Cell to Cell: Is Cell Phone Technology Harming Us? | General Wellness | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Cell to Cell: Is Cell Phone Technology Harming Us? 

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An epidemic of personal communication devices is upon us, bringing very private conversations into very public places. Children are checking in with parents, teenagers are hanging out with invisible friends, couples are breaking up, and mega-multitasking is going on in the grocery store, theater lobby, during the commute, or anywhere it’s humanly possible to hold a phone or wear a headset.

The rapid spread of wireless (cellular) communication is understandable. A contraption that converts spoken word into invisible energy traveling the speed of light, which can have its own conversations with computers, has almost limitless potential, not only for average citizens but for emergency and rescue services, medical facilities, governing agencies, corporations, information-gathering institutions, “intelligence” agencies, and a host of other entities that now rely on wireless communication.

It all seems to work like magic. Cell phones and other personal communication devices do, in fact, rely on something rather like magic. The trick is radiofrequency (rf) radiation, which nowadays blankets every city and suburb with an invisible but increasingly dense haze. rf radiation is a type of electromagnetic radiation (emr), which belongs to a family of energy forms known collectively as the electromagnetic spectrum. emr is all around us: traveling in waves, or oscillations, of different frequencies. It has both electrical and magnetic properties that are interdependent. Naturally occurring forms of emr include visible light, ultraviolet light, infrared radiation (heat), and ionizing radiation from radon and plutonium. The earth itself, thanks to its magnetic core and electric field it generates, bathes us in very low frequency emr that guides migrating animals, and happens to match the frequency of the most peaceful of human brainwaves, at a frequency of about 10 Hertz.

Humankind has found a way to create artificial sources of emr as well, and put them to work in an amazing variety of inventions. Communications devices use a specific range of frequencies in the so-called radio and microwave regions of the emr spectrum. Analog cellular phones use frequencies of 800 to 900 mhz; digital and pcs (Personal Communications Services) phones use 1850 to 1990 mhz. Other emr-dependent devices include tvs, cd/dvd players, radios, computers, microwave ovens, video cameras, vcrs, automatic door openers, radar generation and detection devices, check-out scanners at stores, medical diagnostic and treatment equipment, and everyday household appliances—as well as the wires that carry electricity to them.

But as the benefits and convenience of our emr-laced world make life without these inventions seem impossible, it can be hard to silence a whispering voice that asks, Isn’t there something wrong with putting a field of electromagnetic radiation into every nook and cranny of the world, including my skull? Depending on who you ask, the answer will be yes, no, who knows, or who cares.

Safety Concerns on Hold
There are two different rf sources to consider with cell phone technology: cell towers (also called base stations), which pass calls (as rf radiation) between phone users, and the personal telephones themselves, which send out rf, typically through a built-in antenna, when someone is speaking. While there is no single governmental agency that regulates activities of the telecommunications industry, the Federal Communications Commission (fcc) has issued guidelines for allowable levels of rf emitted by towers and base stations (not for phones), and for the amount that a person may absorb (called specific absorption rate, or sar). These standards are among the least protective in the world and do not take duration of exposure into consideration, nor account for the fact that different tissues of the body absorb rf to differing degrees and likely have different tolerances to rf absorption. They also don’t consider the additive effects of the several signals a tower may be broadcasting at once.

The fact that we have exposure guidelines at all suggests that rf radiation is harmful, but the Food and Drug Administration (fda) won’t commit to that. The fda considers the energy emitted by cellular phone base stations too weak to pose a danger and says it “does not review the safety of radiation-emitting consumer products such as wireless phones before they can be sold” because “existing scientific data do not justify fda regulatory actions.”1
The fda points to recent epidemiology studies that have shown a lack of association between cell phone usage and brain cancer, leukemia, and other cancers—though it concedes that “none of the studies can answer questions about long-term exposures, since the average period of phone use in these studies was around three years.” Further, “research done thus far has produced conflicting results, and many studies have suffered from flaws in their research methods.”

The fda is interested in ongoing research, but its research program is a cooperative venture with the cellular industry. As stated on the fda’s Web site, “The fda and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (ctia) have a formal Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (crada) to do research on wireless phone safety. fda provides the scientific oversight, obtaining input from experts in government, industry, and academic organizations. ctia-funded research is conducted through contracts to independent investigators.” It should raise some eyebrows that the telecommunications industry is involved in the research, especially since it has a history of controlling what the public knows. Back in 1993 ctia began a six-year, $28 million research program after a lawsuit was thrown at them claiming a woman died of brain cancer caused by using her cell phone. ctia soon hired epidemiologist and pathologist Dr. George Carlo to be program director of the work at his “independent” (ctia-funded) Wireless Technology Research facility. The findings: nothing to worry about.

Or so it was thought until Carlo published his book, Cell Phones (Carroll & Graf, 2001, coauthored with George Schram). Carlo could no longer hide findings that stood the test of peer scientific review: higher rates of acoustic neuroma (a rare, benign tumor of the auditory nerve) among people who used cell phones for six years or more; double the risk of neuroepithelial tumors on the brain surface, more frequent occurrence of brain tumors on the side nearest the cell phone, and genetic damage to cells. He also discovered that digital cell phones interfere with implanted cardiac pacemakers. (Indeed, cell phones interfere with several pieces of medical equipment.)

Carlo says his results were buried by a misinformation campaign, that industry officials and the fda “teamed up . . . to foil the media’s effort to inform the public” of potential health dangers. He has since created the Mobile Telephone Health Concerns Registry, a nonprofit organization operating under the Science and Public Policy Institute and which gathers voluntary information from cellular telephone users about health issues.2

If you look for safety advice outside us agencies—say, the World Health Organization (who)—you’ll read that “current scientific evidence indicates that exposure to rf fields, such as those emitted by mobile phones and their base stations, is unlikely to induce or promote cancers” or “any adverse health consequence.” Yet, “scientists have reported other effects [than cancer] of using mobile phones including changes in brain activity, reaction times, and sleep patterns.” But, says the who fact sheet, “these effects are small and have no apparent health significance.” Nevertheless, there’s this warning: “Given the immense numbers of users of mobile phones, even small adverse effects on health could have major public health implications.”

This muddle of statements is from an organization providing recommendations to a global audience. But it’s important (and a little disconcerting) to know that the who fact sheet is not espousing an independent international statement on this issue. Rather, the fda itself says it “has been a leading participant in the World Health Organization International Electromagnetic Fields (emf) Project since its inception in 1996” and “has also helped [who] develop a series of public information documents on emf issues.”

Down and Dirty with the Data
“The topic of cell phone safety is subject to unspeakable politics in this country. They are as dirty as any I’ve ever seen in science journalism.” So says award-winning journalist and science writer B. Blake Levitt. A former writer for the New York Times and author of two books based on her two decades of research into the science, policy, and politics of emr, Levitt has learned that “those within the bioelectromagnetic society are in control of standards-setting process, and are very adept at manipulating the research process and skewing the database with negative studies.”

The fact is that a myriad of studies have found that emr, including the rf that both cell phones and older broadcast technologies (radio and television) use, are not benign at all. Levitt’s book Electromagnetic Fields, a Consumer’s Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves (Harcourt Brace, 1995) is a fat paperback stuffed with information you might (or might not) want to know about dangers of emr for us and other living things. The book has been likened in significance to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a groundbreaking revelation about something we just don’t get, yet.

Another book of Levitt’s, Cell Towers, Wireless Convenience or Environmental Hazard? (Safe Goods/New Century Publishing, 2001), is an eye-opening collection of talks given by scientists and legal experts at a forum in Litchfield, Connecticut. Dr. Henry Lai’s chapter discusses data from studies with cells, embryos, laboratory animals, and humans that shows that rf radiation levels like those emitted by our cellular technology induce changes in immune function, decrease reproductive function, increase permeability of the blood-brain barrier, do dna damage, increase cancer incidence, change calcium movement in cells, reduce cognition, disrupt behavior, and more. There is also evidence of a cumulative effect of exposure over time—something fcc guidelines don’t address.

The Missing Piece We All Have
“You can talk all you want about the data, but that’s not how people get the wake-up call.” This is what Levitt has learned from her extensive experience speaking about emr to the public. The science itself, and the many variables in the studies, are too complex for most people to wade through, including health professionals. “Electromagnetics has been the purview of physicists and engineers. Now it’s the bioelectromagnetics specialists. It’s certainly not a part of education in medicine. Medical experts know virtually nothing about it.”

Levitt braved the thick of bioelectromagnetics herself out of fascination. “It’s where the living and nonliving merge: cell division, genetics, immune systems, wellness paradigms—these all have electromagnetic components. In fact, we are electromagnetic organisms,” she explains, “and that’s the missing component. When people understand that, it wakes them up to the potential danger of the technology.”

Kids learn in biology that cells orchestrate their daily affairs by using electrically charged particles called ions. Calcium is an example: its tightly-controlled, lightening-quick movement in and out of cells, and to different regions within them, is absolutely essential to keep a heart beating, a nervous system signaling, and muscles moving—to name a few of calcium’s functions. Its movements, and those of other ions like sodium and potassium, create electrical fields and currents in our tissues and along the spinal cord. And magnetic fields are generated by electric currents. We are electromagnetic beings.

We also interact every day with emr in the world around us. Visible light is an example: it moves through the tissues of the eyes and illuminates the retina, where its energy changes the structure of light-absorbing molecules. Through several additional steps involving ions and electrical gradients, the brain receives a message about what’s going on. This process also stimulates the brain’s production of serotonin—the chemical that the most popular antidepressants, and “light therapy” for seasonal affective disorder, act to elevate.

The ability of some types of emr to penetrate tissues has made them useful in medical imaging: x-rays (radiograms), mris, and ultrasound are examples. emr is also used in the medical arena to intentionally destroy tissue, as in radiation treatment for cancer or laser surgery. In the kitchen (as well as in surgery), microwaves penetrate plant and animal tissue we call food and transfer their energy to water molecules; in this way, microwave ovens essentially heat food to boiling from the inside out.

So it seems quite reasonable and rather unfortunate that the energy released by cell phones should interact with us. It penetrates the skull and other tissues, and does, in fact, heat the head a fraction of a degree. This “thermal reaction” has gotten special billing because it’s a measurable and predicted response to microwave exposure. Some people claim that all rf effects are thermal, and rf can therefore be dismissed as harmless.
But it’s the non-thermal effects, like those described earlier, that have people either worried or in denial. Cancer clusters have occurred near emr sources, says Levitt and others. “Five neighbors adjacent to a cable tv tower that used to be in California quarry have cancer,” says Dan Schneider of Woodstock. Maybe coincidence, but a haunting reality about cancer is that the majority of people who are diagnosed with it lack any of the currently recognized risk factors. So what’s causing it? Something we’re not yet keeping tabs on.

Towering Over People
At the end of January, Woodstock residents gathered to continue educating themselves about something that every community is going to deal with, if it hasn’t already: where to put the next cellular tower. Hosted by Hudson Valley Technology and Commerce (hvtc), the forum included talks by Levitt, and by environmental engineer and radio frequency specialist, Raymond Kazevich, and Scenic Hudson’s senior regional planner Jeffrey Anzevino, both of whom contributed chapters to Cell Towers.

Dan Schneider, chairman of hvtc, says, “We don’t take an official pro or con stance about cell phones,” he says. “But there are many issues to consider in deciding where to put a tower. It’s the one thing we can have a say about. We’ve formed a committee to come up with criteria that we can use, and put into a best-practices checklist that other local governments could use.”

Woodstock residents are dealing with the reality that many communities are facing: it’s no longer an issue of whether to place a tower, but where. That’s because of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, passed by Congress to “promote competition and reduce regulation in order to secure lower prices and higher quality services for American telecommunications consumers.”3 Local municipalities “shall act on any request” to place a tower in the community and “no state or local government or instrumentality thereof may regulate the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the Commission’s regulations concerning such emissions.”4 A new bill under consideration by the New York legislature even threatens to strip local municipalities of any say whatever about tower siting.

And here’s a hand-slapping recommendation by the who (probably fda -advised) about voicing health concerns and governmental regulation: “If regulatory authorities have adopted health-based guidelines but, because of public concerns, would like to introduce additional precautionary measures to reduce exposure to rf fields, they should not undermine the science base of the guidelines by incorporating arbitrary additional safety factors into the exposure limits.” Isn’t this saying: If the citizenry is worried about health issues and wants to take some protective measures, tell them they are wrong and by all means don’t let them muck with the regulations?

Safe or not, cellular technology and its antennae will be arriving at a neighborhood near you—if it hasn’t already—in the form of a tower or an antenna carefully hidden in a church steeple, on a water tower, on billboards, or even disguised as an odd-looking metal pine tree (see Joel Rinebold’s discussion of “stealth siting” in his chapter in Levitt’s Cell Towers). Quite probably you’re carrying a phone on your belt or by your head that surrounds you with rf radiation whenever you’re talking. But the Internet is a-buzz with people trying to get straight answers about safety and preserve—or reclaim—some of their rights. Do some research on your own and decide what you think makes sense. In the meantime, use a headset to put some distance between your head and your phone’s antenna, since it’s your greatest rf exposure source, but get one that prevents the earphone wire from carrying rf up the wire. Then keep the phone away from your abdomen if you are pregnant: birth defects with rf exposure are being reported.5 And men, you may not want to keep your phone in your lap.

Lorrie Klosterman, PhD, is a biologist and freelance medical science writer and editor who lives in Red Hook.


End Notes

1. An explanation of the fda’s role concerning the safety of wireless phones: www.fda.gov/cellphones/qa.html#22.

2. The Mobile Telephone Health Concerns Registry; an organization created to gather voluntary information directly from cellular telephone users: www.health-concerns.org/health_concerns/registry.asp.

3. The Federal Communications Commission Web site, with an explanation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996: www.fcc.gov/telecom.html.

4. Section 704(b), limitations, ii, iv of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

5. Information regarding the effects of emf exposure on fetal development: www.rfsafe.com/ntd_emf.htm.

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