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Although most of us are unaware of it, we are literally swimming in a sea of radiation. Some of it is natural, like the cosmic rays that bombard our planet from space, trace amounts from elements that occur naturally in the ground, and even microwave radiation from sunspots and solar flares. But increasingly, the radiation we are subjected to comes from man-made sources ranging from medical X-rays to leakage from appliances to cell phones. While much has been written about man-made radiation, most of us have little understanding of what it is and how it might affect us.
Last month, we began an interview Cancer Cover-Up author Kathleen Deoul conducted with internationally recognized energy expert Milton R. Copulos to get some straight talk about the radiation that surrounds us. This month the interview continues.
Kathleen Deoul: Milt I know that everywhere you turn, someone is talking on a cell phone. The number in use has grown phenomenally, but could you give us some insight into just how big the cell phone market has become?
Copulos: You're absolutely right about the incredible growth in the number of cell phones out there. In 1985, there were just 340,000 cell phone subscribers in the United States. By 2004, there were more than 182 million! Moreover, that 182 million doesn't include the prepaid units that have become so popular with teens. What you may find startling is that more people use cell phones than the traditional land lines.
Kathleen Deoul: That's amazing. And I'll bet the gap is going to grow even larger.
Copulos: Again, you're right on the money - and it is a matter of money. More and more young people are using cell phones exclusively, and cell phone manufacturers are encouraging this by developing special features and characteristics that appeal to the younger generation.
Kathleen Deoul: You mean like music that you can download?
Copulos: Right, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. It started with individualized ring tones, and grew from there. Next came picture phones that let you take snapshots followed shortly by text messaging and then downloadable music. Now short videos have been added to the mix.
Kathleen Deoul: Aren't these features aimed primarily at young people?
Copulos: Exactly. In fact, the youth market is increasingly a principal target of cell phone manufacturers.
Kathleen Deoul: I know that the growth of cell phone use among the young has been stunning. Can you give my readers a sense of just how large it has been?
Copulos: It has been nothing short of phenomenal. It was just five years ago that only about 5 percent of teens had cell phones. But by 2004, that figure had jumped to fully one-third of pre-teens and teens between the ages of 11 and 17. By the end of next year it is expected that half of the children in that age range will have cell phones. In fact, last year, cell phone use by subscribers between the ages of 11 and 24 accounted for $21 billion in cell phone revenues. That's one-fourth of the total!
Kathleen Deoul: It seems that for teenagers, owning a cell phone has become a status symbol.
Copulos: That's all too true. It's become a right of passage like getting a driver's license. In fact, an analysis of spending by teens and pre-teens showed that their spending on traditional items like clothes dropped 10% in 2004, primarily due to a shift to spending on cell phone minutes.
Kathleen Deoul: That sounds like they're spending a lot of money on cell phone minutes.
Copulos: Yes, they are. Indeed, they're spending more than adults. The average adult spends around $50 a month in cell phone charges, while teenagers average $75 - and a lot of that extra money goes to the features that I mentioned earlier. They're downloading pictures and music, playing video games, sending photographs and playing music. And now, the newest cell phones also have video recorders built in.
Kathleen Deoul: Don't parents have some control over their children's cell phone use.
Copulos: Well, initially that was the case because you had to sign a contract to get a cell phone, and minors could not enter into such legally binding agreements. But then the marketers came up with a way around contracts - prepaid cell phones. Virgin Mobile was the first company to aggressively market prepaid phones to young people. In fact the idea looked so good that the cell phone giant Cingular bought half of Virgin Mobile for $180 million in 2005. Cingular estimates that the youth market has the potential to generate between 30 million and 35 million new customers.
Kathleen Deoul: That's huge! But it's not just prepaid phones, is it. Aren't the cell phone companies using other tools to market to teens? In fact aren't they even marketing to pre-teens?
Copulos: They certainly are, Kathleen. Major toy companies like Mattel have linked up with cell phone manufacturers like Nokia to develop phones directly aimed at pre-teens. For example, Mattel is marketing a "Barbie" cell phone. Target markets the "Firefly" phone that is also aimed specifically at the pre-teen market, and there is even the "Tic Talk" cell phone that is aimed at children between the ages of 8 and 12.
Kathleen Deoul: And it's not just the phones themselves. I've noticed all sorts of cell phone tie-ins to clothing and other youth-oriented products.
Copulos: That's right, Kathleen. Both Dockers and Levis have developed clothing items with special accommodations for cell phones. In fact Dockers has a specific line of pants with cell phone pockets it markets as "Dockers Mobile." And its not just clothes. One of the most popular features in the new book bags almost all students carry is a cell phone pocket.
Kathleen Deoul: You know, I've also noticed that cell phone companies are marketing to parents as well, touting cell phones as a way to keep tabs on their children. It's a pretty blatant attempt to play on the fears many parents have about their children's safety.
Copulos: I agree, Kathleen. In fact one feature that is now being offered is a chip you can have installed that allows you to keep track of where your kids are through the Global Positioning Satellite System. In essence, you're lojacking your kid!
Kathleen Deoul: That's unbelievable. But I guess it's not surprising that the industry would pull out all of the stops when you consider the size of the potential market. If you stop and think, there are currently around 180 million cell phone subscribers in the United States. That means that if fully exploited, the youth market would represent a 20 percent increase in the number of cell phone users. But it's not just the number of phones that's a matter of concern is it? Don't young people use their phones more?
Copulos: Yes they do, Kathleen. The average cell phone subscriber uses around 619 minutes a month, or about 21 minutes a day. But teenage subscribers log about 50 percent more hours a month. That means that they could be spending as much as 15 and a half hours a month on their cell phones, but even that number may understate the problem, because it only takes into account billable minutes. Today most cell phone plans have a certain number of free minutes and certain "unlimited" calling periods, usually in the evening and on weekends. The thing is, these are the times teens are most likely to be using their cell phones. As a result, relying on billable minutes may grossly understate the actual amount of time teens are spending on their phones.
Kathleen Deoul: Doesn't that get to the heart of the problem, the duration of exposure?
Copulos: Absolutely, Kathleen. There is more and more evidence concerning the dangers of long-term exposure to non-ionizing radiation.
Kathleen Deoul: But despite the mounting evidence, the cell phone industry continues to insist that there isn't a problem, don't they?
Copulos: Indeed they do, Kathleen, but they may not be able to much longer. As you know, about half of the studies that were done in regard to the potential hazards of cell phones say that there are no health effects, and about half say there are. But if you look more closely, what you see is that the half that claim no problem exists are primarily funded by the industry, and the half that say there is a problem are independently funded.
Kathleen Deoul: Yes, but as you were starting to say, isn't it a matter of duration?
Copulos: It certainly is, Kathleen, and it's also a matter of intensity. In fact there have been two recent studies that shed considerable light on the potential hazards of non-ionizing radiation and cell phones.
Kathleen Deoul: What did they say?
Copulos: Actually, they said several things. Perhaps the most important is the most recent study, conducted by the Swedish National Institute for Working Life and the University of Orebro. Perhaps the most comprehensive research to date, the study included 2,200 cancer patients and the same number of healthy individuals. What the researchers determined was that there was a 240 percent increase in the risk of developing a malignant brain tumor among individuals who had been heavy cell phone users for ten years. The researchers defined heavy use as around 200 or more hours per year.
Now bear in mind, that a young person using their cell phone 15 and a half hours per month, would average 186 hours per year, dangerously close to the level where the researchers said there was an increased risk of brain tumors.
But that's not all they said.
They pointed out that in 85 of 905 patients with a type of brain tumor called a glioma that were heavy cell phone users, the tumor was located at the very portion of their head where they habitually held their cell phones.
The connection seems pretty clear to me.
Kathleen Deoul: It's clear to me as well. But you said there were several studies.
Copulos: Yes, Kathleen, but before I get to them, there is one other critical point about the study just released in Sweden. The researchers also found that individuals who began using their cell phones prior to the age of 20 were most susceptible to the risk.
Kathleen Deoul: Like the millions of teens who now use cell phones here in the United States.
Copulos: That's right. Now let's talk about those other studies. One of the most striking results came from a study by Professor Lennart Hardell a cancer specialist at the University of Orebro in Sweden. He studied rural cell phone users and discovered that their risk of brain tumors of all kinds was three times as great as that of city dwellers that used mobile phones. Among those rural residents who had used a cell phone for more than five years, the risk was four times as high. His results were based on a comparison of 1,400 patients with brain tumors and 1,400 healthy individuals.
Although the specific cause of the correlation between cell phone use and brain tumors was not firmly established, Dr. Hardell suggested that it was caused by the fact that cell phones boost power in rural areas because there are fewer cell phone towers. As a result, the radiation they emit can be ten times higher than in urban settings.
Kathleen Deoul: Does that mean that if I use my cell phone while driving in the country, my risk is greater?
Copulos: Actually, yes, Kathleen. Cell phones use a system called adaptive power control that automatically boost the power output of the handset signals when base stations are located further away. So if you're in an area where there are few cell phone towers, your handset will automatically compensate.'
Kathleen Deoul: You said that the risk of all types of brain tumors was greater for rural residents who use cell phones. Is the overall figure different from malignant tumors?
Copulos: I'm glad you brought that up. Yes, the risk is greater - a lot greater. In fact, rural residents who use cell phones are eight times as likely to develop a malignant brain tumor as city dwellers. In other words, the increase in risk is twice as great for malignant tumors as it is for all forms.
Kathleen Deoul: You said there were several studies. What other recent research are you aware of?
Copulos: There is a third study from Sweden, where much of the best research on cell phone hazards is being conducted, because they have been in general use there much longer than in most countries. What is interesting about this third study is that it not only involved cell phones, but also cordless telephones that are used with a land line. The study looked at 910 people with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and a control group of 1,016 healthy individuals. They ranged in age from 18 to 74, and the study was conducted over a period of two and a half years between December of 1999 and April of 2002. What the researchers found was that there was an increased risk of developing T-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma among both cell phone and cordless phone users. Moreover, they also found that the risk increased with the duration of the exposure, and that the ten-year benchmark seemed, as in other studies, to be a threshold.
Kathleen Deoul: That's amazing. So what these three studies seem to say is that there is a link between cell phone use and brain cancer, and that the more you use a cell phone, the greater the risk.
Copulos: I couldn't have put it better, Kathleen.
Kathleen Deoul: Of course, the industry still claims there is no danger, and that their studies support their contention.
Copulos: That's true Kathleen, but there may be a logical explanation. Cell phones simply haven't been in widespread use that long. If, as appears to be the case, there is a ten-year threshold, as well as a connection between the amount of use and the increase in risk, that could explain the difference. It could be that more time needs to pass before the full extent of the dangers becomes evident. Of course, if that is the case, we've got a hidden cancer epidemic brewing.
Kathleen Deoul: That's perhaps the most frightening aspect of the problem. We could be poisoning a generation and not know we are doing it! So, by the time we know it's happening, it will be too late!
But the industry keeps saying that there's no scientific basis for a possible link between non-ionizing radiation and brain cancer. Is this true?
Next month in part 3 of Swimming in a Deadly Sea: Awash in Radiation, we'll look at the possible causes of the link between non-ionizing radiation and cancer and things you can do to protect yourself.
Read: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
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