Wednesday, December 22, 2004

You have one unheard message

A four year study from 12 research groups in seven countries, funded by the European Union (EU) and released on December 19, suggests that radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation from cell phones is capable of altering cellular DNA, that the changes are heritable by progeny cells and that they occur at a rate faster than cellular DNA repair can accommodate (see story in Wired).

Everyone queried in the story was at pains to say the demonstrated biological changes do not establish a health risk and that more research is needed. . . .Duh.

There has been substantial concern in local communities about EMF exposures from cell phone towers, towers often situated stupidly with respect to schools, day care centers and other facilities. Over the years I have been asked to examine the exposure estimates from some of these facilities and in most instances felt the emf exposures were not sufficient to constitute a hazard, even to persons relatively close to the transmitters. But that's just part of the story. And it is the rest of the story that makes me concerned about the cell phone towers.

My main concerns relate to emf exposure from the transmitter you hold in your hand when you use a cell phone, not the base station tower that has received the most attention. In most cases the transmitting antenna is right up against the cranium, leading to radiation hot spots within the skull (see a figure here in the section "Absorption of RFR from a Mobile Phone"). The EU study indicates that biological effects from emf of this frequency and power density are demonstrable. There has been almost no informative epidemiology done on the problem, so human data are largely lacking.

Which brings me to my concern about the cell phone towers. What they do is create a need for cell phones. Many people now use their "cells" preferentially over land lines and have come to depend on them. What will we do if down the road we discover these devices present a risk to their users? Even if the risks are very small, say one in a million per year (not detectable by any conceivable epidemiological study), with tens or hundreds of millions exposed people the bodies would add up.

This seems another case of rushing headlong into a technology without adequate demonstration of safety, or lacking that, responsible inquiry. . . . Hey, I didn't say it was a news story.