Cell-phones’ link to health problems debated
Stephanie M. Lee
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Every weekday morning, Bret Bocook sits in a cozy Starbucks in downtown Los Altos. He sips coffee and reads the paper. But mostly, he watches people as they chat on their cell phones.
Then he walks over to deliver a message.
“I was observing you on your cell phone,” Bocook told a woman after she wrapped up a lengthy call on a recent morning. “I used a cell phone and I got a brain tumor.”
Startled, the woman politely listened. Bocook tends to command attention, and not just because he has the tall, broad build of a former competitive rower. The 49-year-old Los Altos man limps with a cane, the result of a surgery that removed a malignant brain tumor about four years ago but left him with shaky motor skills.
Bocook is now among a growing number of people who believe beyond doubt that cell phones are a life-threatening health hazard. Some medical experts have also begun to raise concerns about the devices.
Scientifically, there is no consensus on whether, or to what extent, cell-phone radiation causes harm to humans. Some recent studies have tied phone use to cancer, decreased sperm count, impaired brain development and other maladies, but other research has found no such evidence.
Bocook needs no further study to convince him of the dangers of cell-phone use. In 2009, he was diagnosed with a cancer known as anaplastic astrocytoma. “As soon as I found out I had a brain tumor in this location,” he said, “it was just obvious.”
This month, Bocook appeared with a panel of scientists and physicians at theCommonwealth Club in San Francisco, arguing that phone users should gab with caution. Their point seems to be gaining traction.
The Federal Communications Commission announced this year it would review its maximum Specific Absorption Rate for cell phones. SAR is a measure of the rate of radio waves absorbed into the body of someone using a cell phone. A phone certified by the agency and sold in the United States cannot exceed a rate of 1.6 watts per kilogram, which critics say is possibly too high and based on outdated information from 1996, when the standard was set.
But regardless of whether an SAR is low, an individual’s exposure can increase when a phone is held close to the body for long periods of time. Apple now warns customers in its iPhone manuals to keep the device at least five-eighths of an inch away from their bodies while using its phones to avoid risking exposure to radiation that exceeds FCC guidelines. And Green Swan, a Novato company, makes an app that yelps a warning when talkers hold the phone too close to their heads.
And two years ago, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic.” The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute say studies have been inconclusive.
The debate particularly resonates in San Francisco, where, three years ago, the Board of Supervisors passed a first-in-the-nation ordinance that would have required retailers to inform customers about cell-phone radiation. The legislation was blocked in court, however, in response to a lawsuit from the CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade association.
“The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has indicated that wireless devices, within the limits established by the FCC, do not pose a public health risk or cause any adverse health effects,” John Walls, the CTIA’s vice president of public affairs, said in a statement.
But Devra Davis, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley whose 2011 book “Disconnect” warns about the dangers of cell phones, doesn’t think “the absence of definitive human harm should be held up as proof of safety.”
“It really would be a grave disservice to future generations if we were to do that. That would be like arguing in the 1940s and ’50s, ‘We don’t have enough data yet on smoking, so let’s wait,’ and that’s what we did,” said Davis, who founded the Environmental Health Trust, an advocacy group primarily established to increase awareness of the dangers of cell-phone use.
Davis cites recent research, like a case-control study in Sweden, published in September in the International Journal of Oncology, which found a link between brain cancer and long-term cell-phone use. Nearly 600 adults, all diagnosed with malignant brain tumors between 2007 and 2009, were interviewed about their cell-phone use.
Researchers found that the odds that a cancer patient had used a mobile phone for more than 25 years was nearly three times greater than the odds that a person without cancer had used a phone for the same number of years. That said, the number of cancer patients who’d used a phone for more than 25 years was quite small – about 30 people.
Growing phone use
Davis said the pool of long-term users is all but certain to grow, however, as children start using cell phones at increasingly earlier ages. “Our concern is the spread of this radiation into children with no thought whatsoever about long-term health,” she said.
She added, “We’re not telling people to stop using cell phones, but they’ve got to start asking questions.”
Joseph Wiemels, an associate professor of cancer epidemiology at UCSF, said the Swedish study raises interesting questions. But one key problem, he said, is that it’s increasingly difficult to compare health effects in cell-phone users and a control group – that is, people who haven’t been exposed to cell phones at all.
Another problem with these kinds of studies, critics say, is that people tend to have shaky memories about how long or how often they’ve been using phones.
The best kind of study, Wiemels said, would involve looking at cell-phone records for relationships between how often users talked and whether they developed a disease.
“I think it’s still inconclusive,” Wiemels said.
The largest case-control study to date is the 2010 Interphone study, which examined cell-phone use among more than 5,000 people in 13 countries who developed brain tumors and a similar group of people without tumors. The study found no link between brain tumor risk and the frequency of calls, longer call time or phone use for more than a decade.
There were small potential increased risks of the brain cancers glioma and meningioma in people who used their phones the most, the researchers said. But this finding was far from conclusive, since the scientists noted that some people reported using their phones more frequently than was plausible.
Other research has explored whether cell phones can lead to health risks besides brain cancer.
One case report this year shared the story of four women who were under 40 and had no family history of breast cancer or other known breast cancer risks. All four had carried their smartphones in their bras for up to 10 hours a day for several years – and developed tumors in areas of their breasts where they had stored their phones.
“Although the numbers … here are too small to have a scientific conclusion, the findings are intriguing and support the notion that direct cellular phone contact may be associated with the development of breast carcinoma,” concluded the researchers, who included Dr. Lisa Bailey, a Bay Area breast surgeon and former president of the American Cancer Society’s California Division.
Then there are the non-cancer health risks. Studies have found a link between men who keep cell phones in their pants pockets and lower sperm count, for example.
In a controversial Yale University study in 2012, pregnant mice placed near an active cell phone gave birth to offspring who showed signs of hyperactivity, anxiety and poor memory, while infant mice whose mothers were not exposed to the radiation didn’t seem to be affected.
Again, these studies don’t definitively show harm to humans. But experts say it doesn’t hurt to reduce unnecessary phone use and keep the device away from your body by instead using a non-Bluetooth headset or the speakerphone function.
These days, Bocook is cancer-free and uses his iPhone to catch up with friends and run World’s Law, a company that allows people to create legal documents online. But he makes sure to use a headset – and to tell others to do so.
“My responsibility,” he said, “is to advise people on what I know.”