to transmit data?

Ron Herberman: It seems very likely that bluetooth headsets reduce exposure to radiofrequency radiation, since instead of the full strength of the radiation coming from the cell phone tower to the antenna on your phone, there is only much shorter distance radiation from the phone to the headset. However, bluetooth headsets can still carry health risks if one wears the headset, turned on, all day, since the lower level of such radiation is cumulative.


Anonymous: Does cellular phone technology rely on microwave frequencies in the same manner as telephone operations in the northern parts of the continent where no phone lines exist? If so, is it these low frequencies that are a danger? bwc

Ron Herberman: Yes, radiofrequency radiation is in the microwave range. Note that the amount of radiation coming into your phone is considerably greater in areas where there are fewer cell phone towers and the phone needs to constantly search to pick up the needed signal. Also, there is more radiation when using the phone in a moving vehicle, since the phone needs to search from one cell phone tower to the next.


Cell phone industry: Why do you think the cellphone industry is so opposed to releasing this data? Do they think it's fear mongering, or do they have something to hide?

Ron Herberman: I believe that the cell phone industry is concerned about bad publicity, which certainly could decrease its business. However, the responsible position should be to protect the public from potential risks by supporting the advice for taking simple precautions to keep the cell phones away from the body. It's of note that the main cell phone manufacturers themselves provide such warnings in small font notices in the brochures that come with the cell phones. They, however, don't want people to readily see such warnings.


Smartphones?: Are smartphones a bigger cancer risk since they transmit so much more data than regular cellphones?

Ron Herberman: One can't generalize completely, and that's why it is useful to look at what the SAR is, which is shown in small font in the brochures that come with each cell phone. The SF law simply makes that information more readily accessible to the public.


What if it's true?: If cell phones really do cause cancer, can we do anything about it? Or do we have to give up the technology altogether?

Ron Herberman: There is no need to avoid use of cell phones. One just needs to follow the simple precautions to keep the phone at least a few inches away from the ear or other parts of the body.


New York City: I live directly underneath a cellular base station. It was built on the roof of the circa 1897 tenement building I live in. There are at least 13 antennas on the roof, and 3 large battery cabinets. Please address the dangers of radiation from such constant and close range exposure. And also address the dangers of exposure to sulphuric acid and other chemicals if the battery cabinets catch on fire.

Ron Herberman: There is much less evidence for health risks from exposure to cell phone towers. The extent of radiation drops off quickly with increasing distance from the towers. Danger from sulfuric acid is a possibility, if it gets directly on the skin or into breathing passages.


No independent studies?: Why have there been so few independent studies of the dangers of cell phones? Is this a taboo topic for researchers, or can they just not get the funding from independent sources?

Ron Herberman: Other countries, particularly some of the European countries such as Sweden, support such independent research. However, to date, there has been very little US funding for the needed research. It's not taboo, but there is a need to press for more federal funding. A recent report from the President's Cancer Panel called upon the President and Congress to provide more funding for this and other potential risks from the environment, such as from chemicals.


Microwaves are microwaves: Don't we get hit with microwaves all the time from TV and radio? Why are the microwaves from cellphones any different/worse?

Ron Herberman: Microwaves actually span a wide range of frequency, and the waves from TV and radio are different from the bands used for cell phones. In addition, since the effects on the body drop off very quickly as the distance rom the body increases, any potential riask is usaully very low. The main concern about cell phones is the very close range effects when the cell phones are held directly against the ar or other parts of the body.


Arlington, VA: Where can I find resources for choosing low-radiation cellphones?

Ron Herberman: All of the cell phones publish this information with each phone, but the information is in very samll font and difficult to find. Several months ago, the Environmental Working Group published on the Internet a very helpful listing of the SAR ratings for most of the currently available cell phones.


Boston: The pushback from the cell phone industry reminds me of the pushback from the cigarette industry in the 70's. And we all know how that went!

Ron Herberman: This is a very good point. I believe strongly that we need to utilize the principle of simple precautions until evidence one way or the other becomes definitive.


Bethesda, Md.: Just wanted to let everyone know about EWG's cell phone radiation database.

Ron Herberman: I agree. This is a very helpful database.


Ron Herberman: It was a pleasure to have participated in this chat room. I will log out now.


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