With more than 97 million cell phone users in the United States and more signing up daily, the issue of cell phone safety isn't likely to fade soon. The reason for the concern is that cell phones emit low levels of radio frequency or electromagnetic waves--in a word, radiation.
The word radiation holds an unpleasant connotation for most people, says Robert L. Wolke, Ph.D., a nuclear chemist and professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. And as cell phone use increases, so does the debate about the risk of cancer from radiation. Recent studies have done nothing to abate the concern about the link between the two.
However, a new study is more conclusive than previous ones. "Cellular Telephones and Cancer--a Nationwide Cohort Study in Denmark" in the February 7, 2001, issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that cell phone users are not more likely to suffer brain or nervous system cancers.
What makes this study more credible than past studies is that the Danish Cancer Registry tracks every citizen who gets cancer, using personal identification numbers assigned to each Dane at birth. Scientists used the personal ID numbers to match phone users with the registry's cancer records through the end of 1996. Other studies, such as one in the New England Journal of Medicine and another in the Journal of the American Medical Association did not find an association between brain cancer and cell phone use.
But a German study did find a link between cell phones and cancer of the inner eye. Additionally, lab research by University of Washington Professor Henry Lai has linked cell phone radiation to long-term memory loss in lab rats.
With such conflicting information, it's safe to say that when it comes to answers, the jury is still out. However, that hasn't stopped a host of vendors from capitalizing on consumers' fears. A cottage industry of earphones and radiation shields to cover the earpiece has risen out of consumer concerns. The latter solution is doubtful, however, since radiation is emitted from the antenna (for a look at these products and their claims, see "Bad for Your Health," Techwatch, March 2000).
WHAT IS RADIATION?
"Electromagnetic radiation is pure energy that travels through space at the speed of light," Wolke explains. There are many different types of radiation. Many household items emit some form of radiation, from radios and televisions to microwave ovens, cordless phones and cell phones.
The difference between microwave ovens and cell phones is that the radiation is enclosed in a microwave and has no way to get out, says Wolke. Cell phones emit radiation through the antenna. Cordless phones also emit radiation, but the risk is lower, explains Ed Mantiply, a physical scientist with the Federal Communications Commission (www.fcc.gov/oet/rfsafety).
The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements set the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) at 1.6 for cell phones, which is the number the FCC has used since 1996. "The standards were set before cell phones existed," says Mantiply. It's lower than the level of two, set in Europe.
One suggestion for cutting down on radiation exposure is to use a headset and hold the phone away from your body. The farther you are from the phone's antenna, the less exposure to radiation. That's why car cellular phones with an antenna placed on the outside of the car are considered much safer (unless you're dialing while driving--which is another issue altogether).
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the authority to take action if mobile phones are shown to emit hazardous levels of radiation, but existing scientific data has not warranted that. The FDA did recommend that phone manufacturers take several steps to ensure safety, such as supporting research; designing safer phones; and providing users with accurate and timely information.
Until then, try using your phone less frequently and for shorter durations. You can check your phone's SAR level at www.sardata.com.
How safe is your phone? SAR Level Cell Phone Analog/Digital Motorola 7860 Startac 0.54/0.24 Nokia 8260 1.14/0.95 Qualcomm QCP-2760 1.33/1.15 Samsung SCH-3500 1.38/0.67 Source: (www.sardata.com)