Tips for lowering exposure to cell-phone radiation:
* Use a hands-free device, such as an earpiece.
* Choose a phone with a low “specific absorption rate,” also called a SAR value.
* Limit cell-phone use.
Source: American Cancer Society
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Some are certain that cell phone radiation triggers cancerous brain tumors.
Posted at 10:35 PM on Sunday, Mar. 07, 2010
By Barbara Anderson / The Fresno Bee
Mindy Brown is on a crusade to warn people about radiation from cell phones.
It started after her husband, Fresno State football coach Dan Brown, developed brain cancer. Before slipping into a coma a year ago, he said “make sure everybody knows,” she said. “I promised I would.”
Dan was 50 when he died March 13, 2009. Since his death, Brown has flown across the country to keep her word to Dan, the high school sweetheart she married, the father of their six children.
On Tuesday in Maine, she testified for legislation that would require a health warning on cell phones, similar to the “black box” label on cigarette packs. If passed, it would be the first in the country.
And in February, Brown, 51, spoke before an environmental commission in San Francisco in favor of an ordinance that would require radiation levels emitted by cell phones to be printed on packaging. A similar state law has been proposed.
Brown’s activism is raising awareness about a controversial issue that has been percolating for years but is now heating up as lawmakers debate whether it’s time to act.
Brown has no doubt that cell-phone radiation triggers cancerous brain tumors. “I’m so 100% sure … I’d bet my life on it,” she said.
But the scientific community is divided over health effects of the low levels of electromagnetic radiation emitted by the phones. The cell-phone industry maintains the phones are safe. In the end, researchers say, the safety debate likely will go on for years, while more and more people use the phones.
The science behind the phone
For consumers, it all can be confusing.
The phones are ubiquitous today. About 4.6 billion people — more than half the world’s population — have cell phones, according to the International Telecommunications Union. More than 276 million people in the United States are wireless subscribers, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry group.
But the phones are relatively new devices, having been in use in the United States only about the past two decades — not enough time for people to have long-term experience with them.
Cell phones are actually two-way radios. The phones change a voice into radio waves or radio-frequency energy, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration Web site. Other everyday products — televisions, pagers, radios and cordless phones — do the same thing.
Radio frequencies are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, a range of radiation energy that includes everything from light to X-rays.
The electromagnetic radiation from cell phones is in the microwave range, though far less powerful than emissions from a microwave oven.
And that kind of radiation from cell phones doesn’t cause damage to atoms and molecules, the FDA says. In that respect, it’s similar to visible and infrared light.
Some scientists, however, say holding cell phones against the head — and often for long periods — allows enough radiation from the phones to have an effect on cells. One theory: The radiation is strong enough to cause the body to produce destructive molecules known as “free radicals” that can damage DNA, the hereditary material in humans.
Others say the phones simply don’t give off enough radiation to cause DNA damage.
There is little indication the controversy will end soon.
“Cell phones have become the high-tension lines of our time,” said Dr. Paul Fisher, a Bay Area neurologist, referring to concerns that power lines cause cancer. And it’s likely the cell-phone debate will have as long a life, he said. Fears about high-power lines persist after 40 years of studies that have yet to prove a direct link, he said.
Fisher said it’s premature to say that cell phones are related to brain tumors. A professor of neurology and pediatrics at Stanford and Children’s Hospital, he is working on summarizing research that has been done on cell phones and brain tumors for a paper he hopes will be published this year.
Most studies don’t back up the cancer fears, Fisher said, citing a recent Scandinavian study that looked at brain-tumor rates from the last 30 years and found no significant change in the rates. After three decades, if there were a relationship between cell phones and brain tumors, you would expect to see it, he said.
CTIA declined to be interviewed, but John Walls, vice president of public affairs, issued a written statement that said in part: “The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices, within the limits established by the FCC, do not pose a public-health risk or cause any adverse health effects.”
Debate over risks
But others say the risks from using cell phones are real.
“People who use cell phones for 10 years or more have a higher rate of cancer of the brain,” said Martin Blank, associate professor of physiology and cellular biophysics at Columbia University. And he said the research shows the increase is five times the rate for people who start using a cell phone as teenagers.
Blank said the reason that studies into possible links between cell phones and brain cancer are so contradictory: “Those who find effects are more likely to be independently funded. Those that are funded by industry are more likely to find no effects.”
The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society say most studies have not shown a possible relationship between brain tumors and cell-phone use — but both agencies recommend more research.
One worry is the time people spend on cell phones. The phones’ convenience makes them hard for users to hang up.
In the first half of 2008, cell-phone users in the United States spent on average 13 hours a month talking on their phones, according to CTIA. But surfing the Internet topped it — computer users spent more than 26 hours per month on the Internet in May 2008, according to The Nielsen Company.
“It’s the excessive [cell phone] use that’s resulting in these elevations in brain tumors,” said Dr. David Carpenter, an expert in electromagnetic fields who has been director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany since 1998.
For Brown, the connection seems clear between her husband’s death and his cell-phone use.
Brown hasn’t added up the minutes Dan spent on a cell phone, but in his 12 years on the Bulldogs’ coaching team — the last seven as defensive coordinator — he constantly had a phone to his ear, she said. He talked to recruiters, coaches, football boosters, she said.
“My husband would be here still, I swear to you, if he hadn’t used a cell phone,” Brown said.
Fisher of Stanford said it’s understandable to search for a cause for brain cancer — but no one knows what causes it. There are a lot of reasons why people should limit their cell-phone use, he said, but to prevent brain cancer is not among them.
But Brown doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that the people she met while Dan was being treated bore tell-tale scars from brain surgery on the side of their heads where they held their cell phones, she said. “That was enough evidence for me.”
She’s not the only one who believes there is a connection.
Andy Solomon, 41, of Fresno, is convinced the hours he spent talking on a cell phone caused a brain tumor to turn cancerous. He was diagnosed in October 2007. A tumor was next to his left ear — the side of his head where he held his cell phone, he said.
A commercial real-estate agent, Solomon has owned a cell phone since 1991. He used to talk almost nonstop while in his car. “I needed to know every shopping center in every town. I would have the phone to my ear driving,” he said.
He has had two brain surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy and been a participant in two clinical trials to remove the tumor. Late last month, he learned a brain scan showed a new brain tumor had formed.
Solomon and his wife, Monique, have two daughters, 11 and 7. Their main concern is for the millions of children who now carry cell phones and for the hours they spend on the phones.
Use among children
The increasing use of cell phones by children adds to the sense of urgency for those who believe they cause cancer.
Five years ago, fewer than half of children between ages 8 and 18 had cell phones; now two-thirds of them have the phones, according to a report by the nonprofit The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Children’s skulls are thinner, making them more susceptible to radiation, said Renee Sharp, director of the California office of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C-based environmental advocacy organization.
“Children’s brains actually absorb twice as much radiation as adults’ brains,” Sharp said.
Sharp said the standard that the government uses to rate radiation levels doesn’t consider children. It’s outdated and needs to be lowered, she said. The lower the rate, the lower the exposure to electromagnetic energy.
The standard — called the specific absorption rate, or SAR — measures how much radio-frequency energy is absorbed by the body. In the United States, the rate was set in 1996 by the Federal Communications Commission at 1.6 watts per kilogram, which is averaged over 1 gram of body tissue.
The FCC considers cell phones at 1.6 watts per kilogram or lower to be safe for use. In comparison, a Bluetooth ear piece has a level of about 0.001, or less than one-thousandth of the limit for a cell phone, according to the American Cancer Society.
Bruce Romano, associate chief in the FCC office of engineering and technology, said the agency continues to monitor radiation studies, but currently there is no formal effort to change the standards.
The Environmental Working Group is sponsoring California legislation by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to require cell phones sold in the state to plainly display radiation levels, she said. San Francisco is considering a similar ordinance.
Brown is a proponent of making radiation levels readily apparent on cell phone packaging.
She believes a phone Dan used for years had a radiation level that would have been off the chart. When he used the phone, his ear turned red after only a few minutes from the heat the phone generated, she said.
At the time, Brown said, she and Dan didn’t know cell phones emitted radiation, and she half-joked to him that the “phone is going to fry your brain.”
For a while after Dan’s death, she was in a state of disbelief and anger, she said. She would walk up to strangers talking on cell phones to tell them about radiation risks. The reaction often wasn’t friendly, she said.
After testifying in Maine, Brown said: “I feel like a burden has been lifted off my shoulder. I passed on the baton to a bigger force that can make a bigger difference than just me trying to talk to people.”
But she won’t stop until the cell-phone industry puts warnings on their products, she said.
She is on a mission, propelled by a promise.