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Report Urges More Research Into Cell Phones

Experts cite a lack of knowledge of health risks posed by long-term use

THURSDAY, Jan. 17 (HealthDay News) -- As cell phone technology and use continues to expand and evolve, a new report says not enough is known about the potential health risks associated with long-term exposure to radiofrequency energy.

Placing an emphasis on the health of children, pregnant women and fetuses -- as well as workers subject to high occupational exposure -- the report authors called for more research into risks posed by long-term cell phone use, rather than the more commonly studied short-term risks.

"It's pretty clear that there are no major acute effects from cell phone use that are showing up immediately," said report chairman Frank S. Barnes, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Colorado. "People aren't using their phones and dropping dead. So, the question is, what is happening from long-term use, in various ways?

"We need to know more about exposure over time -- background exposure not just from cell phones, but also TV towers and various other communications systems," Barnes added. "We need to know about the impact of exposure on maintenance people working on cell towers, and what's getting to be the heavy use of cell phones among high school kids, who are different from adults in size and skull thickness. And there are new antennas being used, and people are using not just hand-held phones but wearing them on their belts -- and we need to know what the long-range effects might be on the nervous system. These are some of the questions that need to be answered."

The report, by the National Research Council (NRC), was compiled at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The NRC is the main operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

In preparing the report, NRC committee members first held a three-day workshop last August. The meeting brought together experts from the United States and nine other countries in an effort to identify unexplored or under-explored questions on the long-term impact of cell phone use.

The subsequent report, released Thursday, doesn't evaluate the health impact of cell phone use or radiofrequency (RF) energy, nor does it suggest exactly how identified gaps in critical research should be filled.

Instead, the report is designed to serve as a kind of guide for future research, the authors said.

Among a wide range of suggestions, the report calls for new studies in the form of either full-scale human trials or human-and-animal lab work to explore the potential health effects associated with:

  • long-term exposure to all wireless devices -- such as cell phones, wireless personal computers, and base station antennas -- with particular attention to children, pregnant women and fetuses;
  • the rapid expansion of wireless networks and the accompanying increase in the number of base station antennas and electromagnetic fields;
  • the changing character of hand-held cell phone antenna design;
  • the changing way in which cell phones are being used, with the widespread adoption of texting, e-mailing, and Bluetooth technology exposing more parts of the body to radiofrequency energy.

The report also suggests more research into possible links between long-term radiofrequency exposure and brain cancer and neural or cognitive complications.

"We just don't have the kind of data that says what 10-, 20-, 30-year exposure is going to do," Barnes said. "It's hard data to get, and there are many confounding factors, so it's just going to take time. But I think this report accurately highlights difficult questions that merit answering to help illuminate problems, if they turn out to exist."

Dr. Jonathan Fellows, a neurologist at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., agreed that more research is needed into the long-term effects of cell phone use.

"I think this report is right on the money," he said. "The bottom line is we absolutely need more information. We haven't really seen much being done over the last couple of years, and the cell phone itself is evolving rapidly. It's not just a phone anymore, and within five to 10 years, it will be even more transformed. It already does everything from texting to e-mailing, and we have to see how that's going to affect us."

Fellows said that adults who use cell phones frequently would be an obvious target for new research. But, he added, the most vulnerable population is children, whose brains are still developing.

"My daughter is 9, and she doesn't have a cell phone, but all her friends do," he said. "However, ultimately, the findings may not be all negative. In fact, we put people into higher electromagnetic fields to treat migraines, to treat seizures. So exposure doesn't necessarily carry negative health connotations. We just don't know. So the call for greater research is 100 percent necessary."

More information

For more on cell phones and health concerns, visit the National Cancer Institute.

SOURCES: Frank S. Barnes, chairman, National Research Council report committee, and distinguished professor, department of electrical and computer engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder; Jonathan Fellows, D.O., neurologist, Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich.; Jan. 17, 2008, Identification of Research Needs Relating to Potential Biological or Adverse Health Effects of Wireless Communication Devices, The National Academies Press

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