More Sound And Fury Over Cell Phones

Do they cause brain tumors? An exhaustive study is on the way

Remember the great cell-phone scare? In 1993, a Florida man, David Reynard, filed a lawsuit alleging that his wife's fatal brain tumor had been caused by using a cell phone. Reynard aired his allegation on the Larry King Live TV show. Others filed similar suits, cellular-phone sales slid, and Representative Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) held hearings on the issue.

Five years later, none of the suits has gone anywhere. But mobile-phone alarms are sounding again. A new study suggesting a link between cell phones and cancer was published in spring of 1997 in Radiation Research, and on Jan. 5 an oncologist speculated in the Medical Journal of Australia that a 50% jump in brain tumors in Western Australia from 1982 to 1992 may have been caused by cell-phone use. On Jan. 16, a unit of the World Health Organization plans to formally announce an eight-country study on whether there is any link between mobile-phone use and brain tumors.

FACT FINDING. The Canadian epidemiologist leading the effort, Dr. Elisabeth M. Cardis, says most of the evidence to date shows what many people assumed after the first scare died down: Wireless phones don't pose a major health hazard. Certainly Motorola, Ericsson, Nokia, and others in the $37 billion mobile-phone business, which has spent millions to underwrite research into the subject since 1993, are hopeful that the project and other research now under way can put to rest the issue of cell-phone safety. "You can't have too many facts in front of you," says Norman D. Sandler, Motorola's director of global strategic issues.

With an estimated 195 million cell phones in use today and as many as 460 million expected by 2001, according to projections by Gartner Group Inc., the WHO wants to make sure, too. Says Cardis: "We felt that as a public-health agency it was important to assess whether any risk exists at all."

Cardis is attempting what may be the most comprehensive study yet to determine whether a link exists between cell-phone use and brain illnesses. With initial funding of $250,000 from the European Union, researchers in France, Britain, Italy, Sweden, Israel, Canada, Denmark, and Australia will study phone use of people suffering from brain disorders and others in areas of heavy cell-phone use.

Existing research is too inconclusive "to rule out risk," Cardis says. A study published in 1996 showed that when rats were exposed to levels of microwave radiation similar to those found in digital cell phones, there was a 30% jump in breaks in the rats' DNA, which could possibly lead to cancer. Last spring's study found that mice exposed over 18 months to low-level radio waves similar to those from mobile phones were twice as likely to develop cancer as those not exposed. Other studies, however, showed no link between cell-phone radiation and illness.

The upshot? Don't chuck your cell phone just yet. But do take care; there are other risks. The most definitive study so far on health risks from cell phones, published in 1997 in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that drivers using cell phones have about the same risk of crashing as they would while driving with their blood alcohol at the legal limit.

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