RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—On the heels of a report released last week by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) on cellphone radiation, a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee met on Monday to discern why so little hard evidence exists on the relationship between cellphones and cancer . Scientists who spoke at the meeting said that it's premature to say that cell phones are safe to use.
THE DETAILS: The EWG report looked at 200 studies, government advisories, and industry documents from the first two decades of widespread cellphone use, and found that they all resulted in conflicting research on the relationship between cellphones and cancer and on cellphones' health risks in general. The nonprofit also analyzed the maximum radiation levels emitted by 1,200 models of phones (the levels emitted while you're talking, not when the phone's simply lying on your desk) to see if they met the Federal Communications Commission's current recommendation that cellphones emit less than 1.6 watts/kilogram, or watts of radiation energy absorbed per kilogram of body tissue. All the phones met that, but some models emitted four times more radiation than others.
During the Senate panel that convened on Monday, which coincided with the International Conference on Cell Phones and Health being held in Washington D.C. this week, scientists who'd authored many of those studies stressed the need for hard evidence, and a need for more research funding. But given the number of studies suggesting that cellphones could cause harm, the scientists said, governments need to act now to provide the means to uncover potential damages, especially for children, a growing number of whom now talk on cellphones every day. Dariusz Leszczynski, PhD, DSc, research professor at the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Helsinki, Finland, has studied mobile-phone radiation for the last 10 years and said at the hearing, "In the present situation of the scientific uncertainty…the statements that the use of mobile phones is safe are premature."
Part of the problem, says Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families, is that many studies have been funded by cellphone companies, including the INTERPHONE study, the largest to date on cellphones and health, and she says, the results of that study have been held up for years. "Another major reason is that brain cancer is very slow-growing cancer," says Zuckerman, adding that it can take up to 30 years for brain cancers to develop. People haven't had cellphones for 30 years, so it's hard to draw conclusions. But if scientists wait that long, it could potentially put a huge number of cellphone users at risk, she says. So she and others advice taking the potential damaging effects of cellphone radiation seriously, and acting to limit exposure. "We should do something now to prevent disaster in the future."
WHAT IT MEANS: Most of us use cellphones, but our assumptions about their safety may prove incorrect. "Anytime somebody says that something that we all do might be risky, it becomes controversial," says Zuckerman. "What we're saying is that there's a growing body of research that suggests there might be cancer risks and other serious risks, especially for children ." She says that research being presented at the conference even suggests that cellphones alter brain cells in such a way that they could lead to other health problems like memory loss, autism, and Alzheimer's disease.
Until the scientific community can agree on whether there is a definitive link between cellphones and cancer, here are a few ways you can protect yourself:
• Go hands free. Using a headset or the speakerphone are the easiest ways to limit cellphone radiation exposure. And don't put the phone in your back pocket while you speak, particularly if you're a guy, says Nneka Leiba, environmental health researcher, at EWG. "Studies have shown that cellphone radiation could affect the male reproductive system," she says, suggesting you keep it at least an inch away from your body, on a desk or other surface, while you talk. But the rest of the day, having it in your pocket won't harm you, she says. "The radiation is only emitted when you're using it."
• Stay in one place when you talk. "Cellphones emit their highest levels of radiation when you first make a call and when the phone is bouncing from tower to tower trying to find a signal," Leiba says. If you make phone calls while sitting in one place, rather than walking down the street or driving, the likelihood of getting exposed to a surge of higher radiation levels is unlikely, she says.
• Less bars? Don't use it. Cellphones also emit higher radiation levels when they're trying to find a signal, such as when you're talking on it in an elevator, says Leiba. "We advise people not to use cellphones when their bars are really low."
• Buy a low-radiation phone. EWG has made its database of cellphones  available online. Search for your model, or view their list of the 10 best and 10 worst radiation emitters . Even if you're phone's a low emitter, you still should take other steps to limit your exposure to the radiation, since it's not known what the "safe" level of exposure really is.
• Call the FCC. The Federal Communications Commission is the agency in charge of setting cellphone radiation standards, but, says Leiba, their current standards are far too low. "The current standards were set based on data from 1992," she says, "and they don't take into consideration radiation's effects on kids." Zuckerman also notes that research is finding that cellphone radiation is much more likely to be absorbed by a child's brain than by an adult's.