Are We Lab Rats For The Cell Phone Industry?

Are We Lab Rats For The Cell Phone Industry?
Journalist: Maria Seminerio
August 18, 2000

The next time you use your cell phone — and if you’re like most business people you see riding planes, trains and automobiles lately, you’ll probably start dialing any second now — think about this:

There have been some 200 studies conducted so far on the health-safety impact of cell phone use, but none that purports to examine the impact of long-term use of the devices. There simply can’t be, yet, after only a few short years of widespread cell phone adoption by consumers. What is clear, though, is that more and more people are getting cell phones: Some 100 million Americans use them now, and the wireless industry estimates there could be 1.6 billion users worldwide by 2005.

So does this mean that you and I are the lab rats in a gigantic cell phone industry experiment? It just might.

While none of the preliminary data proves there is a cancer risk from the radiation cell phone users are exposed to, this shouldn’t necessarily make people feel any better. The early findings also don’t prove that there isn’t a cancer risk.

It’s not that I’m proposing that people throw away their cell phones. But just as with many other consumer products, from cars to cigarettes, the historical trend has been for big corporations to cover up and categorically deny any health risks from their products — until people started getting hurt. For the first wireless generation to keep this historical trend in mind probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, at least until better scientific data comes in.

A look at the studies
Let’s look at the facts so far: The World Health Organization put out an advisory in June saying people should consider limiting the length of cell phone calls, and not allowing children to use the devices at all, to limit exposure to radiation that may or may not cause cancer. The advisory was based on the first data from an ongoing study of users in 10 countries seeking links between mobile phone radiation and head and neck cancers. The research won’t be finished, however, until 2003.

Meanwhile, a study by Swedish researchers earlier this year indicated a possible link between cell phone use and the formation of brain tumors in the areas near the ears. But this data, the Swedish researchers said, can’t be viewed as conclusive proof of a cancer link.

What’s the best way to protect yourself if you’re a heavy cell phone user now? The WHO advises taking a common sense approach. Pregnant women and young children face a higher cancer risk from radiation of all types (which is why a pregnant woman can’t have dental X-rays done). So avoiding the devices if you’re pregnant, and keeping your kids away from them, can’t hurt, the organization says.

As for other adults who use the devices frequently, the organization stops short of saying they should definitely cut down on their use, advising people do so only if they’re “concerned” about possible health risks.

Meanwhile, most of us in this hyper-connected generation, whether we want to or not, are taking part in the experiment that will determine once and for all whether cell phone dependency leads to cancer.