COLUMBIA — Before cell phones became available, Karen Walker-McClure, 61, remembers her daughter calling her on a pay phone during an emergency.
"There is a huge advantage of children owning cell phones because you have immediate contact if something goes wrong," said Walker-McClure, who is the pastor of Russell Chapel C.M.E. Church.
Eight steps that users should follow that both sides of the debate about cell phone safety agree on:
1. When on a call, use a wired headset (not a wireless headset such as a Bluetooth), use in speakerphone mode or send text messages.
2. Keep the cell phone away from your body (particularly pant/trouser or shirt pockets) or use a belt holster designed to shield the body from cell phone radiation, when not in use (standby mode).
3. Avoid use in a moving car, train, bus or in rural areas at some distance from a cell tower (such as mast or base station) as any of these uses will increase the power of the cell phone’s radiation.
4. Use the cell phone like an answering machine. Keep it off until you want to see who has called. Then return calls, if necessary, using steps 5 and 1.
5. Use a corded landline phone, whenever possible, instead of a wireless phone.
6. Avoid use inside of buildings, particularly with steel structures.
7. Do not allow your children to sleep with a cell phone beneath their pillow or at the bed side.
8. Do not allow children under 18 to use a cell phone except in emergencies.
SOURCE: Environmental Working Group
Nowadays, however, Walker-McClure is not so sure. "My granddaughter has a cell phone, and my daughter and I talk about the risks."
The risk Walker-McClure refers to is the radiation given off by cell phones. However, not everyone agrees on the effect of cell-phone radiation, if any, or the level that might lead to cancerous tumors.
The Food and Drug Administration Center for Devices and Radiological Health and the Federal Communications Commission agree that if radiation from cell phones poses a risk of brain cancer, it is small. The American Cancer Society's Web site says not enough time or research has been devoted to cell phones to reach a conclusion.
But, Lloyd Morgan, chief author of the report "Cell Phones and Brain Tumors — 15 Reasons for Concern," says that if studies funded by the telecommunications industry were removed, the evidence shows that cell phones are causing brain tumors. The study was released in August by International EMF Collaborative, a peer-reviewed journal.
Renee Sharp, director of California offices for the Environmental Working Group, agreed that there is clearly a funding bias, and the industry is more likely to show there is not a link.
"This is definitely a concern of ours, but I would not go as far to say if they were removed there would be definitive answers because brain tumors have a long latency period," Sharp said. The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit environmental organization that specializes in environmental research and advocacy.
On Dec. 3, a study was published by four Scandinavian countries in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. It indicated that there does not appear to be a link between cell phones and brain tumors.
That study is less helpful than it appears, Sharp said, because it only looks at people who have used cell phones for 10 years or less.
"I do not blame the researchers because they had to follow the study's protocol," Morgan said. "The protocol is the problem."
Earlier this year, however, a Swedish study found that cancer risk increases after more than 10 years of cell phone use. It found for every 100 hours of cell phone use, the risk of brain cancer increased by 5 percent.
The Cellular Telephone Industry Association represents many types of wireless devices and lobbies the U.S. government, representing the interests of the telecommunications industry. Spokesman John Walls said in an e-mail the association is not a scientific organization, but it follows scientific studies and the views of health organizations.
"The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk," Walls said. "In addition, there is no known mechanism for microwave energy within the limits established by the Federal Communications Commission to cause any adverse health effects."
One potential problem with the research on the possible link between cell phones and cancer is that the studies are retrospective. That means people who have tumors may exaggerate or misremember information about their cell phone usage, according to research published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environment Epidemiology.
In 1993, Congress asked the cell phone industry to study cell phone safety because of a lawsuit filed by David Reynard against a cell phone manufacturer. Reynard’s wife, Susan, died of a brain tumor, and he blamed cell phones for her death.
The $28 million study that resulted is commonly known as the Interphone study. The conclusion was that there is no significant increased risk of brain tumors for exposure to cell-phone radiation.
More than 4 billion people around the world use cell phones. The technology is only about 20 years old, making long-term health risks difficult to assess.
Morgan said he believes cell phone use will lead to a "pandemic" of brain tumors. "If only 10 percent of cell phone users were affected, that would mean 400 million cases," Morgan said. "Hospitals need to plan for long-term pandemics instead of short-term things like the flu. There will not be enough neurosurgeons to save everyone.”
The German government has a Web site that lists cell phone radiation levels, Sharp said.
"The U.S. has been very silent on the matter; they pretty much just say that cell phones are safe," Sharp said.
A few European governments have publicized possible side effects from cell phone use and are considering legislation that would restrict use, especially among children.
San Francisco's mayor recently proposed making the city the first in the country to require radiation labels for cell phones by requiring retailers to put radiation levels next to each phone in a font at least as large as the price.
At Environmental Working Group, everyone uses a headset or holds the phone away from their head, press associate Leeann Brown said.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group wants the U.S. government to update its cell phone exposure limits. The advocacy group believes that cell phone boxes should be labeled with radiation emissions rather than putting the information in manuals.
In September, the Environmental Working Group analyzed the radiation given off by more than 1,000 models of cell phones and published the information on its Web site along with a list of the 10 best and worst phones on the market.
"I was grateful that my phone was better ranked," Brown said. "Like many consumers, when I bought it I was just looking for the cheapest phone."
Walker-McClure also uses a hands-free device to talk on her Blackberry.
Vinay Atluri, 34, works at Ultimate Cellular (T-Mobile) in the Columbia Mall. He said costumers frequently ask whether cell phones give off harmful radiation. He's looked at some of the studies and found that he cannot come to a final conclusion because of the polarized debate.
Atluri said he spends about three to four hours a day on his cell phone.
"It scares me to think about the amount of time we are spending on cell phones," Atluri said. "The U.S. government should limit cell phone plans or maybe give a heavy charge for using too much time on your cell phone."
Morgan and the Environmental Working Group want to spread awareness about the possible problems with cell phones, so people can make an informed decision.
“I do not own a cell phone. My son, who is in medical school, uses his phone like an answering machine. He keeps it off until he needs to check his messages or in case of emergencies,” Morgan said.
“We don’t need to get rid of cell phones," Morgan said. "But the way they are being used is ghastly."
"The truth is that the jury is still out," Brown said. "We have looked at over 200 studies and found that there is enough science for users to use caution and to merit the research."