Cell phones cause brain tumors. At least, that’s what some people believe, what some studies have shown, and what one doctor is on a mission to prove. It’s also something the wireless industry is trying to keep quiet. In June, San Francisco passed a law that would require retailers to display notices informing consumers about how much cell phone radiation is emitted by the devices they sell. It seemed like a triumph for consumer advocacy, until the CTIA (The Wireless Association), generally considered to be the lobbying arm of the wireless industry, sued the city on the grounds that the law is unconstitutional. Isn’t it interesting that the wireless industry would try to strike down a law that can help consumers make informed choices not just about their cell phones, but about their health? Do you know what other industry tried to block warnings intended to inform consumers about potential health hazards? You got it—tobacco. I won’t go into all the tobacco history here. You can read all about it here, and learn how the tobacco industry wanted to change the wording of cigarette package warnings, and to block their even being printed on those packages. And I don’t have to rehash all the tobacco lawsuits of the 90s, do I? But keep all that in mind because we’re going to come back to it shortly. Cell phones have only really become popular over the last 15 years or so. Prior to that, they were large, bulky, and quite expensive, so it was mostly wealthy people who owned them. But as their size diminished, and prices went down, they quickly became the ubiquitous devices they are today. People—industry personnel and consumers alike—were so consumed by the new technology that few stopped to consider whether mobile phones presented any health threats. But some scientists did, and they published studies posing questions and concerns about the potential effects of radiation on the body. Like any electronic device, a mobile phone emits radiation in the form of an electromagnetic field. Yes, it’s a small field created by a small device, so it may not seem like much of a threat. But consider that the device, by its nature and purpose, is often held close to the head. Then consider how much time some people spend on their cell phones, all the while exposing their brains to that electromagnetic field by proximity. Dr. Devra Davis is an epidemiologist, toxicologist, and an expert in environmental health. She has been studying cancer, its causes and effects for many years. Some time ago, a colleague of hers mentioned the possible correlation between cell phone use and brain cancer. Although not convinced at first, she began studying it, and was shocked to find decades-old studies that showed evidence of the claim. She also learned that countries such as Israel and France were taking such studies seriously, and had already mandated warning labels on handsets. She began to wonder why nothing similar had been done in the United States. She soon found out why—the wireless industry has been manipulating the situation, discrediting scientists whose work pointed out any correlation between cell phones and cancer. Dr. Davis details the issue in two books, The Secret History of the War on Cancer, published in 2007, and her newest book, Disconnect. And now the wireless industry is using the legal system to suppress attempts to make consumers aware of potential dangers of cell phone radiation. After San Francisco passed its law requiring radiation emission levels be posted by cell phone retailers, the CTIA first punished the city by announcing it would no longer hold its autumn trade show there. Then they filed a lawsuit against the city, accusing San Francisco of interfering with the “FCC’s exclusive, congressionally derived authority” as it pertains to radio frequency emissions. Basically, the CTIA is saying it’s not up to San Francisco (and by precedent, any city) to levy any kind of requirement related to radio frequency emissions because that’s the Federal Communications Commission’s job. It’s not just about legalities, either. An Israeli company called Tawkon developed an app that measures the amount of radiation emitted by the device on which it’s installed. Back in March, Apple refused to allow the app to be sold in its App Store. Tawkon continued working, and the app is now available for some BlackBerry devices, and some Android devices. But nearly seven months later, it’s still not available for the iPhone. Because the app must be calibrated for each individual device, it’s not available across the board. Check BlackBerry App World and Android Market to see whether it will work on your device. You can also register on Tawkon’s website to be notified when it becomes available for other devices. But if cell phone radiation is nothing to worry about, what does it matter if retailers put up posters about it in their stores? What does it matter if a city requires it even if the FCC hasn’t? And why can’t an app that detects it be approved by certain handset makers or carriers? The mere attempt to suppress such information lends a certain amount of credence to it. Which brings us back to tobacco. Why try to block health warnings on cigarette packages if there was nothing to worry about? If you’ll recall, an important issue in all of those tobacco lawsuits was that the tobacco companies had already performed their own studies, and knew how harmful cigarettes were, yet they kept those studies to themselves, buried in filing cabinets, privy to only certain company employees, namely executives who were more concerned with turning a profit and keeping shareholders happy than with releasing information that could negatively affect sales. Let me interject here that regardless of a warning on a package, if you light up a stick of dried leaves and inhale the smoke, common sense should tell you it’s not the healthiest thing in the world you could do, and the tobacco companies saying it was so didn’t make it any more true that it already was. But when it comes to cell phones, I’m willing to bet that a lot of people don’t understand how electronics work, and therefore aren’t aware of any potential danger. They don’t realize there’s a little electromagnetic field surrounding their beloved mobile device that they carry with them at all times, and that holding it against their heads might be dangerous. If the majority of the public were aware of this, few parents would be buying their kids cell phones the way they buy them a pair of jeans. It’s also important to note that, as with any scientific study, results can be affected and influenced by a number of variables, to the point where two studies on the same topic can end up contradicting each other. Scientific fact should be scientific fact, and logically, all studies should have the same results, right? Only if the studies are conducted under similar circumstances, with similar, strict controls in place to avoid random variables from changing the outcome. Until the FCC decides to commission a study, accept its results, and levy requirements against the wireless industry based on those results, the discussions and arguments will continue, and people will continue to use their cell phones without really worrying about the possible consequences. It wouldn’t surprise me if a decade or two from now, we see a rash of lawsuits against the wireless industry caused by a surge in brain tumor cases, just like the surge in lung cancer cases precipitated the tobacco lawsuits. For now, you can educate yourself and take precautions if you feel they’re necessary. The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group keeps a list of all available cell phones and their specific absorption rates (SAR), which is a measure of how quickly radiation is absorbed by the body. Some cell phones have low SARs, some are very high. (Note that the list isn’t updated as quickly as mobile devices are released. For example, the most current list does not yet include the iPhone 4, or the Samsung Galaxy.) You can also check the FCC’s resource on health concerns related to wireless devices, and their page with information about SAR. As with any wireless issue, mobile customers must take an active role to protect themselves rather than waiting for the wireless industry to do something that’s going to end up costing them a lot of money.
Cell phone radiation becoming a hot issue
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