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NEWSLETTER: In God We Trust, All Others Must Provide Data: Cell Phones and the Brain

Mar 31, 2011

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It’s now official: the FCC was wrong to assume that cell phone radiation had no biological impact. When the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse recently reported that simply holding a turned-on cell phone next to the ear for 50 minutes caused significant changes to brain chemistry, many stalwarts in the scientific community were stunned.

After all, cell phones had never been tested for safety before being introduced, because it was thought that they had to be safe. Not anymore.

Faith fills church pews, but should not be the way that science policy is set. A better approach is, “In God we trust; all others must provide data.” The general surprise that greeted the recent finding was belated; in fact, there have been several previous studies indicating the potential dangers of cell phone radiation. This time, however, the mainstream media bit.
But it turns out that the same microwave radiation that powers cell phones weakens the brain’s natural protective barrier—in fact, some brain cancer specialists use this knowledge to enhance the effectiveness of chemotherapy on the basis that the weaker the protective barrier, the quicker and easier it is for the therapy to reach the cancerous brain cells.
The modern history of research on microwave radiation—much of which was carried out before cell phones even existed—is replete with studies showing that pulsed digital signals, like those from today’s cell phones, cause a host of biological impacts on brains, bodies and cells in experimental animals and in humans. Yet most of us believe that phones have to be safe. After all, if there were really a problem, we would know it…right?The fanboys—the moniker for those young men and women who thrive on the Internet 24/7—got what these data meant right away. As a group that lives by their wits, they are not taking any chances. In hip urban communities created by instant messaging, and even in the world of rappers and DJs from Lady Gaga to Steve Aoki, sales of headsets are soaring.

Additionally, studies by some of the world’s top experts in Australia, Turkey and the U.S. find that a few hours a day of cell phone radiation reduces sperm count and produces misshapen and more sickly sperm in both animals and humans.

But the most critical health concern that continues to be found by every well-designed study of heavy cell phone users (tracking them for 10+ years), is a doubled risk of brain cancer and those who begin using phones heavily as teenagers have an even greater risk of contracting brain cancer in a shorter period of time.

Concerned about the tripled rate of a very rare highly malignant tumor of the cheek in young persons, the Israeli government recently issued a warning that teenagers should not hold phones next to their brains and that everyone should use a headset.

Two things made this new study of brain changes from cell phones remarkable—its distinguished author and the fact that the report appeared in one of the world’s pre-eminent medical journals, The Journal of the American Medical Association. The results from the study provided a wake-up call to those government leaders and their policy-work advisors who have eagerly accepted assurances that microwave radiation simply had to be safe.

However, standards for cell phone radiation were set in 1989 based on the head size of a typical man who stood six feet two inches tall and weighed over 220 pounds. Methods for setting these standards were not routinized until just a decade ago. Obviously, most of the world’s cell phones, and most of their users, are smaller than those for which standards were originally set. If cell phones were a drug, they would be illegal today, because they never went through safety evaluation.

Last June, the City of San Francisco passed path-breaking legislation stipulating that consumers have a right to know that cell phones are two-way microwave radios and that using a headset, speakerphone or texting can substantially reduce radiation. In response, the cell phone industry filed suit.

What are we supposed to do now? After all, the new study is just one study, right? In fact, it is part of a little-known, four-decade long program conducted in the U.S. Navy and elsewhere that has found a variety of health consequences from low levels of microwave radiation, including DNA damage to brain cells and interference with drug metabolism.

The study reported in recent days strengthens the case for policies now in place in nations including Israel, France, Finland, India and Britain. When it comes to holding a microwave-radiating device next to your brain, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

So use a headset or speakerphone—along with myself, Dr. Nora Volkow, the head of the new study, and some of the world’s top neurosurgeons, including Keith Black of Los Angeles, Mitchell Berger of San Francisco, and Kevin O’Neill of Imperial College London.

In the meantime, we should create a major independent program of research in this field by placing a one-dollar fee on all cell phones for the next five years, and we should develop fundamentally new standards for cell phones that employ a concept from radiation physics: “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” (ALARA) radiation levels. Sound impossible?

Consider pollution controls for cars—which are now a global reality—they too were supposedly unattainable, that is until the government required them.

Devra Lee Davis, PhD, MPH
Founder and President of Environmental Health Trust

As seen in the March 31, 2011 issue of our Newsletter.

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