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Robin Huebner, Published August 24 2012

Robin Huebner reports: Many experts say cellphones harmless, but questions persist

FARGO - Think of a product used by millions of people. The companies that make this product market it to the masses, including teenagers.

We don’t fully understand how using this product affects us. But we enjoy using it and are dependent on it, so we sure don’t want to give it up.

This could describe how people felt about cigarettes decades ago, or how some feel about cellphones now.

Time has shown us that cigarettes are, indeed, harmful to our health. The verdict is still out on cellphones, but there are experts who don’t hesitate to say they aren’t necessarily safe.

Dr. Keith Black, chairman of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, is one of them. He treated O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran, who died of a brain tumor in 2005. Black believes Cochran’s heavy cellphone use was a factor in his illness and that the scientific research will eventually catch up with what he’s seeing in his patients.

In an interview last year, Black stated, “The problem we have is that we know that most environmental agents that cause cancer don’t cause cancer after a month or a year or two years of exposure. The best example I can give to illustrate this is that, if one was to start smoking cigarettes when they were 12, we don’t expect them to develop lung cancer when they’re 22. We expect them to develop lung cancer when they’re 42 or 52, three or four decades of exposure. We just don’t have that long period of study with people that have used cellphones.”

Phones and kids

As a parent, this gets my attention, because both of my children have cellphones. My 13-year-old often sleeps with his phone plugged into an outlet near his head, despite my urging him not to. He also carries his cellphone around in his pocket.

What also gets my attention is a recent request that the federal government take a fresh look at how cellphones might affect our health.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office asked the Federal Communications Commission to reassess how much radiation we can be exposed to through our cellphones and how those limits are tested. It was 16 years ago the FCC first did that, when cellphone use was in its infancy.

In fact, the year those limits were set, 1996, the first clamshell-style flip phone was introduced. Most other cell phone models were bigger and boxier – certainly not something you’d carry around in your pocket as we do now.

Back in 1996, few teenagers had cellphones. According to the Pew Research Center, 87 percent of American teens 14 to 17 now have cellphones, while 57 percent of those ages 12 to 13 do.

Some local parents are concerned by cell phone use among children.

“I worry about potential exposure to electromagnetic radiation for all of us, but especially our kids, who are being exposed at a younger age and will be for a much longer span of time than us,” says Brad Schneider, a father of three.

A quick Internet search yields all kinds of published research looking at cell phone use and possible ties to brain, head and neck cancers. But it doesn’t give us a lot to go on, because some of the studies show there is a correlation and others show there is not.

What studies say

The first study of cell phone use in children was done in northern Europe and was known as CEFALO. The results released last year showed young cell phone users were not at increased risk of developing a brain tumor.

However, the researchers said the study has limitations and some uncertainty remains.

Some dispute the CEFALO findings. According to Microwave News, the study did show a higher risk of brain tumors in all of the kids, regardless of how much time they spent on their phones. But because the risk didn’t go up with increased use, researchers concluded there was no true association.

Expert agencies don’t give us clear guidance either.

The World Health Organization has classified cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” in a broad category along with lead, engine exhaust and coffee.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Centers for Disease Control both say there’s no significant relationship between cell phone use and cancer.

Different than X-rays

I went to a local expert in the field to see what he thinks. Brent Colby is the director of Radiology Physics at Sanford Health in Fargo.

“They’re well designed,” Colby says of cell phones. “They seem safe to me.”

Colby says the electromagnetic energy emitted by cell phones is non-ionizing radiation, similar to what’s given off by microwave ovens. It’s different from ionizing radiation emitted by x-rays or radon, which is known to increase the risk of cancer.

“Ionizing radiation can remove electrons from atoms and molecules. The damage from that is very different from the simple heating of cell phones,” he says.

Colby acknowledges that children do absorb the energy of cell phones a little more than adults because of their anatomy. Their skulls are thinner and their brains are still growing.

“The penetration is more significant,” Colby says, “but still, I think, safe.”

Items target concern

Yet there’s no shortage of products that play into concerns over cell phone safety. A brand new app called Tawkon is designed to take the guesswork out of cell phone radiation levels. And what about cell phone shields that claim to protect you from the emissions? Colby is skeptical.

“They may also drive up the intensity and may work against you. That probably won’t make the vendors happy,” he says.

I asked Colby whether some of this cell phone concern is fear-mongering.

This question prompted him to pop up from his chair and retrieve something that looks like a credit card, and known as ‘Detecto.’ You’re supposed to wave it around your microwave oven to see if it has any radiation leaks.

“A complete scam,” he says.

But it’s worth pointing out that throughout our interview, the physicist still chose his words carefully.

As to the CEFALO study of whether cell phones cause brain tumors in children, Colby says, “The study has its critics, and it could turn out that the critics are right. But it seems unlikely to me.”

“What we see so far is no good causal relationship between cell phones and cancer. Not that it could never happen…”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Robin Huebner at (701) 451-5607

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