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Senate to Look at Cell Phones, Cancer

Sep 15, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

There has been much controversy regarding the possible links between cell phone use and cancer. Now, Iowa senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, will be looking into the matter, reported Reuters.

Harkin just replaced recently deceased Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy and said he promised to investigate the situation, specifically the issue surrounding why no one has been able to conclusively prove that cell phones no not lead to cancer, according to Reuters. "I'm reminded of this nation's experience with cigarettes. Decades passed between the first warnings about smoking tobacco and the final definitive conclusion that cigarettes cause lung cancer," Harkin said, quoted Harkin.

Most recently we wrote that medical professionals attending a congressional hearing called for a large-scale study of the long-term health effects of cell phones, especially in children.  During a hearing before the House subcommittee on domestic policy, Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute discussed how cell phones affect adult and growing brains. Herberman is known for making news with his much-publicized memo urging his 3,000 staffers to limit their and their children’s cell-phone use.  “We urgently need to do a study [to resolve this question],” he told the subcommittee, which was chaired by Representative Dennis Kucinich (Democrat-Ohio).

Cell phone use continues to increase in younger demographics; a very recent survey of over 2,000 teens by market research and consulting firm Harris Interactive (HPOL) revealed 17 million teens, or 79 percent, use cell phones, up 36 percent from 2005, according to CTIA, a wireless industry association. Reuters noted some 275 million people in the United States alone use cell phones.

The activist group, the Environmental Working Group and epidemiologist Devra Lee Davis of the University of Pittsburgh—Davis authored a book claiming the government has neglected to look into an array of cancer sources—have also expressed concern about possible links, reported Reuters. And, according to a staffer, it was a report by the activist group regarding varying rates of radio wave emissions from one phone to another and possible cancer links that increased Harkin’s concern, said Reuters.

Harkin said he “will pursue this beyond this panel, with NIH (the National Institutes of Health)," quoted Reuters. Harkin also noted that while the appropriations committee does not “have jurisdiction over the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC),” the Health committee does, said Reuters.

Most prevailing research has not looked at long-term cell phone exposure and experts feel current standards require strengthening. Three huge studies published since 2000 only looked at people using cell phones for an average of three years. Many experts believe cell phone use for more than what has been studied, to date, would point to increases in the risks of developing certain types of tumors and cancers. Congress has not examined wireless exposure for at least 15 years, according to Representative Darrell Issa (Republican-California), and large-scale studies of the health effects of cell-phone use in the U.S. since the 1990s are lacking, said David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health & the Environment at the University at Albany.  Other studies have provided inconsistent results, in part because outdated technology was studied.

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