The Man Who Was Allergic to Radio Waves

Your cellphone does not in itself cause cancer. But in the daily sea of radiation we all travel, there may be subtler dangers at work, and science is only just beginning to understand how they can come to affect people like Per Segerbäck so intensely
Jonathan Worth

Per Segerbäck lives in a modest cottage in a nature reserve some 75 miles northeast of Stockholm. Wolves, moose and brown bears roam freely past his front door. He keeps limited human company, because human technology makes him physically ill. How ill? On a walk last summer, he ran into one of his few neighbors, a man who lives in a cottage about 100 yards away. During their chat, the man’s cellphone rang, and Segerbäck, 54, was overcome by nausea. Within seconds, he was unconscious.

Segerbäck suffers from electro-hypersensitivity (EHS), which means he has severe physical reactions to the electromagnetic radiation produced by common consumer technologies, such as computers, televisions and cellphones. Symptoms range from burning or tingling sensations on the skin to dizziness, nausea, headaches, sleep disturbance and memory loss. In extreme cases like Segerbäck’s, breathing problems, heart palpitations and loss of consciousness can result.

A cellphone has to be in use — either making or receiving a call, or searching for a signal, when radiation levels are highest — for it to have this kind of effect on Segerbäck. Phones that are on but neither sending nor receiving usually don’t produce enough radiation to be noticeable. But it’s not the sound of the phone that sets him off. Once, while on a sailboat with friends, he recalls, he was on the front deck when, unknown to him, someone made a call belowdecks. Headache, nausea, unconsciousness. When Segerbäck is within range of an active cellphone (safe distances vary because different makes and models produce different radiation levels), he experiences the feeling that there is “not enough room in my skull for my brain.”

Sweden is the only country in the world to recognize EHS as a functional impairment, and Segerbäck’s experience has been important in creating policy to address the condition. Swedish EHS sufferers — about 3 percent of the population, or some 250,000 people, according to government statistics — are entitled to similar rights and social services as those given to people who are blind or deaf. Today, local governments will pay to have the home of someone diagnosed with EHS electronically “sanitized,” if necessary, through the installation of metal shielding.


Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are inescapable. We are constantly exposed to them, mostly in the form of either extremely low-frequency (ELF) radiation from things like domestic appliances and power lines or radio-frequency (RF) radiation from things like cellular and cordless phones, telecom antennas, and TV and radio transmission towers. Our bodies even produce faint EMFs of their own, from the electrical activity in the brain and heart.

Ionizing radiation — the kind produced by x-rays, CT scans and nuclear bombs — can do terrible damage to the body. It is classified as a carcinogen. But ELF and RF are types of non-ionizing radiation, which is thought to be nearly harmless. Non-ionizing radiation isn’t powerful enough to break molecular bonds, so it cannot directly cause the cellular damage that leads to disease. This type of radiation is everywhere. “We are bathed in a sea of non-ionizing radiation,” says John Boice, a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and scientific director of the International Epidemiology Institute, a biomedical research firm in Rockville, Maryland.

This sea, most scientists agree, is harmless. Cellphones are safe and conditions like EHS cannot exist, they argue, because the EMFs involved are too weak to have any health effect. The non-ionizing radiation from cellphones has almost no known influence on the human body. In fact, the only universally recognized effect of non-ionizing radiation is a very minor heating of nearby tissue. The Federal Communications Commission sets EMF limits for cellphones — measured as “specific absorption rates” (SARs) — below which significant heating does not occur. Segerbäck’s symptoms and those of other EHS sufferers, according to many researchers, may be either misdiagnosed or imaginary. Some experts suggest that people like Segerbäck perhaps suffer from a psychological disorder, or that their cases may illustrate the “nocebo” effect, in which the expectation that something will make you sick actually does make you sick. A review published last year in the journal Bioelectromagnetics found no evidence that hypersensitive individuals had an improved ability to detect EMFs, and the study found evidence of the nocebo effect in those same people.

The cellphone industry’s position on the subject is clear. “The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public-health risk,” says John Walls, vice president of public affairs at CTIA — The Wireless Association, the international industry body. “In addition, there is no known mechanism for [EMFs] within the limits established by the FCC to cause any adverse health effects.” A host of major institutions — including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization — agree with this assessment. (Although the ICNIRP says scientific assessment of the health aspects of wireless devices should continue as the technology becomes more widespread.)

Boice points out that data from cancer registries, such as the National Cancer Institute’s SEER program, shows that brain-cancer rates haven’t gone up since the early 1990s. The trends are also relatively flat from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, where cellphones have been in use longer than in the U.S. If cellphones were causing brain cancer, an obvious uptick in reported cases would be expected. “If you look at the totality of biological and experimental studies,” Boice says, “the vast amount of evidence is that there is no association between cellphones and malignancies.”


Segerbäck was once an elite telecommunications engineer. He worked for Ellemtel, a division of the Swedish telecom giant Ericsson, for more than 20 years, leading an engineering group that designed advanced integrated circuits for prototype telecommunication systems. He used the newest and most advanced computer and telecom equipment available, the kind of stuff only Ericsson and the Swedish military had access to. He was, as a result, up to his eyeballs in a non-ionizing radiation bath, from computers, fluorescent lights and the telecom antenna located right outside his window.

He noticed his first symptoms — dizziness, nausea, headaches, burning sensations and red blotches on his skin — in the late 1980s, a decade into his telecommunications research work. All but two of the 20 or so other members of his group reported similar symptoms, he says, although his were by far the most severe. His EHS worsened and now, he says, even radar from low-flying aircraft can set it off. Segerbäck is convinced that the perfect storm of EMFs in his office, combined with potentially toxic fumes from his brand-new computer, were responsible for his condition. “The company doctors didn’t understand what was going on,” he says.

Agne Fredriksson, who managed Segerbäck’s group at Ellemtel and retired from Ericsson in 2006, says a commonly reported symptom was “a feeling of heat in the face,” which everyone attributed to the new computer workstations. When members of Segerbäck’s group started calling in sick and people from other departments began reporting similar symptoms, Fredriksson recalls, “that’s when we started to look into what could be done about it. There was a lot of worry from the groups in which people reported the most symptoms.”

A new office space was created for the worst-affected employees; about half a dozen people shared this fully shielded room. Others switched to different computer workstations, while others managed by spending less time in front of their screens. No one had ever encountered anything like it before. “Why are we so special?” Fredriksson remembers wondering. He later learned that other companies faced similar situations at the time, although that information remained internal.

Ericsson went to great lengths to keep Segerbäck, a key member of the firm’s design team, on the job. In the early 1990s, the company installed metal shields around his bedroom and study at home so he could sleep and work without radiation exposure. To enable him to go outside, medical authorities gave Segerbäck an EMF-resistant suit like the ones worn by engineers working in close proximity to live telecom towers and high-voltage power lines. The firm even modified a Volvo so he could travel safely to and from work. His commutes ended when cellphone towers began to spring up around Stockholm in the mid-1990s, eventually forcing his retreat to the woods.

In 1993 Ericsson produced a report, “Hypersensitivity in the Workplace,” about what happened at Segerbäck’s lab. In the foreword, Ellemtel’s vice president Örjan Mattsson and administrative chief Torbjörn Johnson wrote: “A new problem in the work environment has appeared: hypersensitivity. When dealing with traditional occupational injury, as a rule you can establish a cause and effect relationship. Not so with regard to hypersensitivity. When the first serious cases occurred at Ellemtel at the end of the 1980s, we were not prepared. Soon, we came to look upon hypersensitivity as a serious threat to the company business. . . . We started wondering if we were faced with a modern-day scourge.”

A year later, Ericsson closed the lab in which Segerbäck and his group worked. The company dismissed Segerbäck in 1999. “He could not perform the work he was employed to do,” according to an Ericsson spokesperson. Segerbäck challenged the dismissal in a Swedish labor court and lost. He admits that there is no way to prove what caused his condition. “It’s hard to know what is causing what,” he says. “No one can say what made us feel ill.” And it is impossible for him to seek treatment in a medical facility. A trip to the hospital, with all its electronic equipment, would probably kill him, he says.

Ulrika Aberg, a Swedish physician specializing in EHS who treated Segerbäck in the early days of his condition, has worked with more than 800 hypersensitive patients. She says she’s seen a sliding scale of symptoms, from sleep disturbance and dizziness on one end to the more severe effects experienced by Segerbäck on the other. “There is electrical activity going on in all cells all the time, so it’s no wonder the whole body [of an EHS patient] is affected,” she says.

For those reporting milder symptoms, Aberg suggests removing any wireless electronics from the home, including cell and cordless phones and wireless Internet connections. But that still leaves people exposed to the wireless devices of others. There are several hundred EHS “refugees” in Sweden, she says, people who have had to move, some more than once, to escape the effects of EMFs. She describes one hypersensitive couple that lives in a mobile home so they can quickly relocate if their symptoms worsen. “EHS is a controversial diagnosis, and many people don’t know or care about it,” Aberg says. “But many [EHS sufferers] can’t feel safe where they live. We shouldn’t produce more and more EMFs without taking account of how people react to them.”


The main source of EMFs from cellphones is the antenna, located inside the handset. When sending signals and held against the side of the head, the phone produces radiation that can penetrate into the brain. The precise depth depends on the frequency of the EMFs; the higher the frequency, the lower the depth of penetration. Cellphones typically operate in a range of frequencies between 800 and 2,200 megahertz. Radios and TVs operate at slightly lower frequencies, and microwave ovens and radar operate at higher frequencies.

Research into the health effects of EMFs started in the 1950s, when scientists began studying medical applications and radar. As microwave ovens started appearing in kitchens in the 1960s, EMF research entered the mainstream, and with the proliferation of computer display terminals in the 1970s and cellphones in the 1980s, the research really took off. “With every new device, people worry,” says Michael Repacholi, the former coordinator of the World Health Organization’s Radiation and Environmental Health Unit and now a visiting professor at the University of Rome. Repacholi launched the WHO’s International EMF Project in 1996 in response to growing public concern. That group’s conclusion: There is no evidence to indicate any health effects from cellphone EMFs. There was a clutch of lawsuits in the mid-1990s alleging that cellphones had caused brain cancer in specific individuals; none succeeded.

The Interphone project, a collaboration among 13 countries that carried out studies between 2000 and 2005 coordinated by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, was set up to settle the matter of whether cellphones cause brain cancer. It, however, has been plagued by controversy over methodology, bias and contradictory results. Interphone spans a period during which cellphones and their use have changed greatly. Children were not included in the study, for instance, because cellphone use by kids was low when it began in 2000.

Bias is a concern for all studies of this type, says the head of the Interphone study, Elisabeth Cardis of the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona, Spain. “We have from the beginning made efforts to minimize bias as much as possible, to identify and quantify any remaining bias, and to try and take it into account in the most scientific way,” she says.

The results are inconclusive. A Danish Interphone study of 106 cases of acoustic neuroma, a kind of brain tumor, showed no elevated risk from long-term cellphone use, although only two cases were long-term users. A Swedish Interphone study of 148 cases found a slightly elevated risk.

When the Interphone results are finally released, after years of closed-door debate, they are not expected to settle anything. In the end, Cardis says, “further studies will be needed to confirm the Interphone results, particularly with regard to the use of phones by children.”


Let’s be clear: Cellphones are not like cigarettes. There is a proven mechanism by which cigarettes cause cancer, even if you live an otherwise healthy life. There is as yet no proven mechanism by which cellphones do the same. Most experts say there is no such mechanism. “There is no dramatic evidence of a health effect,” says Michael Kundi of the Institute of Environmental Health at the Medical University of Vienna. “Otherwise, we all would be terribly sick.” But, he says, there is another crucial distinction to understand. Even though EMFs are in all likelihood not cancer initiators — they don’t cause cancer the way that tobacco does — the radiation might well be a cancer promoter, allowing precancerous cells time to grow and metastasize, especially in concert with other factors.

While most of the rest of the scientific community argue that cellphones pose no health risks at all, Kundi and others suspect that radiation from prolonged cellphone use may indeed lead to an increased risk of brain cancer. As to electro-hypersensitivity, among the limited studies of EHS sufferers (who are reluctant to subject themselves to hours in an electronics-laden facility), some have shown that cellphone-frequency EMFs do produce physiological effects in some people, both those who report EHS symptoms and those who do not (although the EHS patients performed no better than chance when asked whether they were being exposed).

A growing number of studies show that we may not understand the effects of EMFs at all, especially the ones that emanate from cellphones. We may have been asking the wrong question. Research is beginning to shift from asking, “Do cellphones cause cancer?” to asking, “What mechanism, if any, could cause an adverse health effect?”

In 2001, doctors diagnosed Catherine Woollams, a 22-year-old Briton, with a glioblastoma, a brain tumor of the type studied in connection with EMF radiation. Her father, Christopher, had studied biochemistry at Oxford, specializing in viruses and cancer, before going into advertising. In the early 1990s, he helped develop the launch campaign for Mercury One-2-One, one of the first digital cellphone services in Great Britain. After Catherine’s diagnosis, he founded CANCERactive, a charity that provides information on cancer treatments. Catherine died in 2004.

Woollams has a surprisingly measured opinion of the cancer risk in cellphone use. He says his daughter smoked cigarettes, didn’t eat well, and lived on her cellphone. Are cellphones responsible for her death? “I don’t think it helped,” he says, “but there is no single cure for or single cause of cancer.”

He argues that research should not focus solely on brain cancer. “It is very, very hard to prove a direct link,” he says. “The evidence is tenuous at best.” Woollams believes researchers should also pursue the possible mechanisms by which EMFs might impair the body’s overall defenses. He suggests that the daily sea of EMFs — combined with other environmental factors, such as toxic chemicals and poor nutrition — may have a collective influence on our health. “I am far, far more worried about how [cellphones] could lead to a diminution of the immune system,” he says. “Mobile phones add to the problems that bring about brain tumors. Phones should carry a warning, the same as cigarettes.”

Investigating the relation between cellphones and health risks remains terribly difficult and inconclusive. Brain-cancer studies are particularly hard to conduct — the tumors are rare and can take decades to develop — but they do exist. Most studies have addressed either malignant tumors such as glioma or benign tumors such as meningioma or acoustic neuroma. Some studies have also focused on salivary gland tumors. The majority have found no link between cellphones and these types of cancer. But a few have. Lennart Hardell of the department of oncology at University Hospital in Örebro, Sweden, found increased risk for glioma and acoustic neuroma after 10 or more years of regular cellphone use. He concluded that current radiation limits for cellphones are unsafe.

Other developments are also unsettling. According to a 2004 report from the U.K. Office of National Statistics, the rate of childhood brain and spinal-cord tumors in Britain rose from just under 20 per million in the early 1970s to just under 30 per million in the late 1990s. Citing concern over “continuing uncertainties about possible health risks” of EMFs, the European Parliament has suggested an awareness-raising campaign geared toward young people between the ages of 10 and 20; the French Ministry of Health, Youth and Sports has warned against “excessive” cellphone use among youngsters; and U.S. senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who survived a brain tumor, has held Senate hearings on the issue. State legislators in Maine are debating whether cellphones sold there should display warnings about brain cancer, and the municipal government in San Francisco is considering requiring information about radiation levels on cellphone packaging.

Study results are invariably criticized for methodological failings, such as insufficient sample size (many people need to be studied to get a meaningful result) or recall bias (people often incorrectly remember their past cellphone use). A recent review of 23 cellphone/cancer papers found that studies the authors rated as of the highest methodological quality (mostly by Hardell) reported an increased risk of tumors in long-term cellphone users, whereas in studies the authors rated as of lower methodological quality the results actually showed a decreased risk among cellphone users. Yet a different review singled out Hardell’s results as most likely the result of poor methodology.


What, then, should we study? Kundi points out that according to current research, cellphone radiation does have “non-thermal effects” — biological effects beyond the mere heating of tissue — that could influence human health. Identify the mechanisms behind these effects, he urges, and design phones that don’t produce them. There are three main lines of investigation into non-thermal effects: the potential influence on melatonin production, gene expression and intracellular signaling.

Melatonin is mostly known as an antidote to jet lag. Produced in the pineal gland of the brain, the hormone regulates much of our sleep-wake cycle. But it also has a crucial role as an antioxidant, protecting against the DNA damage that can lead to cancer and the neurological damage that can lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s. EMFs have been shown to suppress melatonin production in rats. If suppression also occurs in humans, one of the body’s defenses would be weakened.

Epidemiological studies have found an increased risk of leukemia in people living near high-voltage power lines. The IARC now classifies extremely low-frequency EMFs (such as those from power lines) as a possible human carcinogen. Denis L. Henshaw, a physicist at the University of Bristol in England, cites evidence that power-line EMFs disrupt melatonin production, thereby impairing the immune system’s ability to prevent and repair genetic damage.

Power lines operate at lower frequencies (around 50 hertz) than cellphones. But cellphones produce regular pulses that fall in the extremely low-frequency range of 1 to 300 hertz. It is therefore possible, according to Henshaw, Kundi and others, that cellphone EMFs could also have an effect on human cells and, potentially, on melatonin production.

While acknowledging that some researchers have found alterations in melatonin levels, former WHO coordinator Repacholi says, “It must be something else, because [power-line EMFs] hardly penetrate into the body. There is no mechanism by which the fields could cause melatonin change.” Counters Henshaw, “There are thousands of papers documenting the effect of power-line EMFs. We don’t know yet if this is true for cellphones, but for power-line EMFs there clearly are non-thermal effects.”

Gene Expression
Research by Igor Belyaev, an associate professor in the Department of Genetics, Microbiology and Toxicology at Stockholm University, has shown that EMFs can affect gene expression — the mechanism by which genes are activated and “speak out” — in human and animal cells. Belyaev exposed human lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell involved in the body’s immune response, to EMFs at 915 megahertz, a common cellphone frequency. The samples were taken from healthy people and those reporting EHS symptoms. In cells from both types of subjects, Belyaev observed a stress response that altered gene expression. The stress response induced by EMFs at 915 megahertz disrupted the body’s DNA-repair machinery, he concluded, thus making it harder to fix the kind of cellular damage that can lead to cancer. In other research, Belyaev has found that cellphone-frequency EMFs inhibit DNA repair in stem cells; DNA breaks in stem cells are critical to the onset of leukemia and some tumors, including gliomas.

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.”

Intracellular Signaling
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.”

Boice believes there is a need for continued research into cellphones and EMFs. “We should never just assume, ‘Oh, it’s non-ionizing radiation, so there is no need for further research.’ But,” he adds, “we have conducted studies, and the studies show there is nothing going on.”

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.

Cellphone Habits of the Experts

Rony Seger
Weizmann Institute of Science

“I try not to exceed a half hour or an hour a day,” Seger says of his cellphone use. “Everything is a matter of dosage.” He suggests keeping cellphones at least 12 inches from the body and using the speakerphone.

Christopher Woollams
Founder and CEO of CANCERactive

Woollams uses his cell sparingly and puts it on speakerphone. His older kids — aged 14, 23 and 26 — “are encouraged to only text at most. I don’t want them to carry the phone on their bodies when they are on.”

Michael Repacholi
Former coordinator of the WHO’s Radiation and Environmental Health Unit

Repacholi owns two cellphones and says he has no concerns about using them. For those who do, he recommends using a hands-free kit, which can reduce exposure levels by a factor of between 10 and 100.

John Boice
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and the International Epidemiology Institute

Boice makes approximately five cellphone calls a day. He uses a wired earpiece — not for fear of EMFs but because “I’m getting older and don’t hear so well anymore,” he says.

Ulrika Aberg
Electro-hypersensitivity specialist

Aberg removes her phone’s battery when she visits patients. She advises against wireless phones and wireless computer connections at home because, she says, “you are exposed to EMFs all day and all night.”

Elisabeth Cardis
Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology and head of Interphone

Cardis is not a heavy talker (“I have little time!”) but says, “If consumers are worried about a possible risk, the use of hands-free kits or earpieces is a very good way to reduce exposure.”

Michael Kundi
Institute of Environmental Health, Medical University of Vienna

Kundi dials on a landline whenever available and suggests not using cellphones where reception is weak, because they boost their signal to maintain connectivity, thus increasing EMF exposure.

Voices on the Line

Opinions from the researchers, interviewed by Christopher Ketcham

“We really cannot say for certain what the adverse effects are in humans, but the indications are that there may be—and I use the words ‘may be’—very serious effects …The biggest concern about cellphones is the evidence coming out of studies in Northern Europe, where cellphones were invented and where they have been used for a longer period of time than in the U.S. These studies are pretty consistent in showing an increased risk of brain cancer and tumors of the auditory nerve in individuals who have used cellphones for more than 10 years, but only on the side of the head where the cellphone is used. Studies from Israel have also found tumors of the parotid gland, the salivary gland in the cheek, but again only on the side of the head where the cellphone is used.”

—David Carpenter is director of the Institute for Health and the Environment and founding dean of the School of Public Health at the State University of New York at Albany. He co-edited the 2008 Bioinitiative Report on cellphone risks.

“The Interphone study was initiated by the WHO agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, to have 16 case-control studies conducted in 13 countries to determine whether use of mobile phones is associated with head or neck cancers. Until the Interphone study results are published, the best indicator of the likely result is shown in the combined British and Nordic country study, which has over 60 percent of all the cases and controls that the full Interphone study has. In this study, they found little evidence of any head or neck cancers among people who have used their phones for less than 10 years …It is not possible to make any conclusions at present about the risks of mobile phones for more than 10 years.”

—Michael Repacholi was coordinator for the Radiation and Environmental Health Unit at the World Health Organization from 1996 to 2006.

“When a nerve is stimulated—say, the optical nerve stimulated by light—all sorts of electrical activity goes on. The nervous system uses electrical fields to function. It would be expected that certain extraneous electromagnetic fields would affect the nervous system. If you apply a correctly tuned EM field, you’re going to affect nervous-system function, which is going to affect all sorts of functions and behaviors. Some of my research in the 1970s found that when you expose a frog’s heart to EM frequencies that were modulated just so, you can produce arrhythmias in those hearts and even stop the hearts. I also showed that EM frequencies could open the blood-brain barrier. This means that substances in the blood can leak into the highly stabilized systems in the brain.”

—Allan Frey is a neuroscientist formerly with the GE Advanced Electronics Center at Cornell University who conducted some of the first experiments showing the biological effects of radio-frequency radiation.

“In the 1940s, kids’ shoe shops were equipped with shoe-fitting machines that used strong x-rays, and wristwatches in the 1950s glowed in the dark because they were coated with radioactive paint. At the same time, scientists and doctors started to realize that the warm and beautiful sunshine actually can harm our cells and their DNA, leading to the development of skin cancer …We don’t know what will happen when, 24 hours around the clock, we allow ourselves and our children to be whole-body irradiated by new, man-made electromagnetic fields for the rest of our lives. This question is more valid and important than ever, and it is up to our society, with its governments, parliaments and authorities, to answer it.”

—Olle Johansson is an associate professor at the Karolinska Institute and the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and has been investigating the health effects of man-made electromagnetic fields since the 1980s.