Scientific Progress - Wireless Phones and Brain Cancer: Current State of the Science

George L. Carlo, PhD, MS, JD, and Rebecca Steffens Jenrow, MPH, Wireless Technology Research, LLCWashington, DC

In This Article

Regulatory and Public Health Context

The immense popularity of the wireless phone and the continued worldwide growth of the wireless phone industry have created a unique challenge for physicians and other care providers entrusted with patients' health. While scientific information currently available is unclear about safety, in the United States there are currently more than 90 million wireless phone subscribers, with thousands more people each day taking up the wireless phone.[1] Worldwide, there are an estimated 400 million users[2] (see Figure 1).

Wireless subscribership from December 1985 to December 1999.

As we approach the second decade of the penetration of wireless phones into society, regulatory controls on wireless technology are variable across the world. The situation in the United States is illustrative of the regulatory confusion. For example, in the United States, there are no measures regulating potential wireless phone health effects.[3] Neither the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), responsible for the regulation of the commercial aspects of wireless technology, nor the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responsible for requiring premarket testing and postmarket surveillance of radiation-emitting devices in appropriate circumstances, has taken consumer protection steps.[4]

In the mid-1990s, the FCC established guidelines for wireless phone emissions, but the FCC maintains that the guidelines are not safety regulations because the FCC is not a health and safety agency. Prior to the implementation of the current guidelines, wireless phones were expressly exempted from emission guidelines because it was believed that they operated at power levels too low to cause adverse health effects, the so-called low power exclusion.[5] The FDA has issued informational papers for consumers, but outside of their regulatory framework. Recently, the FDA and the industry's top trade association have entered into a cooperative research agreement that has come under criticism for its apparent conflict of interest. The role of the Environmental Protection Agency, an important regulatory presence regarding radio frequency radiation at the beginning of the decade, has been reduced and is currently undefined.

Worldwide, similar situations exist, where the implementation of consumer protection steps have been slow and industry involvement in research and public policy decisions borders on control.

Since early 1993, questions about cell phone safety have been raised in both scientific circles and the popular media.[6,7,8,9,10,11,12] Congressional hearings in the United States during 1993 and a decision by a Florida court in 1994 highlighted the dearth of scientific information relevant to wireless phone safety at the time.[11,12] Indeed, the paucity of data upon which informed judgments about health risk could be made led to the sponsorship by the wireless industry of the unprecedented independent surveillance and research effort that has spawned the majority of the science we now have to shed light on this important public health issue.[13]

With scientific uncertainty, limited research follow-up under way, and minimal government oversight, consumers and those they trust most about their health -- their physicians -- are left to fend for themselves in this regard. The scientific information now in hand will be the basis for health protection for the foreseeable future, and it is critical that primary care providers are aware of both the changing science and consumer options so that informed recommendations can be made.