Cell phone radiation: why more research is needed

As cell towers sprout seemingly everywhere and people are tied to their cell phones, it becomes more important than ever to look at the health safety issue.
Photo: Cell phone tower disguised as a tree Image: Say Cheeeeeese

HELSINKI, Finland, December 4, 2011 — Cell phones are omnipresent. The vast majority of us own at least one. Children at the age of six or seven are often getting their first phone and there are cell phones models designed specially for even younger kids. We cannot imagine life without these gadgets, and sometimes we might wonder how life was possible before the cell phone era.

Now for the questions: Do we really know whether long-term extensive use of cell phones will cause any health effects? Are we certain that the current safety limits are sufficient to protect all users, young and old, healthy and sick?

I am not sure that we know the answers to these questions. And it is why I will be writing this column in what I hope to be an unbiased way about what we know and what we do not know, but what we should know in order to give reliable answers to the above questions. Let us begin with few “myths.”

Myth No. 1: We often hear that there have been thousands of scientific articles in peer-review journals published and no consistent health effect could be detected and reliably confirmed. But exactly how many articles have been published specifically on the cell phone-emitted radiation? A look at the specialized database called EMf-Portal, maintained by femu, aka Research Center for Bioelectromagnetic Interaction, a working group of the Institute for Hygiene and Environmental Medicine, University Hospital of the RWTH Aachen University, Germany, shows the real numbers.

Currently, the database consists of 15,084 articles on the biological and health effects of electromagnetic fields (cell phone radiation is one of them). However, the total number of the studies that used cell phone radiation is only 685 of experimental studies and 146 epidemiological studies.

Finnish woods and no cell tower Image: author

A total of only 831 studies (as of Dec. 3, 2011) has been performed using cell phone radiation. This is a very small number, considering that different research groups used different experimental models and a broad variety of exposure hardware and exposure conditions. This in turn makes the comparison of the results very difficult or nearly impossible to draw any reliable health risk conclusions.

Myth No. 2: We are often given the assurance that we are well-protected by the current safety limits since the only effect that cell phone radiation can cause in our bodies is a slight rise in temperature on the surface of our brain (by 0.1 deg. C). Therefore, with such a negligible temperature rise, we should be assured that we are OK.

However, there is an ongoing debate whether a rise in temperature is indeed the only effect of cell phone radiation. There are both laboratory and animal studies that demonstrate the effects of radiation exposures that would not cause heating (so called non-thermal effects). Are all of these studies just experimental artifacts? Also the argument that the physical mechanism for such non-thermal effects is unknown is not convincing and it does not prove that the effect does not exist.

Myth No. 3: We all are protected by the current safety limits, no exceptions. I am not sure if it is so. Firstly, we all are unique thanks to differences in our genes and to differences in the environments in which we grew up. Let me give a couple of examples how to understand this uniqueness. We know that tobacco smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer. However, not all smokers develop lung cancer. Another example is solar ultraviolet radiation; we know that it is a risk factor for skin cancer. Many of us expose ourselves to solar ultraviolet by sunbathing. However, not all sunbathers will develop skin cancer.

How safe is her cell phone?

These two examples show that even strong risk factors for cancer may have differing effects on different people. So do all people respond the same way to cell phone radiation? We do not know. However, it would be strange if cell phone radiation would be so unique that all people would react to it in the exact same way. Plus one more thing that we often are not aware of is how does the human body react to cell phone radiation? Do we know? The answer is, unfortunately, no.

With all the hype about cell phones there are only three studies where living people (volunteers) were exposed in laboratory controlled conditions to cell phone radiation and during or following the exposure they were examined for changes on molecular level. Moreover, all three studies are so called “pilot studies” what means that they are small and are designed to test experimental settings before executing a larger study.

One of these studies, done in 2008 in Finland, found induction of changes in the amount of some proteins in human skin. Two other studies, performed in the USA and in Finland, examined the effects of cell phone exposure on glucose metabolism in human brain. Though, the USA study found an increase, the Finnish study found a decline in the effect.

So when we are being assured that we are all equally well protected by the current safety limits, we may ask on what scientific evidence is based this certainty. The laboratory studies with isolated cells? The laboratory studies with rats and mice? But not on experiments that use human volunteers?

We hear disputes about human health risk and the claims of its absence where we do not have studies examining effects of cell phone radiation on humans at the molecular level where any effects would start. That is a big reason for doing more research.

 

Read more from Dariusz Leszczynski in his science blog “BRHP - Between a Rock and a Hard Place” at http://betweenrockandhardplace.wordpress.com  Dariusz is a Research Professor at the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland.

Follow Dariusz on twitter: @blogBRHP

Disclaimer: the opinions presented in this column are author’s own and should NOT be considered as the official opinions of the STUK - Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland. 


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Dariusz Leszczynski

Dariusz Leszczynski is an expert in the biological and health effects of cell phone radiation.

Since 2009 he publishes a science blog dealing with the issue of cell phone radiation and health: http://betweenrockandhardplace.wordpress.com  

Disclaimer: the opinions presented in this column are authors' own and SHOULD NOT be considered as opinions of any of his employers.

Contact Dariusz Leszczynski

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