When buying a cell phone, people consider its color, price and style. But according to a recent report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), they should also be thinking about how their phone will affect their health.
In a report by the EWG, a non-profit organization that focuses on providing information about public health and the environment, published studies that showed correlations between health problems and using a cell phone for 10 years or more. These effects include an increased risk of brain cancer, salivary gland tumors, behavioral problems, migraines and vertigo.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), all reported negative effects of cell phones connect to heating of body tissues caused by the radio frequencies (RF) emitted by cell phones.
EWG Press Associate Leann Brown said that the EWG’s research department conducted a 10-month evaluation of 200 studies about health risks related to cell phones and compiled them into a “comprehensive report.”
“We’re asking the U.S. government to really take a look at the most recent science and to continue to look at long term studies,” Brown said, “especially studies that focus on children and teenagers who have thinner skulls that adults, which are not able to protect the brain as well from radiation from the phones.”
Brown said there are two key things teenagers should do to reduce exposure to cell phone radio frequency emissions. First, she recommends texting over talking on the phone because texting keeps phones farther away from the brain. Second, Brown recommends limiting exposure to the head when calling by using a headset, speakerphone or holding the phone an inch away from the head.
“It’s important for high school students now to understand that they’re facing a lifetime exposure for longer than any generation before them,” Brown said. “And it’s really the long term exposure that we’re concerned about with cell phones.”
Junior Lauren King often texts her friends when she’s bored in class and on the weekends she calls friends to make plans. Lauren feels that even with the recent EWG report of possible health risks linked to cell phones, people will be unlikely to change their behavior.
The EWG included its recommendations to protect consumers from cell phone emissions in its report. They recommend that the U.S. government require phones to be labeled with their radiation emissions and that the cell phone industry sells phones which have the lowest radiation level possible. Currently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that cell phones sold in the United States meet a Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) minimum guideline of 1.6 watts per kilogram. The SAR level of a phone is the amount of energy absorbed by the body when using the phone. The SAR level of phones can be accessed by entering the FCC ID code found on the backs of phones on the FCC’s website. The EWG feels the FCC should make this information more accessible.
“It‘s just like how people know you can get cancer from tanning but still so many people do it,” Lauren said. “ They’re so used to using cell phones because it makes life easier than having to e-mail or call someone at home.”
In response to reports on the possible health problems associated with cell phone use, bills on the issue have been proposed in the California and Maine legislatures. In California, the EWG is co-sponsoring a bill introduced by State Senator Mark Leno that would require phones to be labeled with their SAR at the point of sale.
Maine State Representative Andrea Boland has introduced similar legislation in her state. Boland’s bill “An Act To Create the Children’s Wireless Protection Act” would require cell phone manufacturers to label cell phones and their packaging with warnings of the reported health risks.
Representative Boland said her bill would simply help consumers make informed decisions about the products they buy. Boland said that it is the cell phone industry’s responsibility to see that their products are safe, but they have fallen short.
“The way they [cell phone manufacturers] deny the risks is just like what happened with the tobacco industry,” Boland said. “They’ll say we don’t have enough information, that it’s conclusive but it’s their responsibility to prove their products are safe.”
The bill Boland introduced was not passed by the Maine Health and Human Services (HHS) Committee but Boland said she will introduce it again.
K. Dane Snowden, Vice President of External and State affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association said that the CTIA agrees with the Maine HHS Committee’s decision. Snowden said there is no definitive research showing adverse health effects related to cell phones.
“Warning labels would mislead consumers suggesting that wireless devices are not safe which contradicts the consensus of the leading federal and international health organizations,” Snowden said.
Lauren’s mom, Sandra King, said based on the questions about the certainty of the reports it may be premature to pass laws requiring warnings. But Sandra said she does feel more research on the issue is necessary, because people should be informed about how their daily habits affect their health.
“If studies were definitive, I would change my habits,” Sandra said. “If they showed that calling affected health, then I would encourage my kids to go to just texting. If they showed that both calling and texting were negative, then I would restrict their phone use altogether.”
In addition to action at the state level, the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations gathered doctors and scientists who have studied the issue for their “Hearing on the Hearing on Health Effects of Cell Phone Use.” Dr. Devra Lee Davis, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health testified at the Sept. 15 hearing.
Dr. Davis spoke to the Committee about the need for funding of research on the issue and in the meantime, policy to protect consumers. Dr. Davis said that the U.S. has been moving slowly on this issue is that as a country because we have been focusing on the positive effects of cell phones, like improving communication in emergency situations, and overlooking the possible negative effects.
“The Chinese have a proverb that a way of looking at it is not looking,” Davis said. “I think we’ve been so enthralled by this marvelous technology that saves lives . . . that we tend to overlook how many it may be endangering in the future and what we can do to make it work in a safer way.”
Davis also said that the population that will be most affected by this issue is current school-age children and teenagers because they have grown up accustomed to cell phones.
Senior Taylor Burkhead agrees that since getting phones in middle school she and her classmates have become used to the constant connection with friends.
“Teenagers would be unlikely to change the way they use their phones,” Burkhead said. “It’s because we’re so used to them, so addicted, really.”
The Sept. 15 hearing made Davis optimistic about the future because of the increased interest in the issue. A year prior, a similar hearing was held and Davis and others spoke to a near empty room. On the 15th, the hearing was standing room only. Davis has been in contact with members of the House of Representatives who are concerned about this issue. She said they are looking towards policy changes to both fund research and limit exposure to cell phone radiation until further research is complete. Davis said that more definitive research is needed to convince people to change their habits.
But while research may open peoples’ eyes, Lauren said that it will take personal experience to push the public to change their cell phone use habits.
“ Change might happen over time, if people start seeing health effects,” Lauren said. “When you hear about it, it doesn’t really affect you, but if you know someone that’s affected by it then you start to realize it more.”