Return to Transcripts main page


Is Your Cell Phone Safe?

Aired May 21, 2011 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hello. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Welcome to the show.

Today, I'm taking a closer look at something that's become so closely woven into our lives it's hard to imagine what we would do without it. I'm talking about our cell phones.

Now, most of us take it for granted that they're safe -- and that may be the case. But I've also spent the last several months investigating and talking with people who say, "Don't be so sure."

Now, some of you may already be rolling your eyes. And I understand that. I want you to stick with me this half hour. We've been digging a little deeper to try to get a more definitive answer. And I'll tell you this: it wasn't easy.

But what surprised me was that the voices urging caution are not only getting louder, but they're getting more prominent.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. I'm on my way.

GUPTA (voice-over): If you've ever put a cell phone for your ear, you should listen to what neurosurgeon Dr. Keith Black has to say.

DR. KEITH BLACK, CEDARS-SINAI MEDICAL CENTER: There's no way to say that cell phone use is safe. I think the public has a right to know that there could be a potential risk. The public generally assumes that if one is selling something on the market, that we have had assurances that that device is safe.

GUPTA: To be clear, Dr. Black's message is at odds with headlines from the largest international study on cell phones and cancer. Their conclusion, little or no evidence cell phones are associated with brain tumors.

But if you look just one layer deeper into the appendix of that same study, and you'll see something unsettling. It turns out participants in the study who use a cell phone for 10 years or more had double the rate of brain glioma, at type of tumor.

And keep in mind: cell phone use in the United States has only been popular for around 15 years. In 1996, there were 34 million cell phone users. Today, nearly 300 million in use, according to industry figures. BLACK: Environmental factors take decades to see their effect and not a few years.

GUPTA: So, if it may take decades to get a clearer answer, what can we say about cell phone safety now?

Scientists here in San Jose, California, are trying to answer that very question.

(on camera): So, one of the things we have to do first is literally put the brain inside the head.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Exactly. So, it's very light now.

GUPTA (voice-over): The FCC requires all cell phones emit the low 1.6 watts per kilogram of radiation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's put some brain to it.

GUPTA: In order to test for that, scientists here try to mimic the human rain with salt, sugar and water.

(on camera): Let me show you how they do this test. This is a model. This is supposed to approximate the human skull, an adult male. This is my phone we've actually attached there that's connected at the angle that most people would speak with. And inside over here -- very important -- this bubbly liquid inside, that's what represents liquid brain.

What's going to happen is the phone is making a call after a period of time. This device is going to come over here and start to measure radiation at all sorts of different points in the brain. After that, they're going to take all of those numbers, basically put it on a computer screen and tell us where the hot spots are and just how high the levels got.

(voice-over): My cell phone measured within FCC limits. But the whole process was, well, surprisingly low tech. And what about different size skulls or children?

BLACK: In children, their skull is thinner, their scalp is thinner. So, microwave radiation can penetrate deeper into the brain of children and young adults, and their cells are dividing in a much faster rate. So, the impact of micro-radiation can be much larger.

GUPTA: But there have been no studies on children and cell phone safety.

(on camera): Here's something else that might surprise you. The cell manufacturers themselves advise against putting the cell phone right next to your head or really anywhere on your body.

Take a look, for example, with the iPhone 4. The safety instructions specifically say, "When using the iPhone near your body for voice calls, keep it at least 15 millimeters away or 5/8 of an inch away from your body." BlackBerry users specifically, they also have safety guidelines. In this case, they say, "Keep it .98 inches or 25 millimeters from your body," meaning your head or even really your pocket.

(voice-over): Dr. Keith Black has been talking about this longer than many, but the voices joining him are becoming louder and more prominent. The city of San Francisco pushed for radiation warning labels on cell phones. The head of a prominent cancer research institute sent a memo to all employees urging them to limit cell phone use because of possible risk of cancer.

the European Environmental Agency has pushed for more studies, saying cell phones could be as big a public health risk as smoking, asbestos, and leaded gasoline.

(on camera): The Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, they set the guidelines for how much radiation a cell phone can emit and they say cell phones are safe. But how can they be so sure?

Keeping them honest, we decided to come here to try to find out for ourselves but they declined an on-camera interview.

(voice-over): The type of radiation coming out of your cell phone is called non-ionizing. It's not like an X-ray, but more like a low- powered microwave oven.

BLACK: What microwave radiation does in the most simplistic term is very similar to what happens to your food when you put your food in a microwave oven. It's essentially cooking the brain.

GUPTA: But based on their past statements, the FCC isn't convinced there's a real risk and maintain they, quote, "do not endorse the need for consumers to take any precautions to reduce exposure."


GUPTA: Now, I tell you as a neurosurgeon, as a journalist, as a guy who personally has three cell phones, I believe this is an important issue to investigate. And for what it's worth, I haven't met anyone who says don't use a cell phone. Of course, that's not even realistic in today's age. But there are things you can do, steps you can take to minimize your risk from radiation. And if you're concerned about that, I'll show you those during the show.

But, coming up first: we're going to dig even deeper into this and you're going to my conversation with a scientists who's been studying this for over 20 years. I'll be right back with a special look at cell phone safety.


GUPTA: And we are back with a very special SGMD, talking about cell phone safety.

There's been a lot of studies on this. The most recent study on cell phones is by researchers at the National Institutes of Health. Now, they found something very interesting. That the radiation emitted from your cell phone increased brain cell activity after about 50 minutes of talk time.

Let me show you what I'm talking about here. This is -- these are natural scans of the brain, looking at what's known as glucose metabolism, brain activity. That's one way of measuring it. This is with the cell phone on.

Look at how much yellow is in this area around the brain compared to when the cell phone is off, very little yellow comparatively speaking.

This is one of first study to actually show that there is an impact from using cell phones actually on the brain.

Now, we don't know if it's good or bad right now. These are preliminary findings. But there may be concerns among people who already have some sort of brain problem. For example, someone has a brain tumor you can see increased glucose metabolism, because the cancer is high activity part of the brain, could that worsen it somehow? That's the questions that researchers at NIH have raised.

Also, that's part of the speculation overall. They say they are committed to studying it further.

So, it all comes back to a question of safety. And I should tell you now, right off the bat, what we're talking about today is highly controversial. We've talked to industry experts who say that the scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk. I talked to a lot of scientists and doctors who say, "Look, we just don't know."

And then there are people like Devra Davis, a physician, a researcher, former White House health adviser, who founded a group called Environmental Health Trusts. Now, she studied the issues with cell phones for decades, in particular, the amount of radiation they give off and what your body might absorb. She's trying to connect those dots.

You may not agree with what you're about to hear, what she has to say. But I think it's important to hear.


GUPTA: Why did you get interested in cell phones?

DR. DEVRA DAVIS, PRES., ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH TRUST: Because I knew about the history of tobacco and asbestos, because I've worked on those things,

GUPTA: But just because there's other issues that's actually became problematic doesn't mean everything is going to become problematic.

DAVIS: Of course not. But in this particular case, I also knew enough about non-ionizing radiation, to recognize that there were biological effects that haven't been fully appreciated and when I went back and I looked at the history of science, which is something I know a little bit about, I learned that the Navy had warnings and had developed ways to protect personnel against some of these exposures and I became curious.

GUPTA: As you talk about and a lot of people do, everybody has one nowadays. And young kids are using them.

DAVIS: Well, I prefer to think that we were naive and the reason you and I are talking is that we no longer so naive about this issue. I think that there's a recognition also that the governments of France and Finland and Israel have issued warnings, and those are not countries known to take these issues lightly.

I'm particularly concern as a grandmother about the developing brain, about children who are using cell phones, about toddlers and infants whose parents are downloading white noise apps and lullabies and putting the phones under their baby's heads or giving the babies phones to use as teething devices. We are so naive about technology.

Look, cell phones have revolutionized our lives, mine and yours. You can respond to medical emergencies. They are very valuable. But people have a right to know that cell phones are basically small two- way microwave radios and that they should not be kept directly on the brain or body, and that's what the fine print warnings now tell you.

GUPTA: A lot of people listening to us will say, look, I thought this was studied and if there was something bad here, we would already know about it.

DAVIS: The studies of the Hiroshima bombing, we know that brain cancer did not show up at all as increased until 40 years after the bombing occurred.

GUPTA: When you put it like that, it seems to make sense that we certainly just don't know. Enough time has not passed to be able to say anything definitive on this. Yet, the jury seems to be clear on this.

DAVIS: Well, I don't think the jury is clear in other nations right now. I think the answer to that has to do with the old fashioned issue, isn't it? The cell phone industry has been very, very powerful and is very influential on both sides of the aisle. All of us, including me, don't want to give up our phones.

GUPTA: Over 10 years, the affect of using a phone, would you describe it as cumulative problem? Are you accumulating the problems in your brain?

DAVIS: It is a cumulative problem. As we know, it happens with many things that can cause cancer. It may not be the one exposure.

Look, we are born with repair processes. We get damage to our DNA every day, just by breathing, sunlight and whatnot. If we eat well and exercise and don't have too much exposure, that damage gets repaired.

For cell phone radiation, young people today are growing up in a sea of radio frequency radiation that didn't exist even five years ago.

GUPTA: We've been surrounded by radiation for a long time. You're saying this new radiation has changed the amount that we're exposed to?

DAVIS: By billions and billions and billions of times. The amount of radio frequency radiation today is billions and billions of times greater than occurred at the Big Bang through which we evolved human life.

I don't think all microwaves radiation is necessarily problematic. And I recognize that microwave play a very important role in many aspects of modern life. But I think direct microwave radiation of the brain -- and that's why all of the fine print warnings advise: don't hold the phone directly on the body. And, in fact, the test system for testing phones today which gives you the specific absorption rate uses a spacer here -- for every millimeter away from the brain, you get a 15 percent reduction in radiation to the body.

GUPTA: What is the worst case scenario? If you extrapolate the numbers that you just talked about, how bad could this be?

DAVIS: It would be a global epidemic. People have a right to know. There are simple things to do. You got to have more of a public conversation about this.

And we are poorly served by reassurances that everything is OK by misuse of science. It's not helping us. It's not helping our children.


GUPTA: And I should say, we also had a long conversation with John Walsh (ph) from the industry group that represents cell phone makers. They maintain that they are following the radiation guidelines enforced by our own government and defer to FCC who say that cell phones are safe.

We also tried several times to ask the FCC how can we be sure cell phones are safe, based on the data that we've all seen, and asked, why don't they independently test phones for safety? They wouldn't speak to us about this. They just referred us to their Web site with response to the skeptics urging caution by saying, quote, "The FCC does not endorse the need for any of these practices."

Now, a real estate agent who used a cell phone all the time. Many of us do. He thinks, though, in his case, it gave him a brain tumor and he's fighting back. We'll tell you his story. That's next on SGMD.


GUPTA: We are back with SGMD. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Our focus this week is cell phone safety.

Now, during our investigation, we met Alan Marks. He is a successful businessman. It's a remarkable story. Marks' life-changing battle with brain cancer led him on this unique journey that took him all the way to Capitol Hill, doing something he never expected to do.


GUPTA (voice-over): For Alan Marks, being in the real estate business for 30 years has been a passion.

ALAN MARKS, REAL ESTATE AGENT: I like building homes and seeing people move into them happy.

GUPTA: But three years ago, his life changed.

MARKS: I had a seizure. I don't remember it.

GUPTA: The cause of that seizure: a malignant brain tumor. Now, the surgeons were able to remove the cancer, but he says the recuperation was challenging.

MARKS: It took a long time. Even now, I have some deficits. And you try to find ways to overcome them.

GUPTA: And there's something else: Marks feels responsible for his own cancer.

MARKS: I know what it is. It was my cell phone use. I -- there's no way you could put something to your head for 20 years and not have it cause something.

GUPTA: And while there are some studies suggesting cell phones pose a health risk, many others do not. As a trade group representing cell phone manufacturers tells CNN, "Numerous experts and government health and safety organizations around the world have reviewed the existing database of studies and ongoing research and concluded that RF products meeting established safety guidelines pose no known health risk."

But, still, there are many cell phone manufacturers that recommend that you do not put the phone next to your head. And that is something Marks and his family support.

MARKS: I still use my phone. I usually use the speakerphone or I use the headset.

GUPTA: Marks and his wife are urging lawmakers around the country to require manufacturers to put warnings directly on the phones. They believe having the safety information in the manual simply isn't enough.

Today, Marks is able to provide for his family again and is back on top in the real estate business.

MARKS: Do you roll over or do you fight? I'm a fighter.


GUPTA: Now, we can't say for sure whether Alan Marks' tumor, in fact, was caused by cell phones, but as we said, he's certainly a fighter. Good luck to him and his family.

Also, a big step forward this week in the recovery and rehabilitation of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She underwent an operation to replace a piece of her skull that doctors removed months ago at that time because of brain swelling.

Let me show you something here. Surgeons actually took a piece of, in this case, a bone substitute and actually placed it in her own native bone, which was saved, but actually thought to be contaminated.

Take a look around the edges here. These are little plates. They put in four little screws, two in the bone substitute, two in the skull, and actually affixed that to the skull, and they actually closed the skin over that, giving her normal contour back to her head again.

We got another incredible story as well of recovery. A car hit Rob Summers and then drove off, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. And he did have some sensation in his legs, but that was it, and that was five years ago.

Well, this week, Summers and his doctors announced he's been able to stand up and even take steps under his own power with some assistance. He actually uses a harness that actually helps him along. Doctors reestablished neuro-connections by electrically stimulating Rob's lower spinal cord.

An amazing story. We'll see what answers, hopefully, and some solutions that leads to for other spinal cord injured victims.

And coming up: I'm going to answer your questions about cell phone safety. It turns out you've got a lot of them. Some interesting ones, ahead. Stick around.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD. As you know by now, we are talking about cell phone safety and apparently you have a lot of questions about this. They've been flooding in.

I got to share this one with you. This is a question we've got many times over the years. It's about this viral video.

Take a look -- and I'll tell you right off the top, this is not real. This is a hoax. The question was: can cell phones really pop popcorn? No, they don't. That's not the type of radiation that we're talking about. Again, while entertaining, just a hoax, that video.

But we do have important questions, legitimate ones that we want to get to. This one, for example, from our blog: "If cell phones caused cancer, wouldn't we have seen a huge increase in brain cancer recently?"

Very important question. And again, the answer is sort of this idea that not necessarily because it takes a period of time for cancers to develop. Cell phones have just become popular in this country over the last 15 years. There's only about 30 million cell phones in this country in 1996. And now, there's three times as much, 300 million. People are using their cell phones more, but it takes 20 to 30 years for these tumors to develop. We haven't had that time yet.

Let's get you another question now. This one, "I'm a parent with a child that keeps her phone stuck to her head. What's the greatest risk to her?"

Well, first of all, I can tell you, the risk was for parents, is you don't get to talk to your child as much anymore. I'm going to a little bit of that myself.

But think about children not simply small adults. I mean, they are children. They have thinner scalps, they have thinner skulls. And as a result, radiation may penetrate more greatly. That's of concern, something Dr. Black brought up.

And here's something I found really striking. There have been no studies so far on children and cell phones -- nothing in the periodic journal we could look at. And I find that alarming, because children are using the phones at an early age and they're going to use them throughout their entire lives.

Also, cell phones can be extremely distracting. You kids' sleep schedule maybe changed.

You think of these phones really as mini computers. They can be just as stimulating as a television. Many kids will stay up late at night playing on their various phones, versus winding down. So, it could really throw that sleep schedule off.

Let's get to another question now. This one, "I text on my phone more often than talking. Is radiation from texting the same as a phone call?" Nashita writes that from our CNN blog.

Here's the good news, is that it's not. Texting is actually a much safer alternative. The amount of radiation that you absorb goes off exponentially as you move the phone away from your ear. You could use also speakerphone and you could use a wired earpiece.

People around this building know that I use my wired earpiece all the time. I've been talking about it for sometime. It's a simple thing to do to mitigate your risk. I'm not asking people to turn their lives upside down. It just simply comes down to try and decreases your risk and waiting for more studies to come out.

Big conversation today. That does it, though, for this edition of SGMD. Thanks for watching.

A reminder as well: you can set your DVR for 7:30 Eastern to get our show every single week.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. More news on CNN starts right now.