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Cell Phone Radiation, a Nagging Concern
The Toronto Star, May 27, 2002

by T. Hamilton

It's difficult to agree with China on many things, considering its blatant disrespect for human rights and its lagging environmental protection efforts.

But on Friday I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the world's most populous country was seriously considering the most stringent standards for the amount of radiation that can be emitted from wireless devices.

Now, we all know what the wireless industry says about cell phone radiation, and we all know what users of wireless phones deeply fear. "Don't worry about it," say major companies such as Nokia and Ericsson, who collectively highlight the lack of evidence to suggest cell phones cause cancer.

Their claims are backed up by several major studies, including a Danish report released last February. The report, based on a survey of 400,000 wireless phone users, didn't rule out other nasty diseases such as Alzheimer's, but generally concluded there is no link between the radiation from cell phones and incidences of brain tumors, leukemia or other forms of cancer.

No link does not equate with no risk. This is where I have problems with the "don't worry about it" stance that's coming from the major manufacturers of wireless phones and providers of wireless service. "Don't worry about it" has failed us too much in the past — with tobacco, with pressure-treated wood, with cheap window blinds and with water in Walkerton.

There are about a billion wireless devices currently in use around the world. The numbers are going to continue to grow. As wireless prices come down, as people become more dependent on mobility, and as service providers push wireless service as an affordable replacement for home phone lines, the amount of time we spend on our wireless devices will significantly rise.

And this is where past studies have failed, focusing instead on short-term use and not taking into account the effects of long-term exposure that sells more airtime minutes and generates more revenues. This excludes the fact that mobile phones are becoming more powerful and versatile every day, requiring more energy to operate.

Ultimately, regardless of what the evidence suggests today, we're dealing with an issue of perception and trust that will have a lasting impact well into the future and, if not tackled soon, could ultimately cripple the wireless industry.

We must ask ourselves: Why is China, which hasn't taken such matters so seriously in the past, planning to take such a hard line with radiation levels?

A Chinese government committee proposing the new standards claims it has research that supports the stricter rules, but to date it has not disclosed such data. Could it be an attempt by China to indirectly erect trade barriers against Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola and a host of other handset makers from Europe and North America?

Following higher standards could cost many billions of dollars in product re-engineering, making life difficult for an industry already in the midst of a telecom drought.

It's too early to tell what China's motives are, but personally — being a person more concerned about health and safety than mobility and convenience — I think what they're proposing is a good idea, as long as it is phased in over several years to give manufacturers enough time to evolve their R&D and product processes. Otherwise, a quick switch would agreeably be disruptive.

Where the empirical evidence concerning the harm of cell phone radiation may be lacking, the anecdotal evidence for me is compelling enough.

My best friend's father-in-law, a high-ranking IBM executive who relied on cell phone communications, died quickly from a malignant brain tumor that developed on the side and location where his handset was placed. Coincident or not, it's still freaky and scary.

A friend of the family who is a nurse at a Toronto hospital says she regularly gets people coming into the emergency unit complaining of major headaches, nausea and disorientation after using their wireless phones. Many of these people, she says, are teenagers who take advantage of unlimited evening and weekend packages for long gab-sessions with friends.

Myself, I get the odd headache and what I like to call brain spikes — shots of pain — when using my wireless phone.

Evidence does suggest that some people are more prone to headaches and nausea when using cell phones, and that limited brain-cell damage and changes do take place, particularly with younger people whose brains are still in active development.

But cancer? That's the wild card — one that's still in the deck. And in the game of perception, a card laid is a card played. In other words, people will cling to urban legend, personal experiences and other stories until they're convinced otherwise. Sure, we keep on using these devices and have a ferocious appetite for more, but subconsciously I think we're all kind of waiting for bad news to drop.

That's not science. This is the spinning wheel of paranoid minds in a health-conscious society. It's a reality the wireless companies have to confront head on. We, the paranoid, are your customers. Listen to us.

Since cell phones were only introduced to Canada in 1984, and it takes some cancers decades to develop, the effects of long-term usage are understandably difficult to study. Sure, research into the effects of low-level radiation have been ongoing for half a century, but holding a device that emits radiation directly against one's head doesn't have such a history.

All the more reason to focus R&D on lowering radiation levels today. If you can do it, why not do it? If Nokia can spend huge amounts of money developing color browsers and long-lasting batteries, why not tackle the radiation issue? Surely, there are more important things than the novelty of downloading MP3s on a smartphone.

Perhaps the Chinese know something the rest of us don't in wanting to cut the absorption rate of cell phone radiation to 1 watt per kilogram, half of current European and U.S. standards.

The reaction here and in neighboring countries has been a commitment to print radiation-absorption levels on handset packaging, as if people would know what the heck they mean. I guess, over time, we can evaluate them like calories on Pop-Tarts, and those manufacturers that strive for the lowest levels could promote this to gain a competitive edge.

But absorption rates aren't enough. Just as we're warned about safe levels of sun exposure and time exposed, wireless manufacturers should explain whether the risks of talking on a wireless handset for 2 hours a day are higher than talking for 30 minutes a week. Again, perceptively, I'm quite confident there is a difference. The good news in all of this is that hands-free phones and ear buds, which increase the distance between phone and user, have grown more popular. Clearly, more people are choosing the safe routes, even if the evidence of risk is lacking. More importantly, the industry is offering these safer options, even if they are sold under the banner of convenience.

One final word of caution: Cell phones emit more energy when a signal is weak. So when you're trying to get a signal in cottage country or where network coverage is weak, do yourself a favour and keep the call a short one.

And those little tabs that go on cell phone antennas to block radiation? Don't use them — they're not proven to work. Because they force your cell phone to work harder to find the signal, they may actually boost radiation levels.

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