Health & Medicine

Do cellphones boost cancer risk? Jury’s still out, some scientists say.

sokada@sacbee.com

Unofficial California guidelines released last month after years of legal battles contained worrisome warnings about one of the most ubiquitous devices around – cellphones. Everyday habits such as holding a phone to your ear, sleeping near your device or making calls in weak reception areas could expose users to potentially cancer-causing radiation, the guidelines said.

The two-page tip sheet, titled “Cell Phones and Health,” was written in 2014 but only made public this March, after the state Department of Public Health lost a court case with a UC Berkeley researcher demanding the document’s release. Its emergence adds intrigue to a years-long debate about whether our pocket-sized devices pose a looming threat to our health.

The jury is still out on whether cellphone use increases cancer risk. A few animal studies have showed tumor formation in mice exposed to cellphone radiation, but some scientists say the results aren’t applicable to humans. Other studies have found correlations between people who develop brain cancer and those who use mobile devices, but critics say asking people to recall phone habits over several decades produces unreliable results.

Still, advocates continue to push for transparency around cellphone dangers. In 2010, the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors passed a law requiring cellphone retailers to display a radiation level next to every phone they sell. In 2015, Berkeley mandated that all cellphone stores post a warning sign about health risks.

In both cases, the wireless industry retaliated in court. The CTIA, formerly known as the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, forced the San Francisco board to rescind its law. They also challenged the Berkeley ordinance in 2015, but only managed to tweak the cautionary language on the sign.

Even if cellphones aren’t the next public health emergency, they shouldn’t be brushed off as harmless, said Dr. Jonathan Samet, a pulmonary physician and epidemiologist at the University of Southern California. Samet supervised a report from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which classifies cellphone radiation as a “possible human carcinogen” – a category that also includes aloe leaves, gasoline, nickel and lead.

“Pretty soon, the whole world’s population will be exposed to radiation from devices from an early age,” he said. “It’s something that should be taken very seriously, and we should be doing our best to understand if there’s any risk.”

Cellphones, like microwaves and televisions, emit a type of non-ionizing radiation called radio frequency waves. Non-ionizing waves alone don’t have enough energy to cause cancer by directly damaging the DNA inside cells, according to the National Cancer Institute.

David Rocke, a professor of biostatistics and biomedical engineering at UC Davis, said that when it comes to a cellphone’s cancer-causing potential, “the physics make it impossible.”

“X-rays, CAT scans, things like that could potentially cause cancer because you’ve got bullet-like protons that can go through cells and cause damage,” he said. “Then there are big particles that we get from cosmic rays, that are like bowling balls. And compared to that, cellphone radiation is like a bag of feathers. … There’s really no scientific evidence that a cellphone is hazardous to your health, unless you’re holding it when you’re driving a car.”

Joel Moskowitz, the director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley, filed the lawsuit against the state health department to force the guidelines’ release. He contends that cellphones cause an array of health problems that haven’t reached the public eye yet, including breast cancer, decreased fertility and altered brain glucose metabolism.

There’s just a lot of confusion about cellphone radiation, about the need to maintain a safe distance, the need to take precautionary measures to reduce exposure,” Moskowitz said. “Most people assume that because the government allows (the cellphone) industry to proliferate, it must be safe. That’s really a misguided set of beliefs.”

Moskowitz first learned about the California Department of Public Health guidelines in late 2013 from a whistle blower, he said. He submitted three Public Records Act requests for the document between January 2014 and January 2015, all of which were denied. In one response letter, the agency called the guidelines a “work in progress” containing “inaccurate information, as well as recommendations not yet finally reviewed and approved.” In May 2016, Moskowitz filed a lawsuit against the department in the Sacramento County Superior Court.

During months of hearings, the state argued that the document was a preliminary draft, and that releasing it would “cause undue panic and unnecessary doctor or medical visits.” Moskowitz demanded its release in the name of public health.

On March 13 the judge ruled in favor of Moskowitz, declaring in court documents that there is “significant public interest in DPH’s investigation into the risks associated with cellular phone use.”

The department declined requests for an interview, but said in an email that they scrapped the guidelines because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its own tip sheet on cellphones in June 2014. The federal agency’s page states that “more research is needed before we know if using cellphones causes health effects” and provides advice for people who want to minimize radiation exposure, such as wearing a headset or using a speaker phone.

“Internal reviewers did not think the document added new information beyond that contained in existing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” said Corey Egel, a spokesman for the department, in an email. “The draft remains an unofficial, unapproved document and does not state the official position of the California Department of Public Health.”

Stanton Glantz, a University of California, San Francisco researcher and longtime tobacco opponent, said Moskowitz performed a public service by bringing the document to light. The evidence on cellphones is “similar to what the evidence on tobacco was in the ’60s”, he said, and the powerful forces behind the roughly $430 billion global smartphone industry are similarly stifling.

“While there are many questions left open, as with everything, I think there’s enough evidence now that people need to be concerned,” Glantz said. “And I think the cellphone companies are acting a little bit like tobacco companies in that they’re trying to suppress the evidence we have now.”

Claire Cranton, spokeswoman for the London-based Groupe Speciale Mobile Association, said the trade organization will continue to support research on radio frequency.

“No health risks have been established from exposure to the low-level radio signals used for mobile communications,” she said in an email. “Mobile operators and the GSMA encourage national regulatory authorities to adopt international recommendations on (electromagnetic field) exposure levels for mobile communications to protect industry workers, mobile consumers and the general public.”

The largest global study on cellphone radiation was funded by the European Union and the Union for International Cancer Control, with additional contributions from the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association and another trade group. The findings suggested an increased risk of brain tumors in the 10 percent of subjects who used their cellphones the most, but the researchers ultimately noted that the results weren’t conclusive.

In 2015, a group of 255 global scientists, including researchers from Columbia University, Harvard Medical School and the University of Southern California, wrote a letter to the United Nations and the World Health Organization about their “serious concerns regarding the ubiquitous and increasing exposure to (electromagnetic fields) generated by electric and wireless devices.”

“By not taking action, the WHO is failing to fulfill its role as the preeminent international public health agency,” the letter read. “The various agencies setting safety standards have failed to impose sufficient guidelines to protect the general public, particularly children who are more vulnerable to the effects of (electromagnetic fields).”

Dr. Samet, of USC, said there’s no reason to panic about cellphone use, but people who are worried should stay informed and minimize their radiation exposure as they see fit.

“It would be unfortunate if our first evidence of this is a rise in glioma (brain tumors) in young people,” he said. “I wouldn’t say you should abandon your phone. These devices have transformed our world, and there’s a shadow of possible risk. For those who want to be as proactive possible, they can take a precaution.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

Limiting exposure

Some tips on how to limit exposure to cellphone radiation from California’s guidelines:

  • Use a speaker phone.
  • Use a headset and carry your phone away from your body.
  • Keep cellphone calls short.
  • Limit cellphone use for children, who may be more sensitive to electromagnetic field exposure.
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