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San Francisco: Mobile phones need warning attached

City approves first U.S. law requiring retailers to notify customers about cell phone radiation.

San Francisco is set to be the first in the nation to require that retailers tell consumers how much radiation their brain will absorb from new phones. The ordinance -- approved on Tuesday and now awaiting Mayor Gavin Newsom's signature -- is an attempt to err on the side of caution in the debate over whether or not cell phones can cause brain cancer.

Despite numerous studies, medical researchers haven't found conclusive evidence that cell phones increase the risk of brain cancer, and many physicists say that there's no need to investigate a possible link between mobile phones and cancer because the radiation emitted by the phones theoretically can't affect brain tissue. California politicians, however, have moved to act preemptively in response to public concerns over the often contradictory reports.

"The science is in, if there were no concern there would be no limit," said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, in a floor debate on similar statewide legislation." The federal government did determine it was an issue of concern because in 1996 it set a maximum limit on the amount of this radiation that can be emitted."

In early June, Sen. Leno introduced a nearly identical bill in Sacramento. The bill made it out of committee, but died on the senate floor and even a revised version that only required online retailers to list the numbers was voted down. While there were more ayes than nays, eight members refused to vote on the measure and it failed to meet the necessary 21 votes.

When the new legislation was introduced during last week's San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting, members voted to delay considering the ordinance until Tuesday amid accusations from other board members that they were caving to industry and retailer lobbying. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics -- a nonprofit that tracks the influence of money on public policy in all 50 states -- the wireless phone industry donates millions to California politicians, with much of the California state Senate receiving donations varying from $1,000 to as much as $27,000 from AT&T Inc. every election year.

Manufacturers are already required to report to the Federal Communications Commission the maximum amount of radiation -- called the specific absorption rate -- that each phone emits. According to Joel Moskowitz, director of the UC Berkeley Center for Family and Community Health, this current maximum allowable amount is based on the amount of radiation that the brain of a 200 pound man would receive if he talked on a cell phone for six minutes.

Leno's argument, as well the Board of Supervisors' and other politicians supporting the new laws, is that the information should be provided to consumers directly until a scientific consensus can be reached. They say that finding the absorption rate for a particular phone is currently too difficult. However, many scientists and industry officials believe the new requirement amounts to misleading the public into thinking there's a reason to be concerned.

"What this implies is that we should just ignore the fundamental laws, because there just isn't any mechanism," said Robert Park, a University of Maryland - College Park physicist. "This is an announcement that something is wrong and when you haven't found anything wrong this just erodes public confidence in warnings."

In an editorial featured in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Park explained that most physicists don't believe there could be such a link because there is no known mechanism for cell phone radiation to damage the body.

Molecules in the body absorb radiation as energy packets called photons, but in order to cause cancer the DNA has to be mutated by a breaking of chemical bonds. The amount of energy these photons pack is determined by the wavelength - the shorter the wavelength the more energy a photon will have. So, a photon has to have significant energy to be capable of breaking these bonds.

However, cell phones transmit information over a radio frequency that sits somewhere between AM radio and the average microwave. While this non-ionizing radiation can heat tissue, Park argues that it can't provide enough energy to break chemical bonds -- regardless of the radiation’s intensity. In fact, not until the ultraviolet part of the light spectrum do photons have enough energy to mutate DNA.

"Everyone knows that cancer agents act by creating mutant strands of DNA which then grow as a cancer," Park said. "Without creating a mutant strand of DNA there's no way this could cause cancer."

Some epidemiologists believe there is strong evidence for a link between certain types of brain tumors and cell phone use, but no one has established a mechanism to explain this connection.

Moskowitz examined a collection of studies that explored this link and was troubled by his findings. In the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Moskowitz reported significant discrepancies between studies his team identified as being higher-quality independent studies and studies that were either low-quality or done by the cell phone industry.

While the independent studies showed a significant risk of brain cancer in heavy, long-term cell phone users, Moskowitz said the industry-funded research tended to actually show a protective effect. Their studies indicated a reduced risk of brain cancer associated with heavy use.

"It's almost a 'darned if you do, darned if you don't' situation," said John Walls, vice president of public affairs for the cell phone industry group CTIA. "If you do the research, you're criticized for industry doing the research and if you don't you're criticized for not having studied it."

Walls says that while the industry has funded studies for years, many of the largest studies have been carried out by the government on the industry's dime with what he calls a "stringent firewall" between the research and the money. Walls also points out the most recently released study, the World Health Organization’s Interphone report, examined more than 10 years of data from 13 nations and showed nothing conclusive. However, several researchers, including Moskowitz, have pointed out several pieces of the report they claim the team misinterpreted to underestimate the risks. The Interphone report was funded in part by a European cell phone industry group.

"I don't see how SAR labels will mislead consumers as the cellular industry claims," Moskowitz said. "The industry is being disingenuous. They issue safety warnings in their instruction manuals, but often hide them or try to get consumers to ignore them."

While cell phone companies have never publicly agreed that there is a risk, cell phone user manuals can paint a contradictory image. The Blackberry Pearl manual recommends keeping the cell phone at least an inch away from the body, including the abdomen of pregnant women and also claims that using a non-certified belt-holster might present a risk of serious harm. The same manual also suggests turning the phone off when in a breast or pants pocket, using a hands-free device, text messaging whenever possible and "limiting the amount of time spent on the phone."

Walls says that the cell phone industry isn't aware of any health risks associated with using cell phones and these kinds of warnings in cell manuals are just a way of avoiding liability. "There's no difference in one device versus another as long as they both comply to the stringent standards of the FCC," Walls said.

Some companies have sought to capitalize on the public confusion by creating devices that supposedly limit radiation exposure. One such company, Pong Research, sells phone cases that are FCC certified to reduce the amount of radiation your brain will absorb while you're talking on it. "Cell phone radiation is a form of energy. Energy that you don't want anywhere near your head," the website claims.

Another company, Belly Armor, makes t-shirts and stomach bands designed to shield pregnant mothers like a Faraday cage from "everyday radiation." The company also makes blankets designed to be placed between a pregnant mother's stomach and a laptop, citing unsubstantiated health risk claims like autism, leukemia, cancer and even miscarriage.

"I've got constituents that are dealing with very serious health concerns and they are 100-percent convinced that it's because they had (a cell phone) to their brain for 20 years," Leno said in the same floor debate. "I'm not here to confirm that correlation, but with all the questions here why would we not want to require that … the SAR be shared?"

-Eric Betz
Inside Science News Service


  1. The recent Interphone study, that is so lovingly quoted by industry representatives, received over 5 million dollars in funding, from the very industry whose product it was supposed to evaluate. This sounds like the tobacco industry reassuring us about the safety of smoking, which we have already experienced in the past decades. Almost every statement from wireless industry representatives, with regard to the safety of the radiation, has downplayed the concerns that people raised, and has insulted their intelligence. From the original Interphone study, there is a very important conclusion that emerges, hidden in the Table from the Appendix, that was not distributed together with the article, and did not make the object of press releases, although it is part of the Interphone article itself. Extended use of cell phones is linked to a 2-fold increase in glioma, one of the deadliest forms of brain cancer. Interestingly, the study found this increased risk after approximately 10 years of using the cell phone for 30 minutes/day on average. But 30 minutes on average per day, which the study defines as "heavy use" (data were collected 5 years ago), cannot be considered heavy use any longer, in today's terms.
    As it was already shown that wireless radiation causes cancer, as well as other health conditions, now it is important to also understand who are the people that will predominantly be affected, because like with any other environmental exposure, people respond differently.

    While radiofrequency radiation does not *directly* break double strand DNA bonds, and this appears to be true, it is important to remember that 1). directly causing double strand DNA bonds are not the only way to generate cancer, and 2). radiofrequency radiation was clearly shown to have many effects on biological systems. Of course, the wireless industry values their revenues more than people's lives, and more than the scientific truth, and this at the same time represents a very inconvenient truth, but radiofrequency radiation causes serious and severe effects on biological systems. This includes heat shock protein changes, perturbations in the cell cycle progression, and changes in ion channel activities with intracellular calcium ion level fluctuations and perturbations in many signal transduction networks.

    If you read the medical and biomedical literature, you will also find studies which repeatedly conclude that children are at very high risk because 1) they have thinner bones; 2) they absorb more radiation and 3) many of their organs and tissues are still under development, and are more sensitive to damage caused by cell phone-emitted radiation.

    Many countries, from the European Union to India, are currently talking about bans on cell phone use in children under 16, or certain ages, and some have implemented these laws, based on known health hazards, because they want to protect their children. If you check the biomedical literature, you will even see the mechanistic explanation for how cell phone radiation causes health problems, which I briefly mentioned above, and among other things, these are 1). changes in a class of proteins known as heat shock proteins which affect the cell cycle progression, 2). changes in ion channels which exist in every organ in the body, and 3). changes in the blood-brain barrier which has serious and severe consequences.

  2. There is plenty of reason to be concerned. The trouble is using a slightly lower SAR is unlikely to help. The SAR only tells you what the phone puts out maximum when the tower is almost out of range. If you've got good signal then it matters much more how long you talk, how often, and whether the phone is digital (which is much worse for meningioma... it's buried in the Interphone paper).

  3. Hey Anonymous,
    Then what is the mechanism and please cite where you get this from "As it was already shown that wireless radiation causes cancer"

  4. Hi, Arron! Thanks for your question. Due to space limitations on this post, I cannot include specific references. Wireless radiation was shown to cause cancer, this is in the medical and scientific literature. There are two types of studies. Some look at cell phone towers, and show that children within a certain distance, are at a higher risk of certain cancers. These studies come form various groups, in Germany, Italy, Israel, Australia, etc.
    The second, and larger group of studies, concern the wireless devices themselves, that is, the cell phones. Several studies show that wireless radiation causes DNA damage. Men who have the cell phones in the back pocket in receiving mode, are shown to have higher risks of infertility, spermatozoid shape and number changes, and lower sperm counts. Wireless radiation was shown to cause protein leakage through the blood brain barrier, and in addition, to change cell cycle progression and affect proteins and signaling inside cells.

    And of course, the Interphone study. Wireless officials only report the segments of the study that was recently published, which are convenient for their financial profits. Nevertheless, you need to read the study, and the Appendix that is also part of the study, and the accompanying Editorial in the same Journal. The study found a higher cancer risk in long term users, who used the phone for at least 26 minutes a day, which they define as "heavy use". It was shown that average consumers use the phone 10 times more, than what the study defined as "heavy".

    Among mechanisms that you asked: 1). changes in cellular excitability and changes in ion channels, changes in calcium concentration and signaling in cells; 2). protein leakage in the tissues; 3). changes in the heat shock proteins, which are cellular proteins that ensure other proteins, including the ones that suppress cancer initiation and progression, to function properly; and 4). changes in cell division and proliferation, which is the first step in cancer formation.

    The authors of the study that examined fertility in men, also found another mechanism, which is generation of reactive oxygen species, in the mitochondria. In the same study, they advised about two things: a). than men of reproductive age do not place phones under their belt in the receiving mode, and b). that based on their findings, the same mechanism is important to be considered as operating in other organs and tissues as well. Of course, most newspapers don't report this inconvenient truth.

  5. Hey Arron,

    Some references are here. Not all are for cancer, but we need to remember that cancer is just the top of the iceberg; there are may other health conditions, until cancer develops. Cancer takes often years or decades to develop.

    Balode (Sci Total Environ 180(1):81-85, 1996) showed that blood cells from cows from a farm close and in front of a radar installation showed significantly higher level of severe genetic damage. Boscol et al. (Sci Total Environ 273(1-3):1-10, 2001) reported that radiofrequency radiation from radio transmission stations affects immune system in women. D'Inzeo et al. (Bioelectromagnetics 9(4):363-372, 1988) demonstrated that very low intensity radiofrequency radiation affects the operation of acetylcholine-related ion-channels in cells, channels that have crucial roles in physiological and behavioral functions in humans, in many organs. Dolk et al. (Am J Epidemiol 145(1):1-91997) found a significant increase in adult leukemias was found in residents who lived near the Sutton Coldfield television (TV) and frequency modulation (FM) radio transmitter in England. Hjollund et al. (Reprod Toxicol 11(6):897, 1997) showed that in Danish military personnel, who operated mobile ground-to-air missile units that use several radiofrequency emitting radar systems, sperm counts were significantly lower compared to controls. Hocking et al. (Med J Aust 165(11-12):601-605, 1996) found that increased childhood leukemia incidence and mortality are linked to the proximity to TV towers. Kolodynski and Kolodynska (Sci Total Environ 180(1):87-93, 1996) found that school children who lived in front of a radio station had less developed memory and attention, their reaction time was slower, and their neuromuscular apparatus endurance was decreased, Michelozzi et al. (Epidemiology 9 (Suppl) 354p, 1998) demonstrated that leukemia mortality within 3.5 km (5,863 inhabitants) near a high power radio-transmitter in a peripheral area of Rome was higher than expected and, in addition (Am J Epidemiol 155(12):1096-1103, 2002) that childhood leukemia incidence was higher at a distance up to 6 km from a radio station. Park et al. (International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health 77(6):387-394, 2004) reported higher mortality rates for all cancers and leukemia in some age groups in the area near the AM radio broadcasting towers. Santini et al. (Pathol Biol (Paris) 50(6):369-373, 2002) reported increased tiredness, headache, sleep disturbance, discomfort, irritability, depression, loss of memory, dizziness, and libido decrease in people who lived within 300 m of mobile phone base stations. Tattersall et al. (Brain Res 904(1):43-53, 2001) reported that low-intensity radiofrequency radiation can modulate the function of a part of the brain called the hippocampus, changes neuronal excitability, and affects learning and memory.


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