Columns Magazine - The University of Washington Alumni Magazine Columns Magazine UW Alumni Association

Prelude

Making Waves

On Dec. 21, UW Bioengineering Professor Henry Lai could be found with a big smile across his face. Research into cell phone radiation that he and N.P. Singh had pioneered 10 years ago at the UW was finally being corroborated.

In 1995 the two published a paper that documented DNA damage in the brain cells of rats exposed to radiation similar to that emitted by cell phones. In press interviews and scientific conferences, Lai has always said there are no solid answers regarding his research, but there is cause for concern and more work needs to be done.

But the cell phone industry said Lai’s research techniques were not commonly accepted and that “people have over-interpreted their data.” The industry maintains that the results have never been duplicated (Lai and Singh disagree), and that the overwhelming scientific evidence to date shows there is no health risk.

Unrestricted funding to investigate the health risks of cell phone radiation is hard to find, Lai says, since most research money in the United States comes from an industry-funded group. The UW professor alleges that there are too many strings attached to that money to do unrestricted work, but the industry disagrees. Currently the federal government is not directly funding this type of research, he adds, although the FDA administers fund that come from the industry.

But the European Union is funding independent research into possible heath risks of electromagnetic radiation, including cell phone signals. In December, preliminary results of work by 12 groups in seven countries found that radiation at some cell phone levels damages DNA in a laboratory setting.

The effort—called REFLEX—studied radiation effects on animal and human cells. REFLEX scientists used radiation at Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) levels of between 0.3 and 2 watts per kilogram. (SAR measures the rate at which the body absorbs emissions from a handset.) SAR levels from most phones range between 0.5 and 1 watt per kilogram.

The scientists reported a significant increase in DNA damage. This damage could not always be repaired by the injured cell. The 291-page report is online at www.powerwatch.org.uk/news/20041222_reflex.asp.

The REFLEX study has yet to be published in a scientific journal, and scientists involved said their work did not prove such DNA changes were a risk to human health.

But in a BBC report, the leader of the four-year REFLEX study, German scientist Franz Adlkofer, said people should use landlines, rather than cell phones, wherever possible.

“We don’t want to create a panic, but it is good to take precautions,” he told the BBC, adding that definitive research would take another four to five years. Adlkofer is a professor at the Munich-based VERUM Foundation.

The REFLEX study has not been reported in U.S. media, but for Lai it was welcome news after his initial research had been dismissed. This does not mean it’s the beginning of the end of cell phones, he says. If the results are confirmed in further studies, the UW professor is confident that we can engineer our way out of any problems, just as we engineered the technology in the first place.

-Tom Griffin, Editor

Wake-up Call:  Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4
Inside the Wave: Web exclusive on more cell phone radiation research
Making Waves: Worrisome results from European cell phone study
Old Medicine, New Cure?: Henry Lai’s cancer research shows promise