AN ECONOMIC WUNDERKIND
You see them everywhere. In shopping malls, gas stations, restaurants and on public streets; on subways, in airports, and on the road, just look around and you’ll spot someone talking on a cell phone. Indeed, the cell phone industry has been the economic wunderkind of the last two decades.
From a modest 340,000 subscribers in 1985, cell phone subscriptions expanded to more than 182 million in 2004, and that figure doesn’t count the prepaid units that have become increasingly popular with teenagers. As a result, cell phones are now among the most widely owned electronic devices, ranking ahead of personal computers (122.1 million), and video game consoles (120 million). In fact, there are now more cell phone subscribers than traditional “land line” telephone users (178 million).
More important, acquiring a cell phone has become a rite of passage among teenagers, approaching the importance of getting their driver’s license. The statistics on teen cell phone use make this dramatically clear.
TEENS AND CELL PHONES
In 2001, only around 5 percent of teenagers owned a cell phone. By 2004 fully one-third of teens and even preteens (aged 11 to 17) had a mobile communications device. By 2007, it is estimated that nearly half of all teens will own a cell phone.
Like the automobile, the cell phone represents a means of gaining freedom from watchful parental eyes, maintaining contact with their friends, and perhaps most important, winning status among their peers. Also, cell phones are increasingly evolving into entertainment devices, offering music videos, games and even Internet access.
The implications of this phenomenon for the cell phone industry are enormous. This year, young people between the ages of 11 and 24 will account for almost a quarter of total cell phone revenues, and that figure is expected to grow. According to the NPD Group, a New York- based market-information company, young people between the ages of 13 and 17 spent around 10 percent less last year on clothing, instead shifting their spending to cell phones.
This fact is not lost on the industry. Nor is the fact that teens are most likely to use non-telephonic and entertainment features offered on their cell phones, such as video games, cameras, text messaging and so forth. Using more features, of course means more time on the phone and bigger bills.
David Garver, Executive Director of Marketing for Cingular, one of the largest cell phone providers estimates that the youth market holds between 30 million and 35 million potential new customers. As a result, he says “It’s one of the main focuses at Cingular this year.”
The growing “youth market” for cell phones has also been largely responsible for the development of prepaid cell phone services. Since such services don’t require contracts, they also don’t require parental approval – or supervision.
In fact, much of the marketing of prepaid cell phones is designed to reach teens when their parents aren’t around. For example, Virgin Mobile, one of the largest prepaid providers intentionally runs its ads on late night television comedy shows and other programs teens are unlikely to watch with their parents. Virgin Mobile’s CEO Daniel Schulman explains that their strategy is to reach teens during “unsupervised moments.”
The message of freedom used to hype cell phones to teens is not without foundation. Fully 60 percent of all cell phone calls are made outdoors, with more than a third made from vehicles. Of the calls made indoors, over 12 percent are made from malls and other stores.
Moreover, teens are likely to make longer calls. In a recent survey, Merryl-Lynch determined that the average cell phone user spent around 619 minutes a month – over ten hours – on their cell phone. But teen’s cell phone bills are typically 50 percent more than the national average, suggesting they could be spending as much as 15 and a half hours on the phone monthly!
And those figures do not take into account the use of “unlimited” calling features offered on many cell phone service plans. This feature usually applies to calls made during evening and weekend hours, the times when teens are most likely to be on the phone.
So what’s the big deal? Kids have always talked on the phone, haven’t they?
The big deal is that talking on a cell phone is different – dangerously different!
THE INVISIBLE DANGER
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the danger cell phones pose is that it is neither obvious nor immediate. Rather it is both invisible and gradual; confounding attempts to sound a warning cry.
The source of the danger is the electromagnetic radiation emitted from the cell phone’s transmitter and antenna. It has long been known that electromagnetic radiation can affect biological tissue. Most studies of radiation, however, have focused on what is called “ionizing radiation.”
Types of ionizing radiation you might have heard of are X-rays and Gamma Rays (the type associated with intense nuclear reactions). They are thus named because they have enough energy to strip an electron from an atom and thereby give it a net electric charge. Ionizing radiation has long been known to cause damage to biological tissue.
But there is another type of electromagnetic radiation: non-ionizing.
Non-ionizing radiation includes such types of radiation as radio frequency waves (RF), ultraviolet waves (UV), infrared (IR), visible light waves, ultra-low frequency waves (ELF) and microwaves (MW). Generally, non-ionizing radiation is considered harmless, and can even provide benefits. Also, most non-ionizing radiation produces some heat, but rarely in significant amounts. In larger strengths, however, as in the case of microwave ovens, non-ionizing radiation can produce significant heat as well as other effects. In these instances, it can also cause significant harm to biological tissues.
Still, because it is generally viewed as harmless, non-ionizing radiation has not been studied as extensively as ionizing radiation, and that is the problem.
While it is clear that brief exposures to low levels of non-ionizing radiation is likely to be harmless, the potential harm from EXTENDED exposure to low levels is not as certain. In fact, there is substantial evidence to suggest that EXTENDED exposure IS dangerous. What makes this a concern is that unlike other RF and MW-emitting devices such as microwave ovens and radios, cell phones are employed in a manner that subjects the user to such EXTENDED exposure.
But what sort of tissue damage can this exposure cause, and what is the danger?
More than you might imagine!
BREAKING THE CHAIN OF LIFE
The basic building block is deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA as it is commonly called. It is the DNA in a cell that carries the genetic information that makes it possible for the cell to replicate itself and to synthesize RNA. RNA, in turn, is the substance that actually transmits genetic information and governs the synthesis of proteins. If either the body’s DNA or RNA does not function properly, for example if they are damaged, a wide variety of illnesses can result. In fact, most cancers, as well as a host of other diseases, are caused by damaged DNA.
And that’s where cell phones come in.
CELL PHONES AND RF EMISSIONS
Throughout the 1970s, researchers were concerned that the growing presence of low-level RF radiation in our environment was linked to the spiraling cancer rates – especially in children. The reason children were believed to be particularly susceptible to such radiation was that there bodies were still forming and therefore more likely to be affected if their DNA or RNA was somehow damaged.
Two of the people studying how RF emissions could affect DNA were noted University of Washington researchers N.P Singh and Dr. Henry Lai. Dr. Singh is among the world’s leading experts in a form of DNA analysis called “comet assay.” This form of analysis entails puncturing a cell and then passing an electrical current through it. If there are broken strands of DNA, they pick up a charge and migrate through the gel in which the cell is suspended, creating a tail similar to that seen following a comet, hence the name.
Dr Lai, a native of Hong Kong, earned a bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Canada (that country’s equivalent of Harvard) before doing his doctoral and post-doctoral work at the University of Washington. In the late 1970s, Dr. Lai and a colleague, Dr. Bill Guy, were asked by the Office of Naval Research to investigate microwaves.
The Navy used a great deal of equipment that utilized this form of energy, and was concerned about the effects on sailors exposed to microwaves while operating these devices.
Over more than a decade, Dr. Lai and Dr. Guy conducted a series of studies that looked at such things as whether exposure to microwaves could affect learning and drug interactions among other things. In both cases the results were affirmative. Dr. Singh was brought on board because they wanted to examine the affects of microwaves on DNA – his area of specialization.
The experiment they conducted consisted of exposing rats to low doses of microwave radiation – much as a cell phone user would experience – and then comparing their brain tissue with tissue from rats that had not been exposed. In 1995 they released their findings.
The results were stunning!
Among the rats exposed to radiation, 30 percent showed an increase in single-strand and double-strand DNA breaks.
Still, the results were from just one study and so the researchers sought additional funding to do follow-up work. It was the logical and scientifically appropriate thing to do. What they didn’t realize was that while it might have been appropriate from a scientific point of view, for cell phone marketers riding the huge surge in new subscriptions it would be the kiss of death, and that was something they weren’t about to allow!
PULLING THE PLUG
The two scientists soon discovered that obtaining the funds they needed for follow-up studies was more difficult than they had anticipated. What they didn’t realize was that the reason their funding seemed to dry up was that the wireless industry was in a panic. Even before the results of their preliminary research had been published, the industry was busy recruiting “experts” to claim that their work was flawed.
After a couple of years, the industry decided the best thing to do was to fight fire with fire. A $25 million war chest was set aside to do “follow-up” studies. In hopes of blunting the impact of their initial research, Lai and Singh were even offered a grant.
The only trouble was that the conditions of the grant were so restrictive that they virtually guaranteed an outcome favorable to the cell phone industry. Incensed, the two scientists wrote a letter to the editor of Microwave news calling the offer “highly suspicious.”
In their letter, they stated:
“In the 20 years or so that we have conducted experiments for a variety of funding agencies, we have never encountered anything like this in the management of a scientific contract.”
Not to be outdone, the wireless industry leadership responded with vitriol in a letter to the president of the University of Washington – their employer – accusing the scientists of libel and complaining of “…a pattern of slanderous conduct by these men over the past several years.”
Since Lai and Singh were not going to knuckle under to industry bully tactics, wireless companies looked for someone to refute their findings. Eventually, Motorola approached Dr. Jerry Phillips at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.
He drafted a proposal that was accepted and he received funding.
THE DOSE DETERMINES THE POISON
Unaware of the real reason the industry was funding his research, Phillips proceeded as any competent scientist would, sending part of his research team to the University of Washington to be familiarized with the “comet assay” method of assessing DNA damage.
What Phillips found was a surprise to Motorola. According to his research, microwave radiation did cause increased DNA damage at some levels, but at other levels had the opposite effect.
Phillips, however, was not taken aback.
“That’s not unusual,” he contended. “It happens with chemicals.”
In fact, Phillips was merely acknowledging one of the oldest rules of medicine first articulated by the Renaissance physician and father of modern pharmacology Paracelsus:
“The dose determines the poison.”
All this really means is that at certain levels a substance can have a beneficial effect while at higher or lower levels it can be harmful.
Phillips believed that at lower levels, the microwave radiation he was administering was stimulating the cells repair response without causing significant damage. At higher levels, it was causing more damage than the cell could repair. But to be sure, he needed to do further testing. He told Motorola that his research wasn’t ready for publication, and wouldn’t be until follow-up studies to resolve the apparent contradiction could be conducted.
Motorola instead insisted that Phillips publish his results, and since they were the funding entity, he had no choice. As a result, in November of 1998, his findings were released.
Unsurprisingly, immediately afterwards his funding disappeared.
Soon afterwards, another group at the University of Washington published a study claiming that they were unable to replicate the results achieved by Lai and Singh and by Phillips. Since the ability to replicate research using the same methods is one of the keys in determining the scientific validity of an experiment, the wireless industry was quick to claim that this disproved their findings.
What wasn’t mentioned in the blizzard of press releases claiming that the results were invalid, however, was one critical fact: the scientists conducting the study had not used the same methods as Lai and Singh and Phillips. Therefore, from a scientific standpoint their results were useless in measuring the earlier work.
Of course, none of this mattered to the cell phone industry’s spin masters who used the apparent conflict as a means of claiming that the earlier work was invalid and that there was no danger from microwave radiation.
The argument that the danger was not established was reinforced over the next several years as a number of studies were released, some finding DNA damage and others finding no damage. What the press would have discovered, had they bothered to look, though, was that virtually all of the studies claiming that there was no damage were funded by the cell phone industry, while virtually all of the studies that indicated cellular phone radiation did damage DNA were independently funded!
So for nearly a decade, the scientific debate raged, largely unnoticed by the press as the use of cell phones skyrocketed. During that period, Dr. Lai, having lost the ability to raise funds for his promising research concerning the effects of microwave radiation turned his attention to other matters and Dr. Phillips abandoned scientific research entirely, and went to work for a company that develops science curricula. What neither could have anticipated was that they were about to be vindicated.
Two major studies, largely sparked by their initial funding had been initiated in Europe, with funding from official sources. With such official sanction, their results could not be so readily ignored. But what was most important about them were the implications they held for the long-term dangers of cell phones – especially for children.
AN EXPLODING MARKET
Walk into any shopping mall in America, and there are two things you’ll see a lot of: teenagers and cell phones. It’s not surprising. Once an exclusive toy for the rich and status-conscious, cell phones have become commonplace – so much so that at 182 million units, they are fast closing on the most widely-owned electronic device, the television.
More important, increasingly, they are being used by our children. Today, over one-third of teens and even pre-teens have joined the ranks of cell phone owners – and that number is certain to grow.
This explosion of cell phone ownership among the young has been fueled at least in part by a clever marketing strategy that has become common within the industry: the use of prepaid cell phones. This eliminates the need for an individual to pass the scrutiny of a credit check or demonstrate a steady source of income – hurdles most teens couldn’t overcome – or for that matter, parental approval.
Now, with teens well in hand, the industry is targeting an even younger audience.
THE NEXT TARGET
Major cell phone manufacturers have joined forces with toy companies to market cell phones specifically targeted at pre-teens. For example, Nokia had teamed up with the toy giant Mattel to market a “Barbie” cell phone. The “Firefly” mobile phone is already being marketed to kids at Target, and the “TicTalk” phone has also come out targeting the youth market. Indeed, cell phone manufacturers believe that the 8 year-old to 12 year-old market is the key to future growth!
Nor are the “kid phones” the only manifestation of the growing use of cell phones by the young.
A major new feature of the most popular “book bags” that virtually all students use today is an external cell phone pocket. Clothing manufactures such as Levi and Dockers have jumped on the bandwagon too, offering special pockets on items such as Dockers “Mobile” pants to carry phones.