Could your phone cause cancer? Don't get hung up on it


Most of the patients who come to see Arthur Forman at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston are destined to get bad news. The 50-year-old neuro-oncologist's specialty is brain tumors. Besides diagnosing and treating the cancers, he also tries to explain what might cause them. "Patients have a lot of wonder and regret about these things," he says. "There is always a mea culpa." Lately, patients want to know if their cellphones might be at fault. "People ask because they hear about it in the news," he says.

News reports have certainly given America's 100 million-plus cellphone users plenty to worry about. Last month a Maryland man with brain cancer filed an $800 million lawsuit against cellphone makers, and preliminary findings recently led one researcher to sound the alarm. "There are serious questions that have been raised about the safety of cellphones," says the researcher, George Carlo, an adjunct professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Forman, too, thinks there might be something to the notion that the friendly little devices could cause cancer.

Quit worrying. Scientists familiar with the research--even some of those responsible for the disturbing findings--generally say users can rest easy. Dozens of studies have shown few signs of a risk. Of the two or three studies at the root of the alarm, scientists either have not been able to duplicate them--suggesting they could be statistical flukes--or don't know how the findings apply to actual cellphone users. "We have looked at the research, and we do not find anything that demonstrates any health hazards," says Russell Owen, head of radiation biology in the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at the Food and Drug Administration. While research continues, worried users can take simple steps to cut their exposure to their phone's emissions.

Heads up. A cellphone is a miniaturized radio receiver and transmitter, and the health concerns focus on the radio waves it gives off. The waves fall in the same part of the electromagnetic spectrum occupied by powerful sources such as microwave ovens and airport radars. But no one sticks his head into a microwave oven, and by the time a radar signal reaches a person its strength is minuscule. A cellphone transmits no more than 6/10th of a watt--but does so right next to the user's head.

Microwaves can heat tissue--that's how microwave ovens cook food--but the heat generated by cellphones is negligible, says John Moulder, a professor of radiation oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. "If cellphones have any biological effect, it isn't thermal," he says. It's the possibility of nonthermal effects that is attracting attention. Radiation produced much higher in the electromagnetic spectrum, such as X-rays and the sun's ultraviolet light, poses a cancer risk because it can damage DNA in living tissue.

If cellphones have this kind of effect, it has yet to be found. Researchers have not been able to rule out the possibility, however--science is notoriously bad at proving a negative. And lawsuits filed against cellphone makers have fueled public concern, although all but the latest have been dismissed. "Many of the studies that have gotten a lot of publicity have only limited relevance to cellphone use," says Moulder. What is more, he says, "often what is quoted is not the main finding of the research."

In fact, most surveys show no link between cellphones and brain cancer. Researchers at the Epidemiology Research Institute in Newton Lower Falls, Mass., for example, compared causes of death in two groups, each including more than 100,000 drivers. One group used hand-held cellphones; the other used car phones with the antenna on the roof, which meant the drivers weren't exposed to microwaves. The research, funded in part by cellphone companies, found no differences in cancer deaths, says Kenneth Rothman, one of the investigators. In a 1999 letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the authors wrote: "The only category of cause of death for which there was an indication of increasing risk with increasing minutes of use was motor vehicle collisions."

In another study, researchers from the American Health Foundation compared the cellphone use of more than 450 patients hospitalized for brain cancer with the phone habits of the same number of patients hospitalized for other reasons. The study found no correlation between the use of cellphones and brain cancer, although a small subgroup of the brain cancer patients who were cellphone users had a higher-than-expected incidence of a rare form of tumor--a finding that Joshua Muscat, the study's principal investigator, says could simply be chance.

Scant evidence. Scientists in Sweden are also studying brain cancer patients, comparing their use of cellphones with that of people who do not have the disease. So far they have reported no increased risk associated with cellphones. The investigators did note a correlation between the location of tumors and the side of the head on which the phone is most often used. The association is based on just a handful of brain cancer cases, however--too few to be statistically significant, says Muscat, who has looked at the data.

In a different tack, researchers have beamed microwaves at lab animals or cultured cells and looked for signs of DNA damage. So far, most studies have come up negative. A study published in 1994 by researchers at the University of Washington did find DNA breaks in brain cells of exposed rats. But others have been unable to replicate the findings.

Other scientists found an increased number of micronuclei--small abnormalities that indicate damage to the chromosomes--in human blood cells exposed to high levels of cellphone radiation. But "we cannot draw any direct correlation [to] what would happen in a human exposure scenario," says the lead researcher, Graham Hook of ILS, a toxicology laboratory in Research Triangle Park, N.C. "We need more studies."

The government agrees. The National Cancer Institute is doing another survey of brain cancer and cellphone use. And the FDA, which met with researchers in the field earlier this month, is urging manufacturers to fund projects to follow up on the lab results. Cellphone makers, meanwhile, are trying to allay customer concerns. This fall, cellphone packaging will begin displaying a number called the specific absorption rate (SAR), which indicates how much energy the body absorbs from the device; the number varies depending on antenna placement and design.

Moulder says concerned users can take precautions such as using a headset, with the phone and its antenna carried at the hip. The FDA also recommends shortening calls. Callers with older-model analog cellular phones may want to upgrade to digital PCS phones, which use a fraction of the energy to transmit calls.

And keep the cancer worries in perspective. "If we can't prove that [something] does cause cancer, then we gain assurance that it probably doesn't," says Moulder. Weigh any concerns against the benefits, such as keeping tabs on kids or calling for help if you're stranded. Even Forman, who tells patients their cellphones may be risky, owns one. "I don't use it much," he says. "And when I do, I hold it 3 inches away from my head."

DIAGRAM: Cellphone on my mind

PHOTO (COLOR): EVERYBODY'S TALKING With more than 100 million people--over a third of the U.S. population--using cellphones, wireless chatter is woven into everyday life. That's one reason fears that the phones might cause cancer strike close to home.






By Stacey Schultz and Kenneth Terrell

Mobile Manners
Brain cancer isn't the only scourge to be blamed on cellphones. The little gadgets have been accused of threatening aircraft safety, causing car wrecks, and contributing to the collapse of a civil society. Even sober citizens are beginning to think that a little cell-ibacy might improve everyone's safety and sanity, and some local governments and agencies are beginning to step in.

Over the past year or so, at least five communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey have banned driving while talking on the phone--although one Pennsylvania county law has been overturned on the grounds that it pre-empted state driving laws. In July the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began warning drivers that it's risky to use wireless phones and other electronic devices while driving.

Buckle up? Just how risky isn't clear. A 1997 report in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that talking on a cellphone could quadruple a driver's risk of a collision. Some researchers think even hands-free phones are hazardous distractions. But this summer, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis released a study, funded by AT&T Wireless, indicating that the increased risk is small: about 6 deaths per million drivers annually compared with about 49 deaths per million for driving without a seat belt. And the wireless industry argues that phones have a safety benefit, allowing drivers to report emergencies.

There are clearer data supporting the Federal Aviation Administration's ban of phones and other electronic devices on planes. At a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing last July, the agency presented a safety database showing that wireless phones and other gadgets were to blame for 52 of the 69,000 events recorded. The number is small, but it includes serious incidents such as headphones disrupting the autopilot on a Boeing 757 in 1998 and a cellphone upsetting the navigation equipment of a Cessna 340/A in 1997. "We haven't seen a big incident where we can say a cellphone caused that crash," said FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette. "But we know that possibility exists so we're not going to take any risks."

As a result, other people's cellphones are one annoyance air travelers are spared these days. That's not the case in theaters, restaurants, churches, and other supposed sanctuaries. Communities may not be able to make mobile-phone manners mandatory, but some, such as San Diego, are trying to raise awareness.

The tech-savvy city launched its first Cell Phone Courtesy Week last July. Cosponsored with wireless manufacturer Nokia, the effort centers on "Quiet Zone" stickers that business owners hang in their shops.

Cellphone users would be wise to mind their manners. While most people disturbed by phone calls can only ask you to turn off the phone or talk elsewhere, jamming devices available in Japan and Israel can cut off wireless service in the surrounding area. The technology is illegal in America, but then, so is computer hacking . . . .

PHOTO (COLOR): Motormouths, beware. Brooklyn, Ohio's Officer Richard Hovan

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