The safety of cell phones has been brought into question once again by research that suggests radio waves from the devices could promote the growth of tumors. Paradoxically, the study suggests that the radiation makes tumors grow more aggressively by initially killing off cancer cells.
Cell Biologist Fiorenzo Marinelli and his team at the National Research Council in Bologna, Italy, decided to investigate whether radio waves had any effect on leukemia cells after previous studies indicated that the disease might be more common among mobile phone users. The life cycle of leukemia cells is well understood, making it relatively easy to spot changes in behavior.
The team exposed leukemia cells in the lab to 900-megahertz radio waves at a power level of 1 milliwatt and then looked at the activity of a gene that triggers cell suicide. Many European mobile networks operate at 900 megahertz, and maximum power outputs are typically 2 watts, although they regularly use only one-tenth of this power.
After 24 hours of continuous exposure to the radio waves, the suicide genes were turned on in far more leukemia cells than in a control population that had not been exposed. What is more, 20 percent more exposed cells had died than in the controls.
But after 48 hours exposure, the apparently lethal effect of the radiation went into reverse. Rather than more cells dying, Marinelli found that a survival mechanism kicked in. Three genes that trigger cells to multiply were turned on in a high proportion of the surviving cells, making them replicate ferociously. The cancer, although briefly beaten back, had become more aggressive.
Marinelli presented his results this month at the International Workshop on Biological Effects of Electromagnetic Fields on the Greek island of Rhodes. While the results do not show a direct health threat from mobile phones, they provide fresh evidence that radiation from such devices could play an important role in activating genes that might help cancer cells thrive.
“We don’t know what the effects would be on healthy human cells,” says Marinelli, “but in leukemia cells the response is always the same.” Marinelli suspects the radiation may initially damage DNA, and that this interferes with the cells’ biochemical signals in a way that ultimately triggers a defensive mechanism.
Many scientists believe that because radiation from cell phones does not have enough energy to break chemical bonds, it cannot damage cells. The only way damage could occur, they say, is if the radio waves heated tissues up.
But British research earlier in 2002, by Molecular Toxicologist David de Pomerai at the University of Nottingham, showed that radio waves can cause biological effects that are not due to heating. He found that nematode worms exposed to radio waves showed an increase in fertility-the opposite effect from what would be expected from heating.
Marinelli’s study is intriguing, says de Pomerai. “But I’m far from convinced that these authors are looking at any reproducible and real phenomena,” he says. Other studies have shown mobile phone radiation to have no effect on cell death, de Pomerai adds.
An inquiry in April 2000 by the British government found no evidence of any health risks from mobile phones. But it still recommended that people take a precautionary approach until further evidence emerged. In particular, it suggested children, whose brains are still developing, should not use mobile phones excessively.
“It’s a very confused field,” admits Colin Blakemore, a physiologist at the University of Oxford and a member of the British National Radiological Protection Board’s advisory group on non-ionizing radiation. People should place more reliance on animal studies than lab-based experiments on cells, he says.
But de Pomerai insists that a consensus is emerging that non-ionizing radiation can indirectly damage DNA by affecting its repair system. If the DNA repair mechanism does not work as well as it should, mutations in cells could accumulate with disastrous consequences. “Cells with unrepaired DNA damage are likely to be far more aggressively cancerous,” he says.
New Scientist October 24, 2002
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As Moore’s Law (the doubling of computer technology every 18 months) continues to reduce the cost of wireless communication, cell phones will become increasingly popular. Many people are even abandoning their land-based phones to use their cell phones as their exclusive phone service.
The issue of electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation from cell phones is controversial and most experts believe that it is insignificant. However, there is a significant body of evidence to suggest that cell phone radiation can indeed cause you health problems.
The central issue is that most experts are basing their conclusions of a non-damaging health effect on information derived from examining thermal or heat related effects. It is highly unlikely that the damage cell phones do is through this mechanism.
The experts fail to consider the negative biological effects of exposure to long-term low intensity pulsed microwave radiation that these phones emit. Our bodies, especially our brains, are extraordinarily sensitive receptors of EMF radiation.
If you use a cell phone at all, I would strongly encourage you to carefully review the Lancet article that I posted in the newsletter two years ago.
After reviewing the concerns regarding cell phone exposure, I have chosen to limit my exposure to cell phones to under five minutes per year. In other words, I aggressively avoid all contact with them.