Stress response does indeed cause changes in gene expression; however, says Repacholi, "lots of experiments can find effects, but that doesn't translate into the whole organism, because the whole organism compensates. The gap between a biological effect and an adverse health effect is a big one."
Rony Seger of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, has found that EMFs in the 900-megahertz range also influence intracellular signaling pathways -- how cells talk to each other. Working with rat cells, Seger and his colleagues found that cellphone radiation changes the activity of certain enzymes, prompting them to start producing free radicals. Free radicals are rogue atoms that can cause damage when they interact with DNA and other crucial cellular components.
Seger emphasizes that the effect "produces a small amount of free radicals, which in themselves are not harmful." But he also says that intracellular signaling could be part of a more general cancer-inducing mechanism that is not yet understood. "It is possible that this system could cause the activation of another system," he says, which could in turn create a cascade of intracellular events whose cumulative effect could be harmful. He cautions, though, "The amplification [of the free radicals] has to be much stronger in order to induce these adverse effects." Boice points out that free radicals are produced all the time as a by-product of our metabolism. "The body has processes that take care of them," he says. "You can't extrapolate from a petri dish to humans."
Henshaw, Belyaev and Seger do not argue that their work proves that EMFs either initiate or promote cancer. They do insist, however, that these non-thermal effects cannot be dismissed and that they merit further study. "We need to decide now if there is a risk," Kundi says. "If we know the mechanism, then we can design phones not related to increased risk."
Another study, the International Cohort Study of Mobile Phone Users (COSMOS), might help determine what, if any, future research is needed. COSMOS will be monitoring some 250,000 Europeans over the next 20 to 30 years, looking at potential links between cellphones and brain tumors as well as EHS-like symptoms such as headaches, sleep disorders, and neurological and cerebro-vascular diseases. But results are not due until 2029 at the earliest, and between now and then, the technology will change and proliferate in ways we cannot predict. A study under way at the IIT Research Institute in Chicago, examining the effects of EMF exposure on rats and mice over several generations, should also provide important evidence. A similar experiment, in which mice were exposed to cellphone EMFs 24/7 across four generations, found no harmful effects on the animals' fertility or development. "If [the IIT Research Institute in Chicago study] doesn't find an effect, then we're unlikely to find anything at all," Repacholi predicts.
In a recent report on EMFs and health effects, the ICNIRP concluded, "Whilst it is in principle impossible to disprove the possible existence of non-thermal interactions, the plausibility of the non-thermal mechanisms . . . is very low." Still, Seger says, "there are more and more indications that [non-thermal effects] must be real. What is the mechanism? No one knows. If there is an effect, the mechanism is absolutely new to science. We have to start thinking about it in a different way."
Segerbäck is convinced that cellphones are dangerous. "I'm an engineer, and even I don't know how to design a phone that doesn't affect health," he says. Radiation limits "are all based on thermal effects, and that's wrong." In the early stages of his condition, Segerbäck was still able to lead a fairly normal life. His daughter, Anna, was just a child when he became ill. She used to run ahead of him at home switching off all the lights in every room before he entered. It is everyday family life that Segerbäck misses the most, something as simple as the chat and laughter on the morning drive to school.
Today he cooks all his meals on a wood-burning stove. The fireplace is his only source of heat. He has electric lights, a phone and a computer, but their power source -- a 12-volt battery -- is buried in an underground cellar about 30 yards from his house, far enough away that the EMFs can't reach him. His computer and his mouse are both surrounded by metal plates so no radiation escapes. His neighbors all know about his condition and (with occasional, painful exceptions) know not to carry cellphones near his house.
Segerbäck is surprisingly sanguine about his situation. "Of course it's a very sad thing that happened to me," he says, "but it can only be regarded as an accident. I am a positive person, from a line of very stubborn people able to survive under tough conditions." He is determined, in his affable, soft-spoken way, to gain greater recognition and greater credibility for EHS. Not by banning cellphones -- he's still too much a telecom engineer for that -- but by somehow making cellphones safer. In fact, he even takes some responsibility for being part of an industry that designed devices he now believes are hazardous to people's health. "Guys like me were so far ahead of society," he says. "We didn't know medicine. We didn't think what we were developing could harm anyone. It's hard to admit we've been wrong for so long."
How about the researchers? Do the people who study cellphone radiation use their phones with caution? On the next page.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.