Israeli researchers ‘light-years ahead’ on studies of cellphone risks

Israeli researchers ‘light-years ahead’ on studies of cellphone risks

Most people have no idea that their iPhone comes with a warning to carry the device at least 10 mm away from the body, and to use a “hands-free” option like headphones or speaker, in order to prevent overexposure to harmful levels of radio frequency energy.

Here is what one has to do to find that warning: Go to Settings; click on “General;” click on “About;” click on “Legal;” then click on “RF.”

“Nobody reads that warning,” said Devra Davis, founder of the Environmental Health Trust, an organization dedicated to educating people about controllable environmental health risks.

Just as the tobacco industry worked to conceal the dangers of its products back in the mid-20th century, the makers of cellphones may be obscuring the risks of their products, according to Davis, author of “Disconnect,” a silver winner of the Nautilus Book Award for Conscious Media/Journalism/Investigative Reporting. “Disconnect,” first published in 2010, and now re-issued, exposes the dangers of cellphones as well as the industry’s attempt to obfuscate those dangers.

“This is worse than cigarettes,” Davis said, “because cigarettes had no value to society. But phones are valuable.”

And they are highly profitable, which may be why the industry is reluctant to admit the phones do pose risks, or to highlight the simple precautions that can reduce those risks.

The examples extend from outright cover-up to legal maneuvering.

In the afterward to “Disconnect,” Davis reports on a 1994 “smoking gun,” a memo from Motorola to a public relations firm seeking “war-gaming” action against a study showing that microwave radiation to the brains of rats unraveled brain DNA.

In San Francisco, while a “right to know” law passed, “the industry fought it on the grounds of the First Amendment,” Davis said. “The city recently agreed not to enforce its own law.”

The potential dangers of cellphones are many, said Davis, who was the founding director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

Cellphones are two-way microwave radios that emit low levels of electromagnetic radiation. Risks from carrying them too close to the body, or holding them up to the head for prolonged periods of time, range from reduced male fertility to brain cancer.

While there is not a lot of current information in the United States about the dangers of cellphones, Davis said,  “Israelis are light-years ahead of us in research, and are yielding some unfortunate statistics.”

For example, researchers in Israel have found that one in five cases of a rare tumor in the cheek is now occurring in children under 20 years of age, she said, and is correlated to cellphone use in that demographic.  

In March, Israeli scientists reported preliminary findings of a possible link between cellphone radiation and thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer has been on the rise for more than a decade in Israel, corresponding to Israelis’ increase in the use of cellphones.

Perhaps because of the research, Israel now has “much more aggressive rules,” Davis said. “You can’t sell a cellphone without a headset. And there are warnings from the Israeli Ministry of Health.”

Israel is not the only country aggressively researching the dangers of cellphone radiation.

A new Swedish study published just this month indicates that those who began using cellphones regularly before the age of 20 have more than a fourfold increased risk of ipsilateral glioma, a brain tumor formed on the same side of the head on which a person holds his phone.

The research seems to indicate that the younger one is when he begins to use a cellphone, the greater his potential risk.

A new publication on the EHT website, written by several eminent epidemiologists, concludes that “new studies released since the time the World Health Organization concluded cellphones were a ‘possible human carcinogen’ in 2011 now indicate the cellphone radiation is a ‘probable human carcinogen,’” according to Davis.

“We base that conclusion on studies that have looked at people who started to use cellphones heavily before age 20,” she said. “Those studies are very infrequent. But all the studies done find that those who begin to use cellphones regularly before age 20 have four to eight times more brain cancer, and also increased rates of leukemia within 10 years.”

Cellphone radiation has also been associated with damaging sperm, according to Davis.

“If you have a sperm sample from one man, and you divided it into two test tubes, and one test tube gets exposed to cellphone radiation and the other does not, the sperm exposed to cellphone radiation die three times more quickly and have three times more damage on their DNA than the same sample of sperm that is not exposed to cellphone radiation,” she said, citing research.

Despite the potential dangers of the phones, there are precautions one can take to reduce the risks.

Dr. Frank Lieberman, director of the Adult Neuro-Oncology Program at the UPMC Cancer Center, advises people to refrain from holding cellphones next to their head, and to opt for texting, or using the speaker option or a bluetooth type device when making calls. In addition, people should not carry cellphones while on the receiving mode in a pocket next to their body, he said.

“The most important guideline is against holding the thing next to your head for hours,” he said. “But if you’re talking about very brief calls, there’s probably not much risk to that.”

While Lieberman said the studies are contradictory, and that there is not a “conclusive causal relationship” between brain tumors and cellphone use, “there is good scientific evidence that electromagnetic radiation does affect brain function and cell biology. There is reason to be concerned that electromagnetic radiation could have a damaging effect. It is a good idea to advise people to be cautious even though the causal relationship hasn’t been established.”

In the meantime, the industry could be doing more to protect the public. There is “no doubt” that phones could be made safer, Davis said.

“Look,” Davis continued, “I am not opposed to cellphones. I simply want to make them as safe as possible. Cellphones are like cars were in the 1950s; we can’t live without them, but let’s make them safe with seat belts and air bags, and stop giving them to children and toddlers.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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