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?
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 bloodbrain 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.
The numbers are appalling: The average person's lifetime chance of getting cancer is now four in 10. Breast cancer and skin cancer are the most common kinds of cancer among women in the United States, and breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer death among women under 54.At least 175,000 women were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 1999 (one every three minutes); 39,900 women were diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in 1999; and 43,700 American women died from breast cancer in 1999 (one every 12 minutes).In 1964, the lifetime risk of developing breast cancer was one in 20; today, it's one in eight. The rate has not only increased dramatically during this century, it has more than doubled over the past 30 years. Overall, white women have the highest rate of breast cancer. However, African-American women under 40 have a higher rate than their white counterparts.Breast cancer costs this country more than $6 billion each year in medical expenses and lost productivity.The triggerEstrogen, the hormone that regulates a woman's menstrual cycle and fertility, also prompts normal breast cells to multiply, mutate and become cancerous in certain circumstances. Every time estrogen comes into a breast cell, the cell divides more frequently -- and since imperfectly replicated cells can lead to cells that don't know when to stop dividing, this increased breast-cell division increases the risks for developing cancer. Women who menstruate early in life, or who have children late, are at higher risk because of the high estrogen levels that are in their bodies for longer periods of time.Some studies indicate that for every year before a woman starts menstruating, the risk for breast cancer is reduced by 5 to 15 percent. Likewise, women who have earlier menopause (i.e., before age 45) have only half the breast-cancer risk of women who go through menopause ten years later. Prolonged use of hormone-replacement therapy (such as estrogen) after menopause is widely considered to be another major risk factor.PreventionStrategies to prevent breast cancer include limiting alcohol consumption (two drinks a day can drive your risk up by 70 percent), getting enough vitamin A, eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and reducing total fat intake -- particularly animal fat in meats, dairy products and cooking oils -- to less than 30 percent of total daily calories. The last recommendation is based on the fact that breast-cancer rates are significantly lower in Japan and China, where traditional plant- or fish-based diets include lower levels of fat -- and decreased fat intake decreases estrogen levels and thus the risk of breast cancer. As Japanese women increasingly change their diet to include more fat, their breast-cancer rates are rising -- and women emigrating out of Asia take on the breast-cancer risk of the country they move to in as little as one generation.But even though women with more body fat have higher estrogen levels, Andrea Martin, founder of The Breast Cancer Fund, reports that in "the largest and most recent study it was found that neither the type nor amount of fat a woman consumes affects her breast cancer risk." Is that conclusive? No, says Martin. "Of the 88,795 women studied, fewer than 1,000 had consumed less than 20 percent of their daily calories as fat." In other words, so few American women have low-fat diets that the benefits aren't showing up in studies.The mysterious culpritThe only known causes of breast cancer are exposure to ionizing radiation and inherited genetic defects in breast cells. But "breast-cancer genes," while getting lots of research dollars, account for less than 10 percent of all cases, while other risk factors have produced contradictory numbers in different studies. This suggests that other, undiscovered factors are working in tandem with the known risk factors. Could it be, for example, that breast-cancer risk depends not just on how much animal fat is in your diet, but on what pollutants are hidden in that fat?A rapidly growing number of researchers now believe that environmental pollutants are the most likely cause of our breast-cancer epidemic. According to The Breast Cancer Fund, "Exposures to certain chemicals and hormone-mimicking compounds contribute to the development of breast cancer.""Hormone mimickers," or "endocrine disruptors," are synthetic chemicals found in pesticides like DDT, as well as some fuels, plastics, detergents and pharmaceutical drugs. Just as real estrogen binds with receptors in mammary glands, signaling cells to grow, these estrogen-mimicking chemicals (also called "xenoestrogens") grab on to the same receptors and prompt the cells to replicate out of control, leading to the formation of tumors. These chemicals accumulate in body fat, such as breast tissue.The chlorine connectionHigher levels of organochlorines in the blood also seriously increase the risk of breast cancer. Chlorine mostly exists on the Earth in the benign form of common salt. Organochlorines are produced by the chemical industry in huge amounts -- millions of pounds per year -- by releasing chlorine gas from salt and combining it with various organic chemicals. Over 40 percent of the chlorine in the US goes to make PVC (vinyl), which produces toxic chemicals during its manufacture, use and disposal."Chlorine chemistry is a Pandora's box, opened less than 100 years ago and still spewing its demons into the environment," says Joe Thornton, a research fellow at Columbia University. In his new book Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health and a New Environmental Strategy (March 2000, MIT Press), Thornton calls for an end to the whole chlorine-based plastics and pesticides industry. " While governments, cheered on by those who benefit from the open box, tried to chase down each and every tiny demon that escapes," he says, "we miss[ed] the simplest and most obvious solution -- close the lid."Closing this multi-billion-dollar industry is not going to happen soon. Chemical corporations and government funders control the research dollars, and not much money is being spent to trace the effects of organochlorines on human health. Instead, corporate America would rather pump money into finding a "cure," while telling us that prevention is our individual responsibility.Dioxin: a primer for other carcinogensThe most well-known of the organochlorine "hormone mimickers" are dioxins. Dioxins are created by burning various chemicals, pesticides and commercial lumber; from medical, municipal and hazardous wastes; and from metal smelting and paper-making. Many cities allow municipal sewage sludge containing dioxin to be used as fertilizer. (Cigarette smoke also contains dioxins.)Rachel's Health and Environmental Weekly, which calls dioxins "a public health disaster," reports a British study that found that lab animals contaminated with dioxin in the womb developed a high number of "terminal end buds" in their mammary glands. These end buds are the sites where breast cancer develops, and the British researchers found that when the animals were dosed with another synthetic chemical known to cause cancer, the group "primed" with dioxin grew many more tumors.The US government is ever so cautiously edging toward an acknowledgment that organochlorines are a serious health problem. Last fall, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences released a 4-year study of hormone-disrupting chemicals in the environment. Although the committee included chemical-industry representatives, it concluded that "adverse reproductive and developmental effects have been observed in human populations, wildlife and laboratory animals as a consequence of exposure to HAAs [hormonally active agents]." Even more disturbing than this admission is the fact that these chemicals are made and distributed by the very companies that frantically hype "the search for a cure," mammograms, and the notion that individuals are responsible for self-detecting their breast cancer in time to survive it. Pharmaceutical companies, in particular, want breast-cancer research focused on drug therapies such as Tamoxifen and away from environmental pollution. Breast Cancer Awareness Month was initiated by the chemical giant Zeneca, the maker of Tamoxifen, pesticides, plastics, other pharmaceuticals and paper. Zeneca is a spin-off of Imperial Chemical Industries, which was sued in 1990 by state and federal agencies for dumping DDT and PCBs in California's harbors. Recently, Zeneca merged with Swedish pharmaceutical giant Astra to become the world's third-largest drug concern. AstraZeneca continues to be the primary sponsor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and can approve or veto any promotional or informational material put out under the BCAM banner. Predictably, AstraZeneca keeps the BCAM focus on detection and treatment, avoiding the question of cause.The chemical companies dispute the environmental-chemicals theory by pointing out that we eat natural estrogen-mimickers in soy products and veggies; but humans have had millions of years of evolution to adjust to plant estrogens, while man-made estrogen-mimickers have only been present in the environment since the 1940s. And while plant-derived compounds can be broken down quickly, some of the human-made estrogen-mimickers can persist in our bodies for decades.TBCF's Andrea Martin points out that the average human consumes two to three pounds of food a day, which means that eating is our largest single exposure to the environment. According to Martin, even if prevention advocates are right that changes in diet can protect us against cancer, the problem is that "no one is talking about the impact on our health of the man-made chemicals and contaminants that are also in the food we eat. The American diet is a product of the use of pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics and gene modification. Until we are willing to address how these practices create the very carcinogens and free radicals that we are eating to get rid of, it is foolish to think we can prevent breast cancer through diet."We need new research on these chemical pollutants immediately. "If exposure to chemicals in the environment was shown to be associated with only 10 to 20 percent of breast cancer cases," says Martin, then eliminating the hazardous chemicals would prevent "between 9,000 and 36,000 women from contracting the disease each year."Currently, just 2.4 percent of the NIH's budget goes to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which researches the intersection of the environment and health. And in 1996, a committee of scientists and experts set up by the US Environmental Protection Agency called for a program to test the toxicity and hormonal effects of 15,000 chemicals. To date, the program is badly underfunded, with tests that do not screen for toxicity during the crucial prenatal and early development period.Breast-cancer advocates and researchers cite three important types of research that are still neglected by the government. These are the testing and screening of industrial chemicals and pesticides for toxicity and hormone-mimicking effects; measuring the levels of these chemicals in our bodies ("bio-monitoring"); and learning how girls and women are being exposed to these chemicals.***Sidebar One: Risk factorsToday, only half of all breast cancers can be attributed to known risk factors; the rest remain unexplained. According to the Breast Cancer Fund, you are at increased risk of developing breast cancer if you: - Began menstruation before the age of 12 (increasingly common among American girls);- Started menopause after the age of 50;- Have never had a child or waited until after 30 to bear your first child;- Are tall or overweight;- Have been exposed to high levels of ionizing radiation;- Have a family history of cancer, especially breast cancer;- Did not breast-feed your children;- Have a high-fat diet.Having an abortion or using oral contraceptives have not been shown to increase (or decrease) the risk of breast cancer.***Sidebar Two: Detection and treatmentMammograms and self-examinations are the two best methods for detecting breast cancer -- in fact, 90 percent of lumps are found by the patients themselves. A mammogram can sometimes detect cancer up to two years before a lump is felt, but women under 35 have denser breast tissue, which hides the lump about 40 percent of the time.Conventional treatment options are lumpectomy (removing the cancerous lump of cells and a small amount of healthy tissue), lumpectomy followed by local radiation treatments, or mastectomy (amputating the breast). After surgery, chemotherapy or the estrogen-blocking drug Tamoxifen (Nolvadex) is usually recommended to kill any cancer cells left in the bloodstream. Chemotherapy is usually the preferred course for premenopausal women and Tamoxifen for postmenopausal women.There are other options as well. So many women have reported beating their cancers with herbs, meditation, visualization and other alternative healing techniques that anyone stricken with the disease should consult with support groups, survivors and alternative healers while they are seeing their regular medicos.