Senator Pledges Probe of Alleged Cell Phone, Cancer Links

Published September 29, 2009

A U.S. senator promises to keep investigating whether cell phone use can cause cancer, despite decades of research that shows no danger.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) convened a hearing of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education on September 14 to explore the issue.

“I’m reminded of this nation’s experience with cigarettes,” Harkin said at the hearing. “Decades passed between the first warnings about smoking tobacco and the final, definitive conclusion that cigarettes cause lung cancer.”

Harkin said he’d use his perch as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to investigate further.

Recent Report Started Scare

Harkin was moved to investigate allegations of cell phone cancer by a recent report by the Environmental Working Group, a liberal advocacy group. The author, Devra Lee Davis, testified at the hearing and alleged a cover-up by the cell phone industry. She also has written a book on the matter, The Secret History of the War on Cancer.

“As I have documented in my book, public discussion in the U.S. about potential cell phone risks remains obscure because of well-honed efforts by some in the cell phone industry to keep us confused,” Davis said in prepared testimony. “The question before this body is what is direct evidence at this time on cell phones and health and what do we do while we wait for science to evolve?”

No ‘Undue Alarm’

An estimated 275 million people in the United States, approximately 90 percent of the population, use cell phones that emit radio waves. Some models emit more than others, but all radiation from cell phones is billions times less than a medical X-ray.

Nonetheless, Harkin said at the hearing “a growing number of experts think there is cause for concern.”

“Some researchers believe that, over the course of many years, even this low level of radiation could cause cancers of the brain and central nervous system, as well as a range of other harmful effects,” Harkin said. “Other studies, meanwhile, have found no correlation at all.

“So it is not the intention of this subcommittee to create undue alarm,” Harkin added. “I will still use my cell phone after the hearing ends, and I suspect that everyone else here will as well. But one thing we’ll want to discuss today is whether we need more NIH research in this area, and how that research should be conducted.”

No Links Found

Studies stretching back decades have failed to establish any clear link between the use of a cell phone and brain tumors or any kind of cancer.

The Federal Communications Commission and Food and Drug Administration, both of which have regulatory authority over radio frequency emissions, have both concluded the scientific evidence does not indicate there are any health hazards from using a cell phone.

Linda Erdreich, a fellow at the American College of Epidemiology who has worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and has been an epidemiologist for 28 years, testified at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing, saying the evidence shows there’s no reason to fear cell phones will cause cancers.

“Based on my review of the epidemiologic studies and consideration of experimental data in animals, I agree with the conclusions of the scientific organizations: The current scientific evidence does not demonstrate that wireless phones cause cancer or other adverse health effects,” Erdreich testified.

‘Irresponsible’ Hearing

Steven Titch, a telecom and IT policy analyst at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, says it was “irresponsible for Harkin to hold hearings absent any pattern of reliable data.”

Titch added, “Studies that have claimed to have found such links have not been peer-reviewed, contain significant errors in math and physics, and/or base their findings on radio techniques, signal strengths, or frequencies that are not used in commercial wireless technologies.”

Carl Gipson, director of small business, technology, and telecommunications studies at the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center, agrees.

“It’s troubling that Sen. Harkin would jump into this issue with what amounts to little-to-no evidence for his concerns,” Gipson said. “This is a classic case of mixing coincidence with causation. Those fearing higher cancer rates from cell phone usage want manufacturers to definitively prove that cell phones are 100 percent safe. However, there is no evidence to prove cell phones are not safe already.”

Economic Impact

Both Titch and Gipson noted the negative and unwarranted impact such hearings can have on the wireless industry and the economy as a whole.

“The senator should realize that he has the power to affect markets just by bringing this issue before his committee and that his actions have real-world consequences—one of them being unwarranted fear of a technology that has transformed our economy and our society,” Gipson said.

“We see this quite often among the environmental community as the ‘precautionary principle,’ where nothing manmade should be endorsed or approved unless the manufacturer can prove the product poses no threat to people or the environment,” Gipson added. “In the case of cell phones, the benefit to the world has been immense and the danger unproven.”

“That Harkin, in the midst of a recession, would seek to deliberately weaken one of our better-performing sectors only further demonstrates the isolation and ignorance of the current Congressional leadership on the contribution high-tech industry makes to our economy,” Titch said.

James G. Lakely ([email protected]) is co-director of The Heartland Institute’s Center for the Digital Economy and managing editor of InfoTech & Telecom News.

For more information …

“Cell Phone Radiation: Science Review on Cancer Risks and Children’s Health,” Environmental Working Group, 2009:

Prepared testimony of Linda Erdreich, epidemiologist, before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, Sept. 14, 2009: