Cellphones and the Brain: Faith, Hope and Calamity

It’s now official: Everything that the Federal Communications Commission has ever told us about the safety of cellphones is almost certainly wrong.

When the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse recently reported that simply holding a turned-on cellphone next to the ear for 50 minutes caused significant changes to brain chemistry, many stalwarts in the scientific community were stunned.

After all, cellphones were not even tested for safety before being introduced, because it was thought that they had to be safe. Not anymore. Faith fills church pews, but it should not be the basis for setting science policy. A better approach: “In God we trust; all others must provide data.”

This Is Your Brain on Cellphones

The general surprise that greeted the recent finding was belated; in fact, several previous studies have indicated that microwave radiation from cellphones affects the human brain. This time, however, the mainstream media bit.

“Fanboys” — the moniker for those young men and women who thrive on the Internet 24/7 — got what these findings meant right away. As a group that lives by their wits, they are not taking any chances. In hip urban communities created by instant messaging, and even in the world of rappers and DJs — from Lady Gaga to Steve Aoki — sales of headsets are soaring.

The modern history of research on microwave radiation — much of which was carried out before cellphones even existed — is replete with studies showing that pulsed digital signals, like those from today’s cellphones, cause a host of biological impacts on brains, bodies and cells in experimental animals and in humans. Still, most of us believe that phones have to be safe. After all, if there were really a problem, we would know it.

It turns out that the same microwave radiation that powers cellphones weakens the brain’s natural protective barrier — in fact, some brain cancer specialists use this radiation to enhance the delivery of chemotherapy into the brain.

A few hours a day of cellphone radiation reduces sperm count and produces misshapen and more sickly sperm in both animals and humans, found studies by some of the world’s top experts in Australia, Turkey, Greece and the U.S.

Every well-designed study that has followed heavy cellphone users for a decade found the same thing: a doubled risk of brain cancer. Those who begin using phones heavily as teenagers have an even greater risk of contracting brain cancer in a shorter period of time.

Concerned about the tripled rate of a very rare highly malignant tumor of the cheek in young persons, the Israeli government recently issued a warning that teenagers should not hold phones next to their brains and that everyone should use a headset.

Unacceptable Risk

Two things made the new study of brain changes from cellphones remarkable: its distinguished author and the fact that the report appeared in one of the world’s pre-eminent medical journals, The Journal of the American Medical Association.

These results provide a wake-up call to those government leaders and their policy-wonk advisors who have eagerly accepted assurances that microwave radiation simply had to be safe.

Standards for cellphone radiation were set in 1989, based on the head of a large heavy-set man who stood six feet two inches tall and weighed more than 220 pounds. Methods for setting these standards were not routinized until just a decade ago.

Obviously, most of the world’s cellphones, and most of their users, are smaller than those for which standards were originally set. If cellphones were a drug, they would be illegal today, because they never went through safety evaluation.

Last June, the City of San Francisco passed groundbreaking legislation stipulating that consumers have a right to know that cellphones are two-way microwave radios and that using a headset, speakerphone or texting can substantially reduce radiation. In response, the cellphone industry filed suit.

What are we supposed to do now? After all, the new study is just one study, right? In fact, it is part of a little-known, four-decade long program conducted in the U.S. Navy and elsewhere that has found a variety of health consequences from low levels of pulsed digital microwave radiation, including DNA damage to brain cells, greater production of damaging free-radicals in the bloodstream, and interference with drug metabolism.

The study reported in recent days strengthens the case for policies now in place in nations including Israel, France, Finland, India and Britain.

When it comes to holding a microwave-radiating device next to your brain, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Use a headset or speakerphone, as does Nora Volkow, M.D., the head of the new study; some of the world’s top neurosurgeons, including Keith Black of Los Angeles, Mitchell Berger of San Francisco, and Kevin O’Neill of Imperial College London; neuro-oncologists like Santosh Kaseri of San Diego, and me.

In the meantime, we should create a major independent program of research in this field by placing a US$1 fee on all cellphones for the next five years, and we should develop fundamentally new standards for cellphones that employ a concept from radiation physics: “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” (ALARA) radiation levels.

Impossible? Pollution controls for cars — now a global reality — were supposedly unattainable, until the government required them.

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