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Cell phones could cause noncancerous tumors
Study finds cell phones could cause noncancerous tumors
By Nancy McVicar
October 14, 2004
People who have used cell phones for at least 10 years might have an increased
risk of developing a rare brain tumor, according to a study published Wednesday
in the international journal Epidemiology.
A team of researchers at Institute of Environmental Medicine at the Karolinska
Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, found almost a fourfold increase of the tumors,
known as acoustic neuromas, on the side of the head where the phone was most
The work was done as part of the World Health Organization's cell phone research
agenda, and experts in the field said it must be taken seriously and is likely
to rekindle consumer worries about the risks of using the phones.
"The Karolinska researchers are respected around the world, and this study will
force health agencies to take a fresh look at mobile phone risks," said Louis
Slesin, publisher of Microwave News, who has been covering the industry since
its early days. "This study should put an end to the industry's call to stop
mobile phone health research."
At least one past study conducted for the cell phone industry also had suggested
a link between the phones and this type of tumor. But cell phone industry
officials on Wednesday said the Swedish research is only one study and that no
conclusions can be drawn from it.
The study, involving 150 acoustic neuroma patients and 600 healthy people, is
one of at least six studies of possible links between cell phone use and
acoustic neuromas. Most of those studies had fewer long-term users than the
Acoustic neuromas are slow-growing noncancerous tumors that develop on a nerve
linking the brain and the inner ear. The most common first symptom is hearing
loss, but as the tumor grows it can push against brain tissue. If not treated,
it can be life threatening. Such tumors are very rare, occurring in about one
person per 100,000 in the general population.
"It's a natural place to look [for a problem] because this is the area of the
head that is exposed," said Anders Ahlbom, director of the Institute of
Environmental Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. When a cell
phone is in use, it emits radio-frequency radiation, some of which is absorbed
in areas of the head closest to the handset.
To conduct the three-year study, the Karolinska researchers interviewed people
who had developed the tumors -- asking about their cell phone use, how many
different phones they had used, the makes and models, duration of calls, whether
they used a hands-free set and on which side of the head they held the phone.
Researchers said they found no association between the tumors and the amount of
use measured in hours or cumulative number of calls, but rather on the length of
time those in the study had been regular users of cell phones. Regular use was
defined as an average of at least once a week during six months or more.
Ahlbom said in a phone interview that the data are strong and statistically
significant, but the findings must be confirmed by follow-up studies. He said
the mechanism by which cell-phone radiation might cause tumors remains unknown.
Dr. David Savitz, chairman of the department of epidemiology at the University
of North Carolina School of Public Health, Chapel Hill, said the new findings
"suggest something a little bit troublesome."
"It is significant in the sense that it is the first well-designed study to show
this," Savitz said. "There was an earlier study that came out, but it didn't
have as many people with long-term use."
Dr. Henry Lai, research professor of bioengineering at the University of
Washington in Seattle, also said the Karolinska study is not the first to show a
link between cell phones and acoustic neuromas.
"Another Swedish researcher, Dr. [Lennart] Hardell found similar results in
2002," Lai said, "so this is, in effect, a replication. I think the data are
quite solid and are cause for concern on long-term cell phone use."
Lai's own research found DNA breaks in the brain cells of animals exposed to
radio-frequency radiation, results that were first published in 1994, and have
been repeated by others, he said.
"We looked at DNA damage in animals, not in humans, and found that cell phone
radiation can damage DNA," he said. The body's immune system has the ability to
repair DNA breaks, but sometimes it can make a mistake and cause a mutation,
which could be the first step toward cancer, Lai said.
Sam Milham of Olympia, Wash., an epidemiologist and pioneer in studying the
effects of electromagnetic radiation on humans, said it usually takes 20 years
or more for solid tumors to develop.
"I'm actually astonished that they found anything like this early," Milham said.
"If that energy can do that to normal nerve tissue cells, what can it do to
adjacent brain cells? I think it's the tip of a big iceberg, and the peak could
be at 25 years past exposure.
"What's really alarming is that in the last five years an enormous number of
people started using cell phones, including kids, so I think this is just the
beginning of it. I hope I'm wrong."
According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association's Web
site, updated daily, there are more than 170 million wireless subscribers in the
The safety of cell phones was first called into question by the death of a
Florida woman, Susan Reynard of Madeira Beach, from a brain tumor. In January
1993, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published a story about a lawsuit filed by
her husband, David, alleging that the cellular phone he bought her while she was
pregnant caused or accelerated the growth of the tumor that killed her. The case
was later dismissed for lack of scientific evidence.
At the time the suit was filed, the cell phone industry association, the CTIA,
said thousands of studies had been done showing the phones were safe, but then
was not able to provide any. The industry pledged to spend $25 million on
research to prove the phones are safe.
At least three federal agencies -- the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal
Communications Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency -- have roles
in regulating radio-frequency radiation, but only recently has the federal
government committed funds to studying the cell phone issue. Those studies are
not expected to be completed for five to seven years.
Dr. George Carlo, an epidemiologist then working at George Washington University
School of Medicine, coordinated the industry-supported project, which began in
the mid-1990s. When the money ran out in 2000, Carlo said, more research was
needed because one study showed the risk of acoustic neuroma was 50 percent
higher in people who used cell phones for six years or more, and that there
appeared to be a correlation between brain tumors on the right side of the head
and the use of the phones on that side.
Carlo could not be reached on Wednesday, but the CTIA issued a statement on the
"This is just one study on this particular subject and no conclusions can be
drawn from it," said spokesman John Walls. "The wireless industry agrees that
more research is needed in this area to provide definitive answers to any
questions that might still exist. Numerous independent scientific bodies have
conducted research on possible health effects from using wireless phones and it
is widely accepted that no conclusive link can be made."
Mays Swicord, director of electromagnetic energy research at Motorola in
Plantation, one of the world's largest manufacturers of wireless products, said
the Karolinska study has to be taken in context alongside 1,300 other
peer-reviewed publications on radio frequency radiation and health. No
consistent evidence has been observed for an increased risk of cancer, he said.
Swicord said the Swedish study findings eventually will be pooled with similar
studies under way in 12 other countries as part of the so-called INTERPHONE
study, an international collaboration coordinated by WHO's International Agency
for Research on Cancer.
Nancy McVicar can be reached at or 954-356-4593.
Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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