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Cell Phones and Cancer: No Clear Connection

To Fear or Not to Fear

A long-term study by the government's National Cancer Institute is already underway to examine possible risk factors for brain cancer. It compares past usage of mobile phones (as well as other environmental, lifestyle, and genetic factors) by 800 people with brain tumors compared with 800 others who don't have tumors.

The study, the first part of which is expected to be published early next year, will provide a "snapshot" of what the risks from cell phones could be, says Peter Inskip, Sc.D., one of the study's principal investigators. But this research, he cautions, has its own limitations. For one thing, the study was started in 1994 and it considers radiation exposures from cell phones that occurred between the mid-1980s and 1998. That time frame in large part predates the explosion in the popularity of cell phones, as well as the introduction of digital phones that work on a fraction of the energy compared with older analog varieties.

Recently, the FDA announced that it will collaborate with the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) on additional laboratory and human studies of mobile phone safety. A "Cooperative Research and Development Agreement" signed in June provides for research to be conducted by third parties, with industry funding and FDA oversight to help ensure the studies' quality.

Specifically, the FDA will identify the scientific questions that merit attention, propose research to address those questions, review study proposals from those interested in doing the research, make recommendations on the selection of researchers, and oversee the development of study design. Once research is begun, the FDA will review the progress of ongoing studies, review the results of completed studies, and issue a report to the CTIA.

Beyond this planned research, according to the industry association, there are hundreds of scientific studies completed or in progress around the world to investigate RF's possible health effects, with half of them specifically addressing the frequencies used by wireless phones. The FDA is a leading participant in the World Health Organization's International EMF (electric and magnetic fields) project to coordinate research and the harmonization of international radiation standards.

Cell Phone/Cancer Fear Factor

The new studies may bolster current scientific knowledge, but they will never be able to prove cell phones to be absolutely safe. Proving that cell phones don't cause cancer presents the insurmountable scientific obstacle of trying to prove a negative, Moulder explains. "The closest thing to proving that something is safe — that it doesn't cause cancer — is to try to prove that it does, and fail, and fail enough times and in enough different ways."

Even when scientists are convinced of the safety of a technology — be it the technology of cell phones or of televisions, radios, computers, or microwave ovens — it doesn't necessarily follow that public fears will be put to rest. Lay people interpret scientific evidence differently from scientists, according to risk experts, and the general public may be more likely to be frightened when preliminary research shows a mere possibility of harm.

Scientist Moulder is already confident that cell phone use doesn't increase a person's chance of getting brain cancer — so confident, in fact, that he sees nothing wrong with using a cell phone for even hours each day. "Go right ahead," the cancer researcher says, "but please, please, please don't use it while driving. That's dangerous."

Adapted from the November-December, 2000 issue of FDA Consumer.

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