Two weeks ago the economist had an article more or less making fun of people who think that Cell phones might pose a health hazard. To be clear, to date there has not been any conclusive evidence that cell phones are dangerous. Instead, based on the evidence provided by the book and the article I reference below, there appears to instead be a well organized attempt by the cell phone industry (specifically the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA)) to make sure that the research done into cell phones health affects won't find anything wrong.
[Update: 10/11/2005 – A good article at Commercial Alert about Cell Phone Hazards to children.]
The first information source I use is a book with the disappointingly sensationalist title "Cell Phones – Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age – An Insider's Alarming Discoveries About Cancer and Genetic Damage". The book was co-authored by Dr. George Carlo who used to head up CTIA's research efforts and a journalist by the name of Martin Schram. The book discusses two topics. The first topic is the potential health hazards of cell phones. Dr. Carlo describes, in easy to follow language, what health damage cell phones might cause and what evidence exists to believe the damage is occurring. The second topic is a description of Dr. Carlo's career and provides detailed allegations of how the CTIA has tried to bias the research being done on cell phone hazards to make sure nothing is found.
For example, one of the studies that Dr. Carlo worked with looked at brain cancer rates in people who use cell phones versus people who do not. The study found no difference in brain cancel rates. The trick however is that the study looked for all types of brain cancer located in any part of the brain. By looking for all types of cancer in all locations any real affect of cell phones would be drowned out because cell phone radiation can only penetrate a few inches into an adult's brain. So Dr. Carlo re-ran the data looking only for cancers that occur near the skull around the ears and controlled for which side of the head people used their cell phones. Sure enough, cell phone users had 2.4 times higher incidence of brain cancers near the skull around the ears then people who didn't regularly use cell phones. Unfortunately the study did not have enough participants to be conclusive but apparently did have enough to merit follow up. Follow up that, as far as I'm aware, has never happened in the U.S.
Recently the alumni magazine of the University of Washington published an excellent article about one of the researchers mentioned in Dr. Carlo's book – Dr. Henry Lai. Dr. Lai made the mistake of researching the 'wrong' kind of cell phone health hazards. The article provides Dr. Lai's account of the bribes and threats that were used to try to get him to stop his research.
Are cell phones a health hazard? There seems to now be enough experimental evidence to reasonably conclude that cell phone radiation has biological side effects. Furthermore there also appears to be enough epidemiological evidence to conclude that it's likely that people are being harmed by cell phones. How much harm? How serious is the threat? Serious enough to require changes in behavior? We just don't know because the cell phone industry, if Dr. Carlo and Dr. Lai's allegations are true, are doing their best to make sure the right questions don't get asked.
A related concern is 802.11 and other forms of wireless Internet. While the radiation levels in wireless Internet are much lower than in cell phones they are also much more pervasive. Someone using 802.11 at home or at work is being constantly bombarded by active radiation non-stop. Are there potential health effects from long term low level exposure? No one knows because no one is looking.
For whatever it's worth I have a couple of rules I follow when it comes to cell phones and 802.11. I generally don't use cell phones. I have one but I keep it on the far side of my desk and I only take it with me when I'm going out without my wife. I prefer to use my wife's phone because it angle's the antenna away from the head and she can keep it in her purse. We both use headsets. If I had kids they wouldn't be allowed to use cell phones. Cell phone radiation goes much farther into a child's brain than an adult and a child is growing with lots of rapid cell division so they are more vulnerable to potential health affects than adults. I also don't use 802.11 in my home and since I work out of my home I don't have to worry about exposure at work.
I hope that all of these precautions prove to be completely unnecessary. I hope there are no serious health consequences. But if the accusations made in the book and article are correct then at best we are all guinea pigs in a huge experimental project. If the book and article's accusations are accurate, if studies are being designed to find nothing, then I would love to see some kind of negligence suit filed. It would set a great precedent if companies understood that supporting sham science will expose them to significant legal liabilities even if it turns out there was no real health hazard. It's one thing to do real research and not find a problem. It's another to do fake research in order to make sure no problem can be found.