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The Buzz: Dial any number for tumor

Jackson Hole, Wyo.-Drive down any road in Jackson. Walk down any sidewalk. Grab a cup of coffee in any café. No matter where you go in town, chances are somebody around you has a cell phone pressed against their head. Of course, that’s no big news in today’s uber-connected culture, but what you might not know is that a growing body of scientific evidence is linking cell phone use – especially prolonged use, and especially for children and pregnant women – to a number of serious health concerns, including brain and salivary gland tumors and decreased male fertility.

A local public health advocacy group has grown tired of what they see as the dissemination of misinformation by a powerful telecommunications industry and the blatant failure of the U.S. government to protect the public’s health. The Environmental Health Trust (EHT) is getting ready to ramp up its campaign to raise awareness about the potential health risks of cell phone use in Jackson and across the country, and it’s not alone.

Led by epidemiologist and author Devra Davis, EHT held a private fundraiser and information session last Thursday at the home of local glass artist Laurie Thal in the West Bank. Davis and other EHT staff presented their case for increased concern about cell phone health risks to a small group of people gathered on Thal’s backyard deck.

Before the group got down to the nitty-gritty, Davis clarified EHT’s stance on cell phones: the group is not opposed to them. Davis herself owns two; she used to have three. Cell phones have changed the way we communicate, and they’ve made us safer and more secure, Davis said. However, the health risks of using them may outweigh the benefits. The trust’s goal is not to get rid of cell phones, Davis said, but to better educate people about the safest method of use to mitigate associated health risks.

Health risk or risk hype?
All cell phones emit microwave radiation (typically between .55 and 1.6 watts per kilogram) that is absorbed by human tissue. That point is indisputable. The argument begins at whether or not such radiation poses any health risk. Debate over that point is vigorous, to say the least, and studies done by the telecommunications industry and independent researchers vary wildly in their conclusions.

Based on a 13-country study called Interphone, the Federal Drug Administration – which shares regulatory responsibility for telecommunications with the Federal Communications Commission – declares that cell phones pose “no increased health risk.” The United States was not included in the study, even though it ranks third highest in total usage as a nation, below India and China, both of which were also left out of the study. Seven of the top 10 countries with the highest cell phone use were not included in the study.

According to EHT, though, cell phones are a major health risk, up there with global warming and cigarettes. What might concern residents in and around Jackson Hole, is that cell phones used in rural areas, where reception is poor, put out additional radiation to search for a signal, meaning that health-conscious mountain folk are potentially receiving more microwave radiation than concrete jungle dwellers.
Lloyd Morgan, an electronics engineer and EHT member, is convinced that several factors increase the danger of cell phone use: frequency and duration of use; how many years you’ve used a cell phone; radiation power and, most importantly, age. Young people’s skulls are thinner than those of adults, meaning microwave radiation penetrates deeper into their brains.

In Morgan’s opinion, “holding a cell phone to your head is like smoking three packs a day.”

“This has to be a soft revolution, led by mothers,” Davis said of EHT’s nascent Campaign for Safer Cell Phones. That campaign will kick off publicly on September 9th when Davis will present a sneak-peek of her soon-to-be-published book, Disconnect. The book is being touted as an exposé of the dangers of cell phone use and the telecomm industry’s attempts to cover-up the risks.

Getting a headset
But how can cell phones be made safer if, as EHT claims, they cause cancer and decrease sperm counts? The best thing one can do, according to Davis and her colleagues, is use a headset or other hands-free device. They said that even talking over speakerphone is better than pressing the phone against your ear.
EHT is working with Knobe’s Radio Shack to distribute as many headsets as cheaply as possible to Jackson Hole residents, especially junior high and high school students. The first 50 people to register on the EHT Web site to attend Davis’ book-peek will receive a free headset. Knobe’s will also offer a discount on headsets to local businesses that request their employees to use them.

Davis and her colleagues are currently trying to secure $10,000 in funding from a private donor to buy enough headsets at-cost from Knobe’s to supply one to every junior high and high school student in Jackson Hole. If students don’t want to wait until the end of August to get one, they can purchase them at Knobe’s for 30-percent off, and if they already have one, they’ll receive an in-store discount on another item.

When asked if high school kids are too cool to wear headsets, Davis didn’t miss a beat. “It’s not cool to fry your brain,” she said in all seriousness. She mentioned that while high school kids may not take her seriously when she sounds off about the dangers of cell phones, she’s more hopeful that they’ll listen to their peers, like EHT volunteers Serena Thal and Esther Grossman.

A high school student in Jackson Hole told JH Weekly that her peers are unlikely to wear headsets, whether they get them for free or not. “There’s too many cords and too much to deal with,” the student said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I’ve got a friend who wears [a headset], but it’s probably their parents making them do it. And plus, people don’t call anybody anymore. I only call my mom. I text a lot.”

Cell Phone
Awareness Month
Before gathering at Thal’s house for the fundraiser, Davis and her retinue of scientists, politicians, organizers and spokespeople visited with Mayor Mark Barron to discuss what the Town could to help raise awareness about the dangers of cell phone use. That same day, Barron issued a proclamation declaring October “Cell Phone Awareness Month.” Barron admits that his declaration “doesn’t specifically increase cell phone awareness.”

Barron’s counterpart in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom, recently passed a city ordinance requiring that retailers post the radiation output of various cell phones at the point of sale, a move that has seriously angered the telecomm industry. When asked if a similar ordinance might be passed in Jackson Hole, Barron responded, “The public likes to jump to regulation as the be-all-and-end-all. The reality is that education can be just as effective.” JHW