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Airwave anxiety

Alfred Wong in his lab at UCLA. Scientists’ attitudes vary; Wong thinks the brain needs protection from radio frequencies cellphones use.

Is cellphone safety on your radar?
The risk from EMF radiation isn’t proven

This is a story in progress — reality unfolding as we discover the long-term impact of a new technology.

The science is complex, the answers unclear, but if you or your children are frequent cellphone users, you should be aware that cellphones cause biological changes to the human brain — and that most authorities recommend limiting their use. A British panel, reviewing the scientific evidence, even suggested children should be discouraged from using them at all.

Consumer Reports, the U.S. consumer-watchdog magazine, posed the major unanswered question: “Can exposure to low levels of electromagnetic energy that the body absorbs from a cellphone be harmful?”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Federal Communications Commission issued an equivocal statement: “The available scientific evidence does not show any health problems . . . (but) there is no proof that wireless phones are absolutely safe.”

There has been an ebb and flow to “scare” stories about cellphones since they were introduced in 1973 — with the industry consistently supporting its product while conducting research.

Nokia, the world’s leading cellphone manufacturer, based in Finland, is working with the World Health Organization’s International EMF project, to study the impact of electromagnetic field radiation (EMF) from cellphones.

“And we’ve got an on-going commitment to further research,” says Bill Plummer, Nokia’s communications chief in the U.S. Cellphone safety has been studied “for 40 years and the findings reviewed by various government agencies. Radio signals operated at the recommended standards do not cause adverse effects.”

Yet worrisome data continues to surface.

In 1997, University of Washington scientist Dr. Henry Lai suggested that mobile phones could cause short-term memory loss — thus contributing to traffic accidents. (You can momentarily forget where you are, or confuse traffic signals, as a result of short term memory loss.) He was shot down by other researchers who said Lai had misinterpreted data.

Two years later, Dr. George Carlo, an epidemiologist and director of research at the Washington-based Wireless Technology Research LLC, an industry-funded agency, revealed his findings. He’d been hired in 1993 to refute claims that cellphones and wireless technology could cause harm, but his studies — which cost the industry $27 million — made him a persona non grata among powerful wireless executives.

Among his findings: a higher rate of brain cancer death among handheld cellphone users; 50 per cent higher risk of auditory nerve (benign) tumours among people who’d used cellphones for at least six years; some correlation between tumours on the right side of the head and phone use on the right side of the head; children more susceptible to harm than adults.

However, Carlo’s research methodology and results were excoriated by the industry. “It’s possible the results could be by chance,” said one expert. Nor did the FDA support Carlo. Having examined his results, the agency stated that “the available scientific evidence does not demonstrate any adverse health effects” caused by cellphones.

Carlo did not recommend getting rid of cellphones; rather, he said their use should be limited.

In a letter to the chief executive of AT&T;, Carlo expressed his frustration that “some segments of the (wireless) industry have ignored the scientific findings” and that “appropriate steps have not been taken…to protect consumers during this time of uncertainty about safety.” (He went on to co-author Cellphones: Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age.)

The World Health Organization (WHO) was already on the case, having launched the International EMF project in 1996. Data collection will be completed in early 2004 with results scheduled to be released in 2005.

Until then, WHO experts refuse to speculate — but they’re eager to present the results of the first global, large scale study of one of the most popular new technologies in the world.

Mobile phones are everywhere — a boon to countries that, unlike Canada and the U.S., did not have first class, ground-based telecommunications networks and low cost, flat rates for consumers.

Today, Japan has achieved over 100 per cent market penetration, meaning every Japanese adult has at least one mobile communications device. Many European and Scandinavian countries are close behind: in Italy and Norway, there are 83 mobile phones per 100 people, in Finland and Sweden 78 per 100 — with the U.S. at 54 per 100 and Canada at 43 per 100.

Cellphones have varied, wonderful uses. They give us a feeling of security as we drive or walk at night. They enable parents to keep track of elusive teenagers.

If you land in a ditch, a tow truck is a cellphone call away. Everywhere you look, people are moving around, cellphone pressed to an ear.

They’re oblivious to the electromagnetic radiation that’s being beamed into their brain.

If we could see electromagnetic field radiation — also known as EMFs or radio frequency fields — we would see waves of energy pulsing around us, from wireless laptops and mobile phones, immersing us, travelling from satellites to ground stations, along transmission lines, surging from radio and TV towers, crackling from base stations along the Gardiner Expressway to our ears.

In the electromagnetic spectrum, lower frequency radiation is thought to be harmless to humans and gave us our communication networks — radio, television, satellites, mobile and cordless phones — as well as microwave ovens and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines.

At the higher end of the spectrum we get ionizing radiation which can break down cell walls, damage DNA and induce cancer, as was massively demonstrated after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

“Twenty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the leukemia rates peaked,” says the University of Western Ontario’s Frank Prato, professor and director of Imaging Sciences and professor of medical biophysics.

“But we didn’t expect the other cancers that came later, the solid tumours that made us realize radiation had a bigger affect — the risk was larger than we thought.”

As a scientist who searches for biological effects, Prato says the WHO study on cellphones and (non-ionizing) EMFs is essential.


Apart from the WHO study, “we’re in a `watch and monitor’ mode,” says another researcher

He doesn’t want to scare anyone off cellphones — he stresses using them “properly,” for brief conversations — but says “it’s important to do the research now, to compare exposed groups to non-exposed groups.”

Too soon, he says, it will be impossible to find anyone not exposed to cellphones. “And there are issues here.”

As the WHO Web site puts it, the possible health effects of cellphones “have never been properly assessed.”

Canada was one of the first of 13 countries asked to participate in the WHO’s International EMF Project. “The motivation was to do an international study of cellular telephone use and brain cancer,” says University of Ottawa professor of epidemiology Dan Krewski, director of the McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment.

He is in charge of Canada’s participation, with three study centres in Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver. Globally, 5,000 subjects from 13 countries have been enrolled. “We identified new cases of brain cancer and administered a detailed questionnaire — age, gender, occupation, cellphone usage,” Krewski says. “We’ve also randomly selected people without brain cancer to compare their cellphone use.”

Krewski praises the WHO initiative for ensuring “that the study will be valid scientifically” and for securing international support. (Other participating countries are the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Norway and Sweden.)

“This is a perfect example of how the WHO can marshall the resources from many countries to address risk assessment internationally,” Krewski says.

“A cellphone is a radio,” says the University of Toronto’s Keigo Iizuka, professor of electrical and computer engineering. “It operates by radio waves. Health hazards? Nobody really knows.” He points to the difference in operating standards in various regions. “U.S. and Russia are 10 times different. America is more careful than Russia with 10 times lower levels.”

China recently created upheaval in the industry, contemplating the imposition of the world’s toughest mobile phone radiation standards, lowering the so-called SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) to half the levels allowed internationally. (SAR is a measure of the mobile phone’s capacity to cause cell damage and is a way of measuring the quantity of radio frequency energy absorbed by the body.)

Among scientists, too, there are varying attitudes. Iizuka cites his friend and colleague, professor Alfred Wong, director of UCLA’s Plasma Physics Lab, who has invented an antenna to redirect mobile or cordless phone radiation away from the brain.

Wong is in talks with manufacturers about embedding his patented antenna, called Safecell, in mobile phones. He has also developed a leather case that fits some existing mobiles phones; the case contains an antenna that can redirect radiation away from the brain.

He underlines the fact that he’s not talking about a shield or a patch. “They don’t work.” (The U.S. Federal Trade Commission charged makers of WaveScrambler and WaveGuard with making false claims; they are now prohibited from selling “any product that claims to protect consumers from harmful radiation and electromagnetic energy, unless the claims can be substantiated by scientific evidence,” says the FDA.)

A University of Toronto graduate whose father still lives in Toronto, Wong gave a lecture in China in 1998, warning about the possible dangers of EMFs, and demonstrated his antenna.

“The Chinese are very concerned about the brain,” Wong says. “It’s a cultural thing. They think in the West you’re concerned about your looks. Chinese people, we’re not football players, we study hard, we want to get ahead, the brain is the most important thing. And in China they remember the Opium Wars.”

In the 1800s, Britain turned its imperial might against China, which tried to shut down the opium trade that had ravaged Chinese society. After the first Opium War, in 1842, Britain seized Hong Kong and forced China to open five major ports to opium — using drug profits to fuel British imperialism.

The link, as Wong sees it, is that most precious of organs, the brain. Do we know, he asks, about the Swedish study? It compared about 1,400 patients with brains tumours to 1,400 tumour-free people. Users of analog cellphones were more likely to develop a benign brain tumour than nonusers.

Do we need to protect our brain from EMFs? Wong thinks so. One example: “Some cordless phones are marked `2.4 gigahertz’ which is the same frequency as microwave ovens,” he explains. “Giga means a billion, hertz means cycle, and 2.4 billion cycles is the frequency that resonates with water molecules. Food contains water. The human body is 70 per cent water.”

So your cordless phone could cook your brain?

Says Wong, “Some people say it doesn’t matter, there’s no proof. But there’s no proof it does not cause harm.”

If you’re willing to try a simple experiment, Wong suggests standing beside your microwave oven — turned on to boil water — while you talk on a cordless phone. “You’ll get interference,” Wong says.

Says UWO’s Prato: “You’re not going to cook your brain, but (Wong) is right in some senses. Microwave ovens use a frequency where water molecules vibrate strongly. It would be nice to have an antenna redirect energy away from the brain. If we can reduce the amount of radiation by half, we can cut the risk by half — if there is a risk.”

At the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Ohio (part of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention), biophysicist Greg Lotz concurs that “heating of the tissues” from overexposure to electromagnetic radiation “can cause biological changes.” In animal studies, he says, “there’s evidence of birth defects.”

But he hastens to add that, so far as we know, “cellphones emit a much lower level” of radiation. “The big debate is over long-term effects from low level exposure.”

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, he says, the focus of EMF research was electric power lines. “There is some evidence of a possible increase of childhood leukemia” in people living close to transmission lines.

As for cellphones, apart from the WHO study, “we’re in a `watch and monitor’ mode,” Lotz says. “We don’t have a lot of resources to do much research.”


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Additional articles by Judy Steed

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