POLL QUESTION

Scientists at Portland seminar liken cellphones to smoking

Posted Oct. 17, 2011, at 7:33 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 17, 2011, at 10:26 p.m.

Poll Question

PORTLAND, Maine — Researchers from around the world told a Portland audience Monday afternoon that cellphone use today is akin to smoking decades ago: There’s enough science to suggest the activity can cause cancer, but not enough political will to implement measures to reduce exposure.

“We’re setting ourselves up for an epidemic of cancers in the future that should be preventable based on the knowledge we have now,” David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, told the crowd assembled at the University of Southern Maine’s Wishcamper Center on Monday.

The three-hour event featured comments and presentations by four scientists by videoconference and conference call as well as in-person talks by five others, including state Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, who proposed a bill during the last session that would have required warning labels on cellphones.

The seminar took place just hours after the Environmental Health Trust’s release of a report in which the organization claims children absorb much more radiation from cellphones than do adults. The report also criticizes Federal Communications Commission microwave radiation exposure standards as having been established from tests on a model individual larger than 97 percent of the population, which therefore does not reflect the potential danger to most people.

The study is the latest in a back-and-forth global debate over the risks associated with cellphones and other wireless devices, which the World Health Organization in late May characterized as about as carcinogenic as alcohol and working the night shift a year after a nearly $24 million United Nations study on the subject was deemed inconclusive.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, then-director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and University of Texas cancer researcher Donald Berry were among those to argue before state lawmakers in 2010 that there’s not enough scientific evidence to prove cellphones cause cancer to warrant a warning label, as Boland asked for. Boland’s proposed bill was ultimately not passed.

Two of Monday’s speakers at USM were from the Environmental Health Trust: senior research fellow Lloyd Morgan and trust director Devra Davis, who earlier in the day talked about the report in a segment for ABC News’ nationally broadcast show “Good Morning America.”

Davis said FCC standards for safe microwave radiation exposure are based on tests using a model 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound individual speaking on a cellphone for six minutes, a scenario not only inconsistent with the physique of most people but also with cellphone use trends.

Stuart Cobb — who addressed the audience alongside his wife, Kristen — was a Portland area plumber who in April of last year said he began feeling odd symptoms such as dizziness, slurred speech, a loss of vision and mood swings.

He soon was diagnosed with a brain tumor behind the ear up to which he held his cellphone for as much as two hours every day.

“I was shocked,” an emotional Cobb told the USM audience. “It didn’t run in my family. I have two kids. I wasn’t ready to die.

Morgan discussed examples of other nonionizing radiation like that emitted from cellphones causing cancer, such as ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Citing what he described as industry tests, Morgan said every 100 hours of cellphone use increases the risk of brain cancer by at least 4 percent and increases the risk of acoustic neuroma by 6 percent.

Morgan urged audience members to practice using headsets or the speaker function when using their wireless devices and told men not to keep cellphones in their pants pockets, where the radiation can increase their risk of testicular cancer or damage their sperm.

Attendees at the seminar were given an abundance of data bolstering the case that most wireless devices humans take for granted are potential if not likely carcinogens. Among the gadgets identified as possible cancer causers are baby monitors, wireless Internet routers and smart meters, which are being installed by Central Maine Power Co. across Maine as a replacement for analog home energy readers.

Some in attendance Monday asked questions about the radiation risk of iPads — flat, wireless computers — being distributed to kindergartners in Auburn this fall. South Portland Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said at the event she may argue against including buildingwide wireless Internet in the scheduled renovation of South Portland High School in light of the cancer-causing theories.

“There’s no question computer literacy is important,” Lloyd told De Angelis. “But you don’t need wifi to do that. There’s no question wifi falls into the category of a possible human carcinogen.”

Wilhelm Mosgoeller, who has researched radio frequency electromagnetic effects on DNA, said his studies have indicated that exposure breaks down DNA and can be harmful to cells after only four hours.

“We don’t have the proof yet something is wrong,” he said, “but we have the data to suggest there’s a serious risk, that more research is necessary and precautionary measures should be taken.”

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