Earth Matters: Talking the talk about cell phone safety

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By Patti Wood

There are fewer and fewer hands today that do not hold cell phones. What did we hold before cell phones became appendages of our arms? (ap•pend•age – a thing that is added or attached to something larger or more important). Maybe we held our children’s hands more, maybe we held our steering wheels with both hands. I actually witnessed in horror as a woman stepped out in front of a moving car in New York City as she clutched her cell phone in her hand, eyes riveted on the screen. She was severely injured.

You may have heard the public service announcements about distracted driving while using cell phones. If not, you should know there is a statewide effort to provide designated “text stop” pull-off areas along major highways for drivers to park and safely use their mobile devices. It is intended to send a clear message that texting is no longer an excuse to take your hands off the wheel and eyes off the road.

State and federal agencies and even manufacturers enthusiastically get behind talking about texting while driving because it’s “safe” to talk about this kind of danger. Because like cigarettes, it’s the fault of the user. But it’s not the only danger associated with cell phones.

There is a growing international effort by medical doctors and researchers to warn users of cell phones of the inherent radiofrequency radiation exposure and the very real risk of harm. For sure, an occasional news segment will report a study citing the possibility that brain tumors or breast tumors may be caused by cell phones held directly against the head or tucked into sports tops.

Then there are the unreported, but growing number of scientific studies linking cell phone use to headaches, tinnitus, parotid gland tumors, sperm damage, electromagnetic hypersensitivity, heart irregularities and damage to the developing brain. Other living things also appear to be affected, especially birds and insects, and even plants.
But who wants to throw a wet blanket on this love affair with our phones?

Dr. Devra Davis, Nobel-prize winning toxicologist, author and grandmother, wants to do just that. She has discovered something more insidious than the dangers of texting while driving. Her book, “Disconnect,” reviews the science and the politics surrounding the cell phone. As a scientist who has spent her entire professional career examining the links between the environment and health, the threat of cell phones and related technologies inspired her to create a non-profit, sue the FCC for its inadequate safety standards to protect the public and travel the world speaking to doctors and scientists.

Dr. Davis initially looked at the emerging research from technologically sophisticated nations, like Israel and Finland, early users of cell phone technology, whose authorities were beginning to issue warnings about the dangers of heavy cell phone use and the disturbing trend of the increased use of cell phones by children.

In fact, children’s heads are smaller, their skulls are thinner, and the radiation from a cell phone penetrates deeper into their brains. The absorption of their skull’s bone marrow can be ten times greater than that of an adult.

So, what are we doing about this? Here in the United States we continue to market cell phones and other wireless devices to be used for and by young children, while other countries are taking actions to protect their youngest citizens. France has banned the sale of cell phones designed for young children and made it illegal to market cell phones to children less than 14 years of age. France has also banned cell phones in elementary and middle schools and playgrounds. Russian officials recommend that children under the age of 18 not use cell phones at all. The United Kingdom, Germany and India have all issued warnings about children and cell phone use.

Why isn’t science playing a role here? For sure, there is more than enough peer-reviewed independent research to take protective actions, but it’s not “safe” to talk about.
In 1995, after a lawsuit against a cell phone company claiming that its phone had caused a lethal brain tumor, the telecom industry financed a $28 million investigation into the safety of mobile (cell) phones.

The findings did not make the industry happy, since they revealed many serious questions about phone safety.

In more than 50 original studies, researchers found that “rare neuroepithelial tumors on the outside of the brain was more than doubled in cell phone users,” and there was an apparent correlation between “brain tumors occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head” and the “ability of radiation from a phone’s antenna to cause functional genetic damage was definitely positive.”

No major news organizations reported this or on any of the other studies that have been done over the past two decades that corroborate these findings. This is a perfect example of an industry in control of what decision-makers and consumers actually hear about the science, even after their own scientists privately warned that their products could be dangerous, especially to children.

Dr. Davis ends a chapter in her book with the following thought: “Years from now our grandchildren will look back and ask: Did we do the right thing and act to protect them, or did we harm them needlessly, irresponsibly, and permanently, blinded by the addictive delights of our technological age?”

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