There is no proven reason, of course, to think that either of these steps is necessary. Never mind that the Federal Government insists there is no cause for alarm, or that no study has established a link between cell-phone use and illness. Shafransky and Wilson belong to a small but growing group of consumers who are fretting about whether there are health risks. The cell-phone companies contend the fears are unfounded but, savvy marketers that they are, most are quietly introducing more efficient--and therefore lower-radiation--phones.
There seemed to be only good news last month in reports in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine that found no connection between cell phones and brain cancer. After comparing hundreds of cancer patients who had used cell phones with cancer-free control groups that had similar usage profiles, the studies concluded that cell phones posed no cancer risk. According to the New England Journal, "There was no evidence that the risks were higher among persons who used cellular phones for 60 or more minutes per day or regularly for five or more years."
Both studies were limited in scope and duration, since cancer can take many years to develop. Participants in the JAMA study had used cell phones for less than three years on average, while the New England Journal report included only 45 people--out of 1,581 studied--who had used cell phones for a total of more than 500 hours. Moreover, the New England Journal report said its study sample was too small to spot an increased risk of tumors in the part of the brain near the ear--precisely where tumors caused by radiation might be expected to occur. Both reports said longer-term studies are needed.
The cell-phone industry's best-known naysayer is George Carlo, a scientist who once headed a controversial five-year, $25 million industry-sponsored study of possible radiation hazards. "I just don't want people to put these phones to the sides of their heads," says Carlo, who this month published a scathing book about his findings, called Cell Phones: Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age (Carroll & Graf; $25). Carlo maintains that his data show plenty of cause for concern; he uses a hands-free headset that keeps his frequently busy mobile phone away from his brain. But J.E. Moulder, a cancer specialist at the Medical College of Wisconsin and an occasional consultant to the cell-phone industry, questions Carlo's scientific studies and conclusions.
Consumers are thus caught in a non-stop swirl of studies and alarms mixed with repeated assurances by the $100 billion cell-phone industry--led by such respected names as Motorola, Ericsson and Nokia--that there is nothing to worry about. Says Norman Sandler, Motorola's top safety spokesman: "This is not an issue that has suddenly come to the forefront. It has been vigorously discussed in open scientific meetings for years on end." (On one point virtually all sides agree: talking on a cell phone while driving can lead to accidents, which is why communities in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have recently banned the use of handheld phones.)
The industry's posture on radiation is shared by federal watchdogs like the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the safety of electronic devices, and the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates cell-phone radiation standards. "There is no significant new evidence in the past year that there is need for greater concern than already exists," says Russell Owen, chief of the FDA's Radiation Biology Branch. Concurs Michael Thun, the head of epidemiological research at the American Cancer Society: "If there's a risk [of cancer], it's an exceedingly small one."
Science will never be able to prove that cell phones are safe, and it may take decades to identify which users, if any, may be vulnerable to the radio waves. "Nobody knows the consequences of using cell phones from childhood and having radio waves reaching far into the brain," notes Dr. Leif Salford, a Swedish neurosurgeon who has found evidence that cell-phone radiation may weaken the brain's protection against potentially harmful substances in the bloodstream. Salford calls widespread cell-phone use "the world's largest biological experiment ever." He adds, "It would be sad if people found out 20 years from now that they have diseases."