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Are We Dialing
Toronto Sun
By: Ian Harvey
07/07/99

Some fear microwaves could potentially cause memory loss, headaches and even tumours.

Don't ask for whom the cell phone rings, it's probably for you. But at what risk do we answer that call?

We know cell phone users are more likely to have a car accident while using their phone and that microwaves can disrupt other electronic equipment causing problems in aircraft and hospitals. The billion-dollar question, however, revolves around the Big C: Cancer.

The concern is that the microwaves which carry cell phone conversation have the potential to alter our DNA and our tissues, causing symptoms ranging from memory loss, to headaches, to full blown tumours.

Those battling the wireless Juggernaut, such as citizen groups fighting to stop the construction of cell phone towers in their neighbourhoods, point to now infamous studies that purport to show dramatic cell tissue damage in mice subjected to microwaves.

The weight of known evidence, however, remains overwhelmingly benign. Last May the Royal Society of Canada tabled a study from a blue-ribbon panel of eminent experts which painstakingly reviewed the scientific literature on the subject and found there isn't any conclusive evidence -- yet anyway.

But that's not the end of the story, says Dr. Daniel Krewski, an epidemiologist and bio-statistician at the University of Ottawa who chaired the committee.

Krewski notes that the controversial studies often cited as evidence that cell phone, or more specifically microwaves, cause health damage were not part of the material reviewed.

"We only reviewed published material that had been subject to peer-review." he said.

That effectively eliminated work by Dr. Henry Lai of the University of Washington in Seattle who with Dr. Narendra Singh found evidence that low-level microwave radiation could split DNA molecules in live rats, often cited as the smoking gun .

Unfortunately, Lai became embroiled in a battle with his sponsor, Wireless Technology Research which received US$27 million funding from the cell phone industry. "I've never had any problems with my work before," said Lai last week, sticking to his guns that there is evidence that requires further investigation.

Further fuelling the conspiracy fire, last month WTR chairman George Carlo, the man who originally shot down Lai's work as "amateurish" and "unprofessional" did an about face and started waving red flags about cell phones and health concerns at a Long Beach, Calf. symposium in which 42 studies were presented.

But then Carlo found himself the subject of attack with serious questions about how US$27 million produced so little research over six years.

Talk about a soap opera. For the record WTR, whose contract with the industry is about to expire, now says out of 42 studies presented, two showed "positive" results that merit further investigation.

Furthermore, says WTR, Lai's findings were never questioned, merely the way he presented it to his masters. It says a book of all the studies will be published this fall while other studies it funded are also in the process of being published in specialized journals.

"But there are lingering questions about the science, questions about the selection of Carlo himself and questions about invoices for his expenses," says Jeff Silva, a 17-year veteran Washington D.C. reporter for an industry magazine RCR-GW News.

"I think the burden of proof is on those who feel that there is a health risk," he said adding that so far no U.S. governmental agency or body, or the industry itself, has committed to serious and aggressive arm's-length study and that's what is clearly need. "The fact is that cell phones are ubiquitous, there's what, 75 million in use, pretty soon everyone will have one."

Back in Canada Krewski agrees, noting we are still dealing with new technology. "This is something that we have a limited exposure to, only 10 years or so," he said. The bottom line is that more work is needed, especially in the areas of cell phones and with those who work in areas that are saturated with microwaves.

"There's an international study starting up which will look at data in 14 countries," said Krewski but adds it'll take five years to complete. So, cell phone addicts have few options: carry on as usual or fit the phone with some kind of shield, or condom, designed to protect the user from the harmful effects. The problem, with the latter solution, of course, is that if we haven't established the harmful effects, how can you possibly engineer a foolproof solution? In the meantime, we're collectively on hold.