Cellphone Brain Damage?

There are more than 90 million cellphone accounts in the US today, and about 200 million wireless-phone users around the world. That's a lot of people with mobile phones pressed to their ears, sending more radio waves into their brains than they would with a regular telephone- or Walkman-style headphones. And since all these cellphones are linked together by small trees of antennas that each have a range of only several miles, that's a lot of antennas saturating our cities and rural areas with radio waves from points quite close to the ground.

So are we frying our brains as we walk, eat, drive, ride bikes and do all the other things we do while talking into our cellphones? Are we being zapped by those transmitters that look like stereo speakers and are found in circular arrays on top of buildings and metal towers (or real live trees) all over the country?

Safety Levels

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sets a limit on how much power can radiate from a cellphone and pass through a gram of body tissue. This "specific absorption rate" (SAR) is set at 1.6 watts per kilogram, which the wireless industry maintains is way below the rate at which any known physiological effects can occur.

But the industry's sweeping reassurances have started to lose their ring, as more and more research results come in from all over the globe. The US wireless industry itself financed a company called Wireless Technology Research LLC (WTR), headed by Dr. George Carlo, to do a six-year, $27 million study. But even with all that industry money behind him, Carlo did not simply let cellphones off the hook. After finding preliminary evidence of health risks, WTR recently called for "additional study."

But critics dismiss Carlo and the WTR as fronts for the wireless industry and accuse them of "tobacco science."

Outside the industry, the rate of research has been picking up, fueled by warnings from studies and reports over the past two decades about the effects of the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) that surround high-voltage power lines and a wide variety of electrically active appliances and industrial equipment. Researchers are looking at both the transmitters and the handheld phones.

Transmitter Tower Radiation

If you live or work within about 100 yards of an array of those speaker-box-sized cellphone antennas, usually located on a tower, you're not only getting maximum-exposure density of EMFs (because the beams are projected out and angled slightly down), you're also getting whole-body exposure, which for nearby residents occurs 24 hours a day. The good news: power levels are about one one-thousandth to one one-millionth that of the cellphone handsets themselves (actual power varies as the user moves closer or further away from the cell antenna).

While there is much evidence that living in these fields is bad for your health, the phones themselves are worse.

Cellular Handset Emissions

Cellphones zap you in several different ways:

The largest doses of radiation come from your cellphone's antenna. This radiation is pulsed like a strobe light at 217 times a second. And this is how cellphones differ from radio headphones, regular telephones or cordless phones: The antennas of cellphones can deliver large amounts of radio-frequency (RF) energy to very small areas of the user's body, creating "hot spots" in the skull.

The handset itself also transfers energy to the head via inductance. A Swiss study found that different models of cellphone handsets diffuse from 20 percent to 80 percent of their energy into the user's head and hands through inductance.

Because the user's head is less than one wavelength away from the handset antenna, it is deemed to be within the "near field" limits, the point at which the electrical and magnetic components of the emission act independently.

More than a meter away, in the "far field," the electrical and magnetic components act in concert, and may impact people nearby. Like second-hand smoke, you could be hurt by second-hand phoning.

So what damage is being done?

Research has focused on whether these radio waves are contributing to cancer, and the results so far have been contradictory. Even though the evidence that brain tumors increase with cellphone use is inconclusive, some disturbing findings have not been contradicted:

- Digital mobile phones are less implicated than analog varieties (though some problems may be unique to digital models).

- The heat effects of intense RF radiation may work with other factors to encourage cancer.

And increasingly, researchers are focusing on the effects on young brains. The percentage of teenagers using cellphones rose from 15 percent to 35 percent in 1999, and is projected to reach 70 percent by 2002. Cellphones are now outselling PlayStations, TVs and personal computers.

Dr. Gerard Hyland, a physicist from the University of Warwick in England who studies the effect of low-intensity radiation says: "The problem is the electromagnetic emissions which come out in bursts from the body of a mobile phone. There is a certain frequency pattern in the emission that the brain happens to recognize. In children below the age of 12, the stability of the brain could be undermined and disrupted because their brain is in a more vulnerable state."

Hyland warns that "the bloodˆbrain barrier which keeps infections out of the brain could be made more permeable [by cellphones] and that could increase the risk of infection."

Researchers are also looking at what else besides causing cancer cellphones may be doing to us.

In a strange twist, Dr. Mika Koivisto of Finland's University of Turku found that exposure to EMFs emitted by cellphones actually helped a group of volunteers complete a set of 12 tasks which tested a range of functions, including reaction times, memory, accuracy and mental arithmetic. At the same time, a team of scientists at the University of North Carolina report that a group of electrical workers who have been regularly exposed to extremely-low-frequency electromagnetic fields have double the suicide rate of their nonexposed fellow workers. The researchers believe the EMFs may reduce the levels of the brain chemical melatonin. Another study found that RF fields alter the electrical activity of the brain in cats and rabbits by changing calcium ion mobility.

Some cellphone users blame their phones for symptoms including diziness, headaches, blurred vision, nausea, tinnitis and insomnia.

And that is as far as the research has gotten. News on Earth will continue to monitor and report on the dozens of studies presently underway around the world.

Meanwhile, you can test the radiation level from your cellphone antenna with a low-cost radiation checker, and here are five tips that may (or may not) do you some good:

1. Keep your cellphone conversations short.

2. Use a cellphone as little as possible inside a car, because the vehicle acts like a metal cage and boosts the phone's power so it can blast its signals to the nearest base station. If you must speak regularly from a car, get a roof antenna.

3. Don't carry a turned-on mobile phone in a baby carriage -- it emits microwaves even when you're not on a call.

4. Don't carry a mobile phone on a belt around your waist -- it's too near your reproductive organs and the bone marrow in your hips. Avoid the breast pocket too, especially if you have a pacemaker. Best option: in a trouser leg cargo pocket.

5. You might reduce the radiation into your head if you pull out the antenna when you use the phone and direct it backwards and away from your head, not upright alongside of it.

Finally, the best health advice you can get is not to use the phone while driving. Research has shown that talking on a handheld cellphone while driving quadruples the risk of having an accident -- the same risk as driving while intoxicated. Driving while using a handheld phone is already illegal in Australia, Europe, Israel and South Africa.

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