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Richard Branson, the chairman of the Virgin Group of companies, isn't taking any chances. There may have been no concrete evidence as yet that indicates cell phones are hazardous to a user's health, but Branson has requested that employees of Virgin Mobile, the mobile phone company he is launching in a joint venture, use headphones instead of slapping the handset flush against their heads.
Concerns over cell phone safety are not new, but they are certainly revving up again. In 1993, a Florida resident charged that cell phone usage was responsible for his wife's brain tumor. The issue has plagued the industry since. The cellular telephone trade organization, Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), responded to public outcry by funding a research program, which came to be known as Wireless Technology Research (WTR) a five-year, $27 million independent program designed to answer concerns about health effects and cell phone usage.
The program, extended by one year, was up in June. The $27 million was spent. WTR chairman Dr. George Carlo issued a press release on May 24, 1999, announcing the program's cumulative findings. The release claimed that of more than 40 studies, one finding on cell phone usage showed a link to health effects. It read: "While the epidemiology studies showed no link between cell phone use and greater-than- expected incidence of brain cancer, there was one positive finding in the case control studies indicating a statistically significant risk of a rare tumor called a neurocytoma." Carlo added that while no public health intervention was needed, more research was required. The Food and Drug Administration and the CTIA agreed with the assessment. "We believe a significant step forward was made. It signals the largest commitment of research in this area," says Jo-Anne Basile, vice president for external and industry relations at CTIA. Russell Owen, chief of the radiation biology branch of the FDA, says, "We have no evidence that mobile phones are unsafe."
But for many in the scientific community, the release was one more reason to throw up their hands. Critics call Carlo's actions into question and wonder how the money was spent. The Voice's request for audits showing how the $25 million allocated for health research was used (the other $2 million was allotted to study cell phone effects on pacemakers) was denied. Many scientists felt the funds were wasted on studies that were without merit.
For a research organization, WTR made few friends in the scientific community. "Twenty-five million dollars should buy a truckload of research," says Dr. Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News. "The industry did not honor its commitment to the American public when it committed the money." Carlo insists WTR succeeded in bringing the issue of cell phone safety to the forefront. "When WTR came into existence, there was no data on this topic," he says. "WTR has developed research tools that make safety a priority."
In 1994, Dr. Henry Lai, a research professor in the department of bioengineering at University of Washington in Seattle conducted a study on the effects of radio frequency (RF). Lai's research showed that RF at 2450 megahertz, higher levels than today's phones (800900 MHz and 1900 MHz), caused a breakdown in DNA. He has since conducted research that shows RF exposure has an effect on short-term memory. "Radiation can affect brain function," Lai says.
It's reasonable to be skeptical of any industry-funded research program which is no more likely to bite the hand that supports it than a lead-foot driver would be to write his own speeding ticket. And yet, WTR is considered the preeminent research effort in the United States by many, including the media. There is no planned research effort to take its place.
Meanwhile, research conducted outside the United States piles up. Australian telecommunications company Telstra Corp. Ltd. sponsored the 1997 Adelaide Study, which said that in mice there was a correlation between RF exposure and brain tumors. The findings received minor media coverage in the United States. The Hardell Study, conducted by Swedish scientist Lennart Hardell, while not signifying an increase in brain tumors, sees a correlation between the side of the head where a tumor appears and the hand used to hold a cell phone. Other studies have shown a correlation between short-term neurological effects and RF, according to scientists and consultants. Cindy Sage, an environmental consultant and public policy analyst for electromagnetic field (EMF) issues, says, "The evidence is more likely than not that cell phones are a hazard for brain tumors, for memory loss, and difficulty in learning."
Joshua Muscat's study funded by WTR focused on brain tumor patients and cell phone usage. The results, say Muscat, an American Health Foundation scientist, lean toward cell phones being harmless. However, he says, cancer can lie dormant for years and the majority of users have only picked up a phone within the past two or three years. Muscat does say there is significant evidence that shows a possible correlation between RF and neurological effects for short-term ailments, like dizziness and memory effects.
All interviewed for this article agree that more research needs to be done. However, who if anyone will open their pocketbooks remains to be seen. The answer to some is as clear as a cell phone's ring in a hushed movie theater. With the industry now grossing $33 billion a year in the U.S. alone, up from $7.8 billion in 1992, according to the CTIA, they can afford to conduct some real research in this area. While the CTIA says it has had talks with FDA about further research, no dollar amount or plan has been specified. The NIH has some research grants available, but a scientist must have proven evidence from prior research before money is awarded. Scientists say Motorola is supporting the only substantially funded research in this area in the United States today.