Next month legislators at the US state of Maine are to discuss making it compulsory for cell phone manufacturers to put warnings on cell phones that say they can cause brain cancer; this is despite the fact that scientists are divided over the issue and manufacturers claim the devices are safe.

However, Democrat House Representative for Maine, Andrea Boland, told the press that several studies now show that the radiation emitted by cell phones does pose a cancer risk, and while there may not be a consensus about the health hazards, she thinks the nearly one million cell phone users in the state should know what the risks are.

At the centre of the issue is the suggestion that the radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell phones as they transmit and receive voice and data signals, causes brain tumors.

The amount of radiation a cell phone emits depends on how far the device is from the base station, the duration and frequency of cell phone use, and the age of the phone (the older analog ones emit more than the newer digital ones).

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set a standard for the "specific absorption rate" of the power absorbed from cell phones due to exposure to RF electromagnetic field but manufacturers are not required to reveal the radiation levels of their devices.

The FCC maintains that all cell phones sold in the US are safe, but many people believe that repeated RF exposure, even at low levels, can lead to brain tumors.

According to a report by the Associated Press, Boland herself uses a cell phone but she uses a speaker so she can keep the device away from her head and she keeps it switched off unless she is expecting a call.

Under the bill that Boland is proposing, and for which she has been given the go ahead to bring before legislative leaders next month, manufacturers would have to label phones and their packaging to warn users of the potential link between brain cancer and electromagnetic radiation, and recommend that they keep the device away from the head and body, and especially so in the case of children and pregnant women.

The San Francisco legislature is to consider a similar proposal next year, and this would require manufacturers to show the absorption rate at the same size as the price label on each phone. However Boland is not proposing the label show a specific absorption level, but that it carries a nonremovable black notice with "warning" written in red accompanied by a graphic of a child's brain, reported the Associated Press (AP).

There have been no long term studies of cell phone usage and brain cancer, mainly because cell phones did not come into widespread use until the 1990s. In the meantime, what evidence there is, appears divided.

A recently published study that looked at brain tumor incidence in Scandinavia between the 1970s and the early 2000s found no significant change in brain tumor rates in adults 5 to 10 years after cell phone usage went up, although the researchers said longer follow up studies should be done to confirm this.

Meanwhile a report from an international group concerned about widespread use of electronic magnetic field devices suggests that there is enough scientific evidence that cell phones raise brain cancer risk, and research funded by manufacturers underestimates this.

The group, which includes the EMR Policy Institute, ElectromagenticHealth.org and The Peoples Initiative Foundation in the US, and Powerwatch and the Radiation Research Trust in the UK, also warned that children have larger risks than adults.

Industry leaders, however, contend that their devices are safe. The CTIA, an international association for the wireless telecommunications industry, say the scientific evidence is overwhelming, and cell phones do not pose a health risk.

CTIA representative John Walls told the AP that the wireless industry has "always been guided by science, and the views of impartial health organizations", and that the peer-reviewed evidence shows that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk.

However, according to the US National Conference of State Legislators, other countries are now starting to introduce health warnings on cell phones.

Sources: AP, MNT archives.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD