This month marked a turning point in the quest by U.S. health advocates to gain credibility for their conviction that cell phones pose an underappreciated health risk.

Recently, a three-day Washington, D.C., conference on cell phones and health attracted attendees from throughout the world, and a Sept. 14 Senate hearing examining research gaps on the issue drew a standing-room-only crowd.

On Sept. 9, the Environmental Working Group released a report linking long-term cell phone use with increased cancer risks. In late August, a group led by Berkeley researcher Lloyd Morgan published its report, "Cellphones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern."

"This is, indeed, a new level of looking at the question of cell phone safety in the U.S.," said Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group and lead author of its report. She noted the "powerful response from the public" to the group's report, which cited more than 200 studies on cell phones and health, and provided a comparison of the radiation output of wireless devices.

"Clearly, consumers are keenly interested in the issue," Naidenko said. In the U.S., 270 million people, or 87 percent of the population, use wireless devices like cell phones and personal digital assistants, or PDAs. The figure reaches 4 billion worldwide.

The events on Capitol Hill, along with the two reports, generated the first widespread media coverage on certain studies — some more than a decade old — showing adverse health effects from cell phones, said Morgan, a retired electrical engineer who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1995.

"Finally, there is some balanced reporting," Morgan said.

Students advised

Keeping up the momentum, on Sept. 18 a panel of experts spoke to 400 high school students in San Leandro, urging the teenagers to lower their exposure to electromagnetic radiation from cell phones, such as turning them off when not in use and using a wired headset. One speaker underscored the point by using a sickly green aura to illustrate the reach of cell phone radiation into a user's brain.

"Fifty percent of radiation from cell phones is absorbed by your hand or your head," explained Henry Lai, a researcher from the University of Washington, as he showed the slides. Lai told the crowd how he found evidence in animal studies of memory impairment and DNA damage from exposure to cell phone radiation.

Several of the San Leandro High School students also starred in a new video on cell phones and health. The California Endowment funded the video, which its producers hope will go viral once it's posted on YouTube.

De'Vaughn Glaze, 15, is one of the students featured in the video. He said the panelists' recommendations "made a lot of sense," and he plans to use a wired headset for the few calls he makes to his mother and grandmother.

This elevation in activity examining the potential harm from cell phones follows years of pressure by health advocates to cast doubt on industry and federal agencies' assurances that radiation from cell phones is too weak to cause any cellular damage. Or, if any such risk exists, "it is probably small," according to the Food and Drug Administration.

John Walls, a spokesman with an industry trade group, CTIA-The Wireless Association, said that in establishing its policies the group follows the guidance of leading health organizations, including the FDA and the American Cancer Society, which he said "all have concurred that wireless devices are not a public health risk."

But this month, the American Cancer Society posted an article on its Web site, "More Research on Cell Phone Safety Needed, Experts Say," with a less certain take on the issue.

Dr. Michael Thun, a vice president emeritus and research expert with the American Cancer Society, noted that 30 studies showed contradictory conclusions on the connection between cell phone use and brain tumors.

Different from X-rays

Cell phones release a different type of radiation than the high-energy, ionizing radiation emitted by X-ray machines and other equipment. The latter can "ionize" molecules by stripping them of electrons, explained the Federal Communications Commission in its Q&A on radiation. This can damage molecules like DNA, potentially triggering cancerous growth.

The FCC stated that the radiation from cell phones doesn't have the energy to strip away electrons, although Lai found adverse health effects in rat brain cells after 45 minutes of cell phone radiation exposure.

Thun said questions about the biological effects of non-ionizing radiation "haven't been vetted." Resolving the issue requires both long-term research run by independent experts and surveillance of brain cancer rates, he said. Thun noted that brain cancer rates have declined slightly since cell phone use expanded in the 1990s, although Morgan and others point out that brain cancers are typically slow-growing.

"The position of the American Cancer Society is that the issue is important to resolve," Thun said in a telephone interview. "There's heavy use, widespread use in kids. The current evidence is not conclusive in any one way or the other.

"And if people are concerned, there are simple ways they can virtually eliminate their exposure," Thun said. "So that's the bottom line."

That was the main message at the Sept. 18 gathering at the San Leandro High School gymnasium.

"I'm not certain if there are health effects from cell phones or cell antennas, but I'm very suspicious," said Dr. Raymond Neutra, one of the panelists and a former official with the California Department of Health Services (now the Department of Public Health) who led a research program on electromagnetic radiation in the 1990s.

"I don't require certainty to lower my exposure," he told the students. "And I can lower that about 100-fold by some very simple things."

smart phoning
Some tips for reducing radiation exposure from wireless devices:
  • Use a wired headset or a speakerphone.
  • Purchase a cell phone model with lower Specific Absorption Rate, or SAR, number.
  • Limit children's use of cell phones.
  • Stay off phones when few bars indicate a weak signal, as the devices under those conditions emit more radiation to maintain a connection.
    Sources: American Cancer Society; Environmental Working Group