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Internal CDC Documents Show Debate about Cell Phone Risk Recommendations

Jan 6, 2016

About eighteen months ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidelines on the risk of cellphone radiation. "We recommend caution in cellphone use." the agency stated. The New York Times notes that this language was uncharacteristically bold for the CDC, who had previously stated that any risks "likely are comparable to other lifestyle choices we make every day." However, the agency changed these recommendations weeks later and removed a section that talks about possible risks in children. Many contend that there is inadequate evidence linking cellphone radiation to brain cancer. According to the New York Times, however, internal records indicate debate about the risks of cellphone use.

NYT reports that over 500 pages of internal records, along with interviews from former agency officials, show that there was discourse among scientists and health agencies about what recommendations to make about cellphone use and radiation. The CDC's initial warning led to confusion and questions of liability, issues the agency was apparently not ready to handle, according to NYT. Some inquired as to whether the new recommendation indicated a policy change. One state official wondered whether allowing cellphones in schools could lead to liabilities. The internal documents show CDC officials discussed how to move away from the new language. CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said the guideline was prompted by "a C.D.C.-wide effort to make health information for the public easier to understand" but led many to mistakenly think a new policy has been implemented. "To correct that misperception and to confirm that C.D.C. had not changed its policy or recommendations, C.D.C. posted a clarification statement," she stated, according to NYT.

In May 2011, the International Agency for Research of Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, said low-frequency radiation from cellphones and other devices was a possible carcinogen. One of the people who served on the IARC is Dr. Christopher J. Portier. Dr. Portier, who is also former director of the CDC branch that issued the cautionary language, said "I would not have removed it," in a NYT interview. "I would have been in support of a recommendation that parents look carefully at whether their children need cellphones or not." He also said parents should be provided "with enough information to say caution isn't ill advised, because we really don't know, and there are enough indicators to say we should be cautious."

In 2010, the IARC published the highly cited Interphone study showing "some indications of an increased risk of glioma," among the heaviest 10 percent of users but "over all, no increase in risk." But the study considered usage rates that are much lower than what is seen now, according to Interphone's principal investigator Dr. Elisabeth Cardis. In 2014, a study showed that Americans use smartphones more than 34 hours a month on average; this is much higher than the median call time of two to two and a half hours per month in the Interphone study. "I can't say for sure there's an effect, but I can't say for sure there's no effect." Dr. Cardis said to NYT.

"If there's a risk, it's likely to be greater for exposures at younger ages," said Dr. Cardis, who is currently conducting a European study looking at the risks of cellphone use in children, "simply because the skull is thinner and the ears are thinner in children than in adults. Basically your phone is closer to your brain."

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