It's hard to believe that there was a time when anyone doubted the link between lung cancer and smoking. When I first came to work in a newsroom, it was common for nicotine addicts to smoke at their desks. People smoked in airplanes, in restaurants, hotel lobbies. The debate about smoking — and, in particular, the effects of second-hand smoke on nonsmokers — still raged, with some scientists and the medical community telling us one thing and the tobacco industry saying something else.
Now, of course, every pack of cigarettes must bear a warning from the surgeon general, and smoking is banned in many public spaces, including restaurants and airplanes.
Some say a similar struggle is in the works over electro-magnetic radiation, or non-ionizing radiation — the radiation created by electrical devices and cellular technology. For more than a decade, we’ve heard rumors that cell phones contribute to brain tumors, and most of us have dismissed it as urban legend. Our sense of safety has been enhanced by multiple studies — not all of them funded by the cell phone industry — showing no impact from cell phone and wireless use. When we happened across a study that showed a connection between cellular gadgetry and cancer, we set it out of our minds, more worried about what life would be like without our cell phones and wireless laptops than what those devices might do to our health.
But recent studies out of Europe, where most research on this subject is currently being done, indicate that there may well be reason for concern, particularly where children are concerned.
Danish scientists found that cell phone use has an effect on the brain’s metabolism, increasing “energy turnover” near the learning center of a brain in a way that may cause damage to brain cells. Though scientists could not prove that cellular use contributed to the death of those cells, the type of brain activity they saw was similar to that seen in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Another Danish study showed that women who used cell phones two to three times a day during pregnancy increased their risk — by 54 percent — of having babies that exhibited signs of hyperactivity, behavioral problems and emotional disorders by the time they reached school age. When they tried to account for other environmental factors, such as smoking, the connection between cell phone usage and developmental disorders only seemed stronger.
A Swedish study from the Karolinska Institute indicated that regular use of cellular or cordless phones over a decade or more was associated with an increased risk of acoustic neuromas, a benign type of brain tumor.
Another Swedish study, this one from University Hospital in rebro, found a five-fold increase in deadly brain tumors among those who began using cellular before the age of 20. The increase in risk from using cordless phones was four-fold.
The result of these studies, and others, have brought us to what one scientist referred to as “a watershed moment.”
Last September, the European Parliament voted 522 to 16 to tighten safety standards for cell phone use, particularly for children. Five countries have now issued warnings to their citizens regarding the possible dangers of cell phone use and wireless, including France, Germany and Finland, the home of Nokia. And here in the United States, the head of the University of Pittsburgh’s cancer center sent a memo to the 3,000 staff members about the possible dangers of widespread wireless and cell phone use.
On the other side are a range of studies that show no harm from regular long-term exposure to electro-magnetic radiation.
So what’s a health-conscious consumer to believe? Are our cellular gadgets killing us? Or can we continue with business as usual?
To get a better grasp of the issue, Boulder Weekly spoke with Dr. Jerry Phillips, a scientist with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, whose research includes work with non-ionizing radiation.
Boulder Weekly: A decade ago, we were being told that cell phones posed no danger to human health. But a rash of studies coming out of Europe seem to indicate something different. Now, our use of wireless has expanded to smart phones, laptops and the latest cool gizmo, the iPad.
Jerry Phillips: We’ve been exposed to various sources at various frequencies for quite some time, and it’s only increasing as new technologies are developed. The bottom line of what I did beginning back in about ’82, ’83, was to look at what happens to living systems when they’re exposed to various forms of what we call non-ionizing radiation. This includes electric and magnetic fields from household electricity, as well as the fields that are produced from things like cell phones, cell phone towers, wi-fi networks — anything electrical.
If it’s electrical in any way, it’s going to produce some kind of field, and you can produce fields of different frequencies, from low frequency — the stuff out of electrical outlets — to high frequency that people associate with microwave ovens and cell phones. Cell phones are up in that real high frequency range like microwave ovens.
BW: So cell phones are like tiny microwave ovens?
JP: Wrong. Absolutely wrong.
When you think microwave oven, you think heat. And if you think cell phone, you can’t think heat because there’s not enough energy produced generally to produce any heat whatsoever. And that’s where the real problem lies — trying to understand how radiation at these frequencies can produce effects without generating heat. That’s the big problem — trying to understand it right now. Industry has that much on their side. They can always say the only legitimate response we know to these things is heat, and these things don’t generate heat, so how can they have an effect? And right now all we can say is they do have effects. We’ve demonstrated that over and over and over again in a number of labs in a number of ways. We just don’t know the underlying basis for those effects.
BW: There were studies that came out of Denmark indicating that cellular phone use by pregnant women led to an increase in learning disorders and developmental problems in their babies. Germany has cautioned people to think twice before having wireless in their homes. But what we hear from industry is that we have no conclusive evidence.
JP: To me this brings up the really important question. You’ve got people on one side — often activists — who say, “Look, this is a problem. We have to do something about it. We can’t let people push us around. We’re being used as human guinea pigs.” They show only the literature that shows biological effects, and they tend to put down any literature that doesn’t show a biological effect. And often what you will hear from them is that any literature that doesn’t show an effect was funded by industry. But that’s just not true. My work was paid for by industry. Of course, it pissed them off that I got what I got, and we had a falling out, but they paid for the work.
You have people on the other side, like industry, and what industry tends to do is say, “Any studies that show a biological effect are wrong, and we have all these other studies that don’t show an effect. Obviously, they were right. They were better done.”
At the same time, you’ll have people saying, “Let’s count the studies. There are 50 studies that show an effect and 200 studies that don’t show an effect.” And then it becomes something akin to a sporting event, where the high score wins. And that’s what they refer to as “weight of evidence.” Studies cancel one another, and the larger one wins.
You can’t believe anybody who does any of those things. … There are good studies and bad studies on both sides of this issue. I would never, ever attempt to tell someone that all of the studies that show an effect are good, because there’s a lot of crap out there, a lot of really lousy science. At the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of good research out there on both sides of the issue. So how do you then look at it, and how do you come to a good decision about what the studies mean?
First of all, what you have to say is that if there’s even one good study, one really good study, that demonstrates that there is a biological effect, then, by George, there is a biological effect. And that means that this radio frequency radiation or extremely low frequency radiation does interact with living tissue. That’s undeniable.
So where do you go from there? You look at studies that don’t show an effect — they’re never done exactly the same. So you say, “Now I have a whole bunch of studies that show me when something happens and when it doesn’t happen, and now we can begin to under stand what’s going on.”
The ones that take the scientific approach, the rational approach, are the ones I believe. And the people who do all that other stuff — boy, I’ve got no use for them on either side.
BW: Your research focused on rats, correct?
JP: We did some work with rats that were exposed to cell telephone frequency fields, and we looked for changes in the incidence of central nervous system tumors. In the first study we did, we found there was actually a decrease in central nervous system tumors in the exposed animals. We had a good time with Motorola, which was paying for this study, when they came out to visit. We started teasing them, saying, “You guys should be happy. There’s a protective effect. Look at your advertising — you can tell people that if they use your cell phones, they’ll be protected against tumors.”
Well, they didn’t see the humor in it — and for good reason. What they recognized as soon as we presented the data was that any effect, whether it was an increase or decrease, indicated that the cell telephone fields interacted with living tissue.
When you look at the way the studies were done, we used one frequency, one exposure intensity, one exposure regimen, because those studies are so expensive to do. So under the conditions we used, sure, we saw a decrease.
But does that mean that under other exposure conditions you would get a decrease? Of course not, because we saw an interaction with tissue. It depends on why the decrease was produced. And that’s where we attempted to go with cells rather than whole animals.
BW: Did that work show something different?
JP: We worked with cells, and we just looked for changes in damage to DNA. And what we found was that depending upon the specific frequency and the time of exposure, the intensity of the field — how strong it was, how weak it was — we saw sometimes a decrease in DNA damage and sometimes an increase. The interesting thing was the field we used for the animal study that generated the decrease, we also saw generated a decrease in DNA damage in our system. We speculated why that is based on other studies that were already in the literature for X-rays. What the studies for X-rays showed — and what we proposed — was in the system that we were using exposure to the cell telephone actually increased DNA damage, but when it did, it triggered a response from the cells or from the animal’s brains that actually started repair mechanisms going.
Like an antibody or a vaccine?
JP: Well, kind of. Not nearly the same mechanism, but I know what you’re getting at. It’s like saying, “Look — there’s damage, and we have to repair it.” So the repair systems kick into gear, and, boy, do they repair well. And that’s why DNA damage decreased and why brain tumors decreased, because you’re repairing damage. But what we speculated was what happens if you produce so much damage under certain exposure conditions that the repair mechanisms can’t keep up? That’s when you see an increased incidence of brain tumors. So that’s what we wanted to work with, and Motorola said no way.
BW: After doing these studies, do you own a cell phone?
BW: Do you use it when you feel like using it?
JP: Not quite. I use it hands-free nearly all the time. I use it for texting — that’s how my daughter and I keep in contact. It’s not kept on my person. It’s in my briefcase or on my desk somewhere.
BW: Do you have wireless in your home?
JP: Our Internet provider is Comcast Cable, so we’re wired. Why not wireless? No need for it.
BW: What about laptops and iPads and Kindles? They’re electric, plus they receive and send wireless signals.
JP: On the lap is kind of iffy because you have some pretty sensitive organs that are exposed to fields. And nobody really understands. Part of the problem with a lot of this stuff is that there is a latency period for tumor development, and what that latency period is depends upon so many different things that are still not understood.
I was reading an article on carcinogenesis, a brand new one not that long ago. And so what was the thrust? Why is there a latency period, and why don’t we understand how long it is? And what does it have to do with the immune system and the immune function? Why is it that you’ll see the immune system fail in some cases and tumors expressed? Is this really what the latency period is about? And is this why we see tumors more in old people than young? These are things nobody really knows.
Then it comes down to what affects the immune system. Do all of these exposures affect tissues in the vicinity? Do they also affect the immune system in some way? Nobody knows. There’s no money in this country to do work unless it comes from industry, so there really isn’t anything going on in this country.
BW: Europe is leading the way on this issue. Are they being alarmist?
JP: I see Europe right now as cautious. And then it’s a matter of whether people consider them overly cautious. At least based on what I’ve seen, few people are alarmist over there to the extent that they would tell people don’t use this or you are guaranteed suchand-such. What they tend to say is, “Look, it seems that something is going on. Children seem to be more vulnerable. Exercise caution until we know what’s happening.” I don’t see that as alarmist. I see that as suitably cautious.
BW: I saw devices online to reduce your exposure to electro-magnetic radiation. I wondered if that stuff is just something that’s profiting off people’s fears.
JP: It sure is. There are a gazillion devices. … Most of the products are nonsense. There’s a whole area that is developing that people are calling “dirty electricity.” Put that in the “that’s nonsense” column for now. But it’s turned out to be a business. The work that’s being done to demonstrate that this is real or that any biological effects are real — it’s nonsense.
BW: I want to advise my readers on what’s the best thing for them to do, but I don’t know what to tell them.
JP: It comes down to the same thing as everything else. When I talk to people about this, it comes down to always being informed and making our own decisions as the best decisions we can make. We do that when we eat. People will decide whether to eat the hot dog with the nitrates. There are problems associated with nitrates. People do the same thing with smoking. There are people who smoke three packs a day and nothing bad ever happens except lung function decreases, but they don’t get lung cancer.
BW: It does seem to
be for a lot of these health-related concerns — and maybe this is one of
the reasons why research is so difficult — that there’s a matrix of
your stress, your diet, your exercise, your exposures —
JP: Your genetics. The key to understanding how most things affect us is that there is an interaction between our genetics and environment, and I mean environment in a very, very broad, all-encompassing sense. We have a number of factors in our environment, including these physical agents like non-ionizing radiation at a gazillion different frequencies, but also diesel, cigarette smoke, other pollutants, insecticides. Plus we have the environments in ourselves based on things that we eat.
We know that cancer is the result of an interaction of genetics with environment. We know so many other diseases are the result of an interaction of genetics with environment. Understanding that complex interaction between the two is what a lot of research is about. It’s just going to take a long time to understand it.