Cell-Phone Radiation Risks: Why the Jury's Still Out

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From left: T-Mobile's MyTouch, Apple's iPhone and the Samsung Impression

Roughly 270 million Americans do it several times a day: talk on a cell phone. Seems harmless. But when you make and re­ceive calls, your cell phone emits low levels of radio-frequency radiation — a fact that has fueled heated and ongoing scientific debate on the health risks of mobile-phone use.

On Sept. 9, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a public-health advocacy, released a lengthy review of past research linking long-term or frequent cell-phone use with increased rates of brain tumors, migraines and kids' behavioral problems. For their part, the phone industry and the Federal Government say cell phones are safe. The "majority of studies published have failed to show an association between exposure to radio-frequency from a cell phone and health problems," states the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on its website. But concerns are high enough that the Senate on Sept. 14 held hearings — led by Democratic Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a brain-cancer survivor — to examine the subject. The outcome: inconclusive. “The current [industry] safety standards are not sufficiently supported," says Dariusz Leszczynski, a Finnish radiation researcher who spoke at the hearing, "because of the very limited research on human volunteers, children and on the effects of long-term exposure in humans."

Despite the government's view that cell phones pose no danger, some researchers note that most of us have been using them for less than a decade. If there is indeed a cumulative risk to using a mobile phone, it's possible that users won't be aware of it until it's too late — just as it took doctors decades to connect cigarette-smoking with lung cancer. "We all wish we'd heeded the early warnings about cigarettes," says Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist at EWG and the author of the recent report on cell phones. "We think cell phones are similar."

That theory is far from certain. While it's clear that humans absorb weak radiation through handsets (the EWG report noted the particular vulnerability of children, whose skulls, according to a French study, absorb twice as much cell-phone radiation as those of adults), what's not clear is whether that radiation causes harm. Scientists are waiting for the publication of a $30 million, 14,000-person international study called Interphone, which is meant to nail down the answer once and for all. But the study ended in 2006 and its authors are still squabbling over the interpretation of their data. To date, the "peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk," says John Walls, a spokesperson for CTIA, the international wireless-industry association.

Better, long-term research is needed — and it can't come from the cell-phone industry. (Some scientists have suggested levying a $1 surtax on phones to fund new studies.) For now, you can use a Bluetooth or wired headset or simply talk on your cell phone less to reduce the amount of radiation that bombards your skull. You can also choose a low-radiation cell phone; the EWG has created a searchable online database that ranks the radiation levels of more than 1,200 models. (Sorry, Apple fans, your iPhone ranks pretty high.) And finally, take a cue from the nearest teenager: texting is safer than talking.