FDA To Oversee Cell Phone Safety

Thursday, June 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hoping to settle whether there really are any health risks from cellular phones, the Food and Drug Administration negotiated an unusual partnership with the phone industry Thursday to perform about $1 million worth of scientific studies.

Despite public concern that cell phones might cause cancer or other problems, there is no evidence yet that radiation from the hugely popular phones poses a significant health risk, FDA scientists stressed Thursday.

But nor is there proof that cell phones are totally risk-free, the FDA cautioned.

Just last month advisers to the British government recommended that children be discouraged from using cell phones for nonessential calls, because they could not rule out the possibility that scientists one day might discover long-term use is harmful. If harm ever is discovered, the British panel theorized children could be more vulnerable because their nervous systems are still developing.

There are a few studies that suggest the radio waves emitted by cell phone antennas might cause certain biological effects. With 80 million Americans using cell phones, and more buying them each day, uncovering even a small risk could be important to public health.

So the FDA, which oversees the safety of radiation-emitting consumer products, hopes its new research collaboration with the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association will sort out the confusion.

``The vast majority of scientific evidence shows that there is no public health concern from people using wireless phones,'' said CTIA spokesman Jeff Nelson.

But, ``there are some conflicting pieces of information'' that require more research, said Harvey Rudolph, deputy director of FDA's Office of Science and Technology. ``Everybody wants to find out if there are any problems.''

Under the agreement, CTIA will fund about $1 million in safety studies. But the FDA will gather a panel of international experts to choose what to study, pick independent scientists to do the work, and then oversee that the science is done properly.

All the results must undergo standard scientific review for publication in medical journals, so doctors and consumers can be confident in the findings — and confident that if studies uncover any problem, it won't be hidden.

``It's clear industry is not controlling the research,'' Rudolph stressed. ``The only thing they're doing is funding it.''

First on the agenda: studies to see if cell phones' low-level radiation is capable of causing genetic toxicity — a key to certain health problems — and if so, at what levels. Not all cell phones emit the same amount of radio waves. Rudolph said those key studies will start ``as quickly as possible,'' and results could be obtained in two years.

A few animal studies have suggested that cell phones' low-level radiation could accelerate cancer growth, and some research suggests it also causes subtle alterations in signals from brain cells.

But those studies all have scientific flaws, and Rudolph noted they're outnumbered by other studies suggesting cell phones are safe.

Until the issue's settled, what should consumers think? First, the one clear risk from cell phones is using them while driving, which increases the risk of a car crash, Rudolph stressed.

Some critics urge reserving cell phones for shorter calls or using earphones that keep the antenna away from the head. Says Rudolph: ``These are prudent things that if you're concerned you can do.''


On the Net:

FDA's cell phone information for consumers: http://www.fda.gov/cdrh/ocd/mobilphone.html

Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association: http://www.ctia.org