For years, scientists and the public have grown increasingly concerned about a possible cancer risk from electromagnetic emissions. First, it was from high-tension power lines, then electric blankets and the electric motors in bedside clocks. Now, a new specter has appeared: pocket-sized cellular phones.
The cancer scare could be the first serious trial for the booming cellular industry--and for the dozens of new wireless services now being readied. Already, cellular calling has attracted 10 million users in the U.S., and the industry shrugged off the recession, doubling the number of subscribers in the past three years. With a new generation of lighter and cheaper phones in the works, analysts have been optimistically predicting that cellular revenues could double by 1997. Plans are being drawn up to pour billions of dollars of investment into these new services, called personal communications networks. Meanwhile, the computer and telephone industries also are planning handheld devices such as "personal communicators" and "personal digital assistants" that can send and receive faxes, data, and other messages via cellular networks. It is all part of an emerging wireless world that could transform communications.
FIRST DOUBTS. All those grandiose visions could be scaled back if the general public suspects--whether there's a scientific basis for their fears or not--that cellular phones and other wireless communicators cause cancer. The first doubts were planted in the public consciousness by a suit filed by a Florida man against phonemaker NEC Corp. of Japan, cellular operator GTE Corp., and a phone retailer, charging that his wife's fatal brain tumor was caused by her heavy cellular-phone use. In an eerie
coincidence, news reports of the suit surfaced about the same time that the brain cancers of two corporate CEOs--the stereotypical cellular-phone addicts--were disclosed. Reginald F. Lewis of TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc. died from it on Jan. 19, and the following day, Michael H. Walsh of Tenneco Inc. disclosed that he is being treated for the disease.
Never mind that it isn't even clear that these men were heavy cellular-phone users. The cancer scare quickly spread, and investors knocked down the stock prices of McCaw Cellular Communications Inc., the nation's largest cellular operator, as well as the stock of Motorola Inc. and other companies connected with the industry.
The stocks quickly revived, but now that the issue has been raised, it won't be easily laid to rest. "It will be an issue that we'll have to address," says Paul Chellgren, president of Nokia Mobile Phones Inc., the second-largest seller of cellular phones in the U.S.
As of now, however, it's impossible to grant cellular phones a clean bill of health--or to prove their dangers. First, no one has a clear idea how, if at all, the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum might cause physical harm. Second, even if there's harm on the cell level, it's extremely difficult to prove a link to cancer.
Biologists do know that strong electromagnetic fields, such as those inside a microwave oven, can heat up body tissues, causing injury or death. Traditionally, scientists have assumed that if a field is too weak to cause heating, then it is probably safe. But now, some are exploring whether weak fields might cause damage through some other mechanism, such as interfering with the normal electrical fields of cell membranes. Stephen F. Cleary of the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond has found that, even without heating, strong fields both above and below cellular frequencies stimulate the growth of tumor cells that have been removed from the brain. But other scientists say such an effect is impossible. "There's no such viable theory," says Yale University physicist Robert Adair.
CLOSE ENCOUNTER. Given the preliminary nature of the findings, Nokia's Chellgren says the industry needs to do more research and then communicate the results to the public. Indeed, in the 10 years that cellular has been in widespread use, no conclusive studies have been conducted. Most research has centered on low-frequency electromagnetic radiation, such as that from power lines and video display terminals, rather than on the higher-frequency levels used by cellular phones.
The way pocket-size cellular phones are designed seems to raise questions. Unlike car phones or the older, luggable portable cellular phones, the handheld variety places the radio transmitter alongside the user's head. That leads to the concern about radio waves entering the brain as they seek out the nearest cellular transmitter site. Indeed, Motorola warns customers in its manual not to let the antenna touch their bodies while they're talking. (Cordless home phones aren't under suspicion, because their signals are 100 times lower-powered than those of cellular phones.)
Cleary at the Medical College of Virginia puts it bluntly: He says he won't use a cellular phone until more studies are done. "Every law of physics tells you that if you're close to the source, you're going to be absorbing more," he says. Ronald C. Petersen, manager of environmental health and safety at AT&T Bell Laboratories, helped to revise industry standards for safe levels of exposure to radio waves from cellular phones in 1991. He says studies such as Cleary's deserve further investigation but are not yet sufficient to justify changing the exposure rules.
In the meantime, the cellular-phone business is doing damage control. Executives of Motorola, the largest maker of cellular phones and transmission equipment, on Jan. 25 held a conference call for scores of reporters and analysts. Motorola says it has been researching the health implications of radio fields for more than 20 years. "None of this scientific inquiry has demonstrated the existence of health risks from the use of cellular phones," says Edward F. Staiano, president of Motorola's general systems group, which includes cellular operations. "If we had any concern that they caused a health problem, we would stop selling them immediately." But the company provided details on only one study of cellular frequencies and health, which it is sponsoring and which is not yet complete.
Figuring out how to quell consumer fears may be critical as the industry tries to move beyond its current base of hard-core cellular users. The new target: casual customers, such as the elderly couple who want a car phone in case of a breakdown or college students who view cellular phones as the latest fashion accessory. These are the very people who could be most easily scared away by a potential health risk. In addition to missing out on new recruits, network operators could lose revenue if existing cellular-phone owners begin to worry and limit their calling.
TOO MANY EXPERTS. So a cloud has now formed over cellular. Analyst John L. Bauer III of Prudential Securities Inc. says he hopes the concern is "a media-related blip." But, he adds: "What's confusing is there do seem to be experts on both sides."
Herschel Shosteck, who runs a cellular-industry consulting firm bearing his name in Silver Spring, Md., sums up the issue as just the latest media-fed scare: It will garner a lot of attention for a few weeks or maybe months and then it will all blow over. Chellgren of Nokia notes that when concern was raised by microwave ovens in the early 1980s, that prompted a similar media frenzy. "Certainly we don't hear about that today too much," he says. As the cellular industry gears up for the promised wireless future, it can only hope that this health scare passes from memory just as easily.