Back in the early 1980s, there were 35 researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency exploring the biological effects of radiation from cell phones and other devices. But by 1987, budget cuts had shut the program down. Since then, the Federal Communications Commission and the Food & Drug Administration have regulated wireless communications with a feathery touch.
This hands-off approach no longer seems appropriate. Despite repeated safety assurances from the cell-phone industry, scientists keep turning up disturbing signs. On July 31, a survey of recent safety studies was released by George L. Carlo, a pathologist and professional research administrator who ran a $25 million industry-funded risk investigation. Some studies in the survey--which appeared on the respected medical Web site Medscape--showed evidence of gene damage in blood cells exposed to cell-phone radiation. Others indicated heightened tumor rates in cell-phone users. "At the very least, the data say that claims of absolute safety would be irresponsible," declares Carlo, who now runs a for-profit research company called Health Risk Management Group.
LEGAL ACTION. Carlo's report doesn't prove that cell phones cause cancer or other diseases. But many experts echo his concerns. Leif G. Salford, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Lund in Sweden, found that microwave radiation at cell-phone frequencies can weaken the blood-brain barrier in rats. In May, a British government report recommended that children not be exposed to mobile phones. Italy and Switzerland have slashed allowed radiation emissions from cellular base stations.
Belatedly, the U.S. government is also taking action. In early June, partly in response to recent studies, the FDA announced it would help supervise a new industry-sponsored research program. And in July, the industry announced plans to provide labels disclosing how much radiation phones emit.
But for an industry struggling to boost consumer confidence, these steps may be too little, too late. It is certainly past time to keep the issue from spilling into the courts. On Aug. 1, Christopher J. Newman, a 41-year-old neurologist who developed a brain tumor, sued Motorola Inc. and several wireless carriers in state court in Baltimore. The suit alleges that the companies failed to disclose known radiation hazards from cell-phone use. And lawyer Peter G. Angelos, who helped win huge settlements against the asbestos and tobacco industries, told Business Week he has been approached by several brain-tumor victims. He won't file suit unless he's "90% sure" of victory, but says he is "very intensively" studying this area.
The FDA's participation in a Cooperative Research & Development Agreement (CRADA) with the cellular industry is an encouraging step. Unfortunately, the effort is flawed. It's troubling that the industry is picking up the bill and will choose which proj-ects receive funding. With cellular companies adamantly insisting that the phones are safe, only research that is designed and funded independently--presumably by the government--would have full credibility. "How can [the FDA] claim to be impartial if they are taking a lot of money from industry to do research?" asks Dr. W. Ross Adey, distinguished professor of physiology at the Loma Linda (Calif.) School of Medicine.
The industry, for its part, finds plenty of fault with Carlo, the man fanning the latest round of concerns. Some of the findings he posted last week have not yet been replicated. And a top researcher in the program he administered challenges his interpretation of the brain-tumor data. What's more, Carlo is on disputed ground in his claim that low levels of radiation alone--as opposed to heat from the cellular handset--could cause medical problems. Motorola director of biological research, Dr. Mays L. Swicord, insists there is no "repeatable or established" evidence of biological effects from cell-phone radiation.
Henry Lai, research professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington, disagrees: Looking at about 200 research papers published since 1996 on the impact of microwave radiation, he found that 80% of them reported biological effects. "These include behavioral effects on brain function, effects on the immune system, and genetic effects," he says. Lai has also found DNA damage in rats exposed to microwave radiation at power levels similar to those produced by cell phones.
Who's right? There isn't enough information yet to judge. As Sweden's Salford puts it, cell phones constitute "the world's largest biological experiment ever." Only well-designed and supervised science will tell us whether and how cell phones affect human cells--and calm consumers' increasingly frayed nerves.