Coastal Post Online

January 2001

Can Cell Phones Kill?

By Carol Sterritt

Let's say that you are standing on the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building. In your hand you are holding a precious Ming Dynasty vase. As part of an experiment, you let the vase slip from your hands.

Scientists and researchers stationed at the 81st floor of the Empire State wait a few moments, and then report their findings: the vase has cleared their research post and is hurtling totally intact toward the lower floors. "There is not," they report, "a single reason to be concerned. The vase is safe. Its fall through space has left the vase undamaged."

Recently a similar junk science report has come from the industry group Wireless Technology Research and the National Cancer Institute. Their research teams evaluated a short term, three year study examining the cancer rate of cell phone users. Their conclusion as stated by spokesman Joshua Muscat: "We feel confident that the results reflect that cell phones don't seem to cause brain cancer."

For most types of cancer, the disease is a phenomenon that occurs after a sustained period of bodily assault for at least four to fifteen years. When an important study is shortened to a duration of only three years, its accuracy is severely compromised. The thinking consumer should be left with as many questions as reassurances after such an announcement. If an industry shortens a research time to such a meaningless time period, what is that indicating about their overall credibility?

As a society, we now acknowledge the role that cigarette smoke plays in terms of lung cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other health problems. The tobacco industry used its influence in the media to "buy" time on news reports. For decades, during the sixties and seventies, industry-sponsored science studies "proved" that cigarette smoking was a benign activity. Only after our Congress banned tobacco paid advertisements was the truth able to surface.

It is very hard to say definitively that even cigarette smoking has been proven to cause cancer. Many people know personally at least one individual who daily smoked and imbibed a quart of Jack Daniels, then died on their ninety-ninth birthday of old age. In the case of smoking, it is now said that it is "proven" that smoking "causes" cancer, but when we say this, we are accepting the statistical increase of risk and using that statistic to generalize the situation.

In the new realm of cell phones, and cell phone antennas, we are charting uninvestigated terrain. Since the discovery and implementation of the microscope in the 1600's, biologists have charted the internal world of mammalian cells. Over the next several hundred years, the structure of such cells was spelled out. Biologists detailed the full array of cell membranes, the cell nuclei, its mitochondria and other features, plus much of their inner workings.

Detailing the cell structure is only part of the puzzle, however. Only in the last fifty years have biologists looked at the cells inside our bodies in terms of their mechanical functions. This understanding requires the ability to perceive the complexity of their electrical systems inside our cells. The development of the electron microscope aided this exploration. At the same time that our scientists began mapping out this complex cell activity, our technology was bringing forth many inventions that imposed an electrical field around our bodies. For example, as I type this, an electro-magnetic field of various frequencies (EMFs) generated by my computer is enveloping my body. This is a phenomenon that my great-grandmother's body did not experience, and as such a modern event our society offers few guidelines about what such an exposure will do to me long-term.

EMF's occur continually in our modern environment. When you grab juice from your fridge as it cycles on, when you hike beneath power lines, or sit or lie near your clock radio and tape player, you are experiencing their force. The power chord that connects your clock radio to the juice from PG&E; runs at 60 HZ, (Hz being a frequency rating), my favorite FM radio station produces 104 MHz (where "M" stands for a million), my microwave operates at 2450 MHz. A cell phone held against my ear is operating at something like 800MHz or better. But what is relevant in terms of our health is our bodies' absorbency rate of these frequencies. In other words, exactly what is this proton bombardment doing to the interior of our own electricity-generating cells?

Our government and industry have come up with a standard of such absorbency, referred to as "SAR." And a safe level has been determined to be a SAR of 1.6W/kg. There are now web sites that will explain the ratings of various cell phone types according to this standard. A good Web resource is Whether this safety standard deserves the level of confidence that industry and government place in it remains to be seen.

Now back to biological understandings. A German physicist Frohlich became excited about the possibilities of a mammal's cells to channel chemical energy (i.e., food) into "highly ordered processes, such as cell building." Until he looked into cell functioning no one had really fully explained the cell's electrical properties. He thought that the sum of all of the cell's activities "could lead to the existence of a band of frequencies into which energy could be absorbed, plus a particular "coherent" state of vibrations." He theorized that a cell could possess an electrical resonance and that if a frequency enveloped the cell at the resonant spectrum, vast changes to the cell might take place. So if you had a cell with an internal resonance of 800MHz caused by some specific functioning and you used a cell phone with that same frequency, disturbances could occur.

The scientific community continues to play with his findings and some say his work is significant, others that it is a theory their own research cannot back. The cell phone industry is in its infancy-consumers have not owned phones long enough for consumers to add to the health data on the product. In addition to those risks associated with holding a cell phone to your head is the further complication that for cell phones to operate, they must be under the range of a cell phone antennae. Thus our communities are experiencing the vast array of new cell phone tower installations.

What should be a pure scientific situation has become a political situation. In 1996, when Telecommunications Act was passed, an important provision made legal the concept that local government would be preempted from denying cell phone towers on the sole basis of health concerns. As I write this, Sprint is suing the City of San Anselmo for the council's denial of a tower that its planning commission had approved. The three panel antennas on a church rooftop would have impacted residential buildings and homes. This installation would be placed on a roof where a current array of antennas has already concerned neighbors. Sprint is claiming irreparable harm.

In my own town of Sausalito, there is a moratorium on cell phone antennae installation. Going to city council meetings allows me insights into the political tangle that the cell phone industry weaves over a local government's ability to govern. Of our five council members, one must recuse himself during cell phone tower discussions because his own law firm has the cell phone industry as a client. Another member has been forced to recuse herself because the most discussed tower installation is in her neighborhood. This leaves only three members who can actually debate the issue. I find the tactic of locating a cell phone tower inside a council member's neighborhood and then insisting on that person's withdrawal from the debate to be abhorrent, and perhaps legally unenforceable. After all, many of her most local neighbors voted for this council member, Amy Belser. At the time that they voted for her, they knew of her stand on the environment. The antennae siting most heavily impacts them. So why should they lose their representation and why should Ms. Belser lose her right to define the workings of her own locale?

And since the 480 billion dollar industry was able to pester Ms. Belser out of her elected position, they will continue this tactic everywhere such a community debate is necessary. The industry will definitely site their towers inside the locales of all such environmental officeholders, and thus deliberately exclude their opposition. Thus they will shut up the very portion of society and local government that examines such issues as the relationship of industry to buying up the independence of university and hospital research labs, and the fact that those scientists publishing data not supportive of industry's claims are belittled by the industry, etc.

In Tiburon, the cell phone industry was able to co-opt the City Council by asking them to designate the cell phone tower's location. This tactic can lead to divisiveness inside the local government, but that divisiveness is, for industry, a cherished plum.

When I address concerns about the cell phone situation, I am asked to cite a peer-reviewed article offering solid proof as to the need for caution. So I will end this article with this citation: "BioElectroMAgnetics Society Volume 21 # 5 July 20 2000." A. Scirmacher et al wrote the relevant article, and it discusses the blood brain barrier disruption of test animals when exposed to the EM radiation of cell phone antennae. It specifically looked at glucose transfer.

I would also like to end with this quote from Dr. Neil Cherry, a bio-physicist from New Zealand: "At extremely low energy levels, frequency dependent influences on bio-functions lead to additional effects which cannot be explained by generally accepted and well-known physical laws." Which I take to mean that the radar-like pulses of our phones and the local cell phone towers affect us in ways that are difficult to understand because of the complexity of the science underlying the bio-physical realm, and also because real scientists are still charting the micro-terrain of our cells, cell operation and electrical, EMF-related influences upon them.

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