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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Cell Phone Health Hazards: Threat and Opportunity

Mobile phone manufacturers are today where cigarette makers were in the early 1950s: facing risks that may — or may not — redefine the reputation of their industry.

The mobile phone industry, which had been one of the world’s fastest-growing industries until recently, has begun to slow down. Its saturated market — 610 million phones in use as of 2004 — has yet to hit the once-projected high of 2 billion phones. To pump up sales, suppliers and network operators have put their energies into creating new designs and promoting the use of multimedia features for entertainment, messaging, and voice and data access. Companies have also focused on new markets — children in the U.S. and the general public in Asia, particularly China and India.

But the industry is missing one of its greatest opportunities and the chance to forestall a potentially debilitating threat. No cellular phone manufacturer has developed a strategic response to the growing number of disquieting studies of potential health hazards from the electronic magnetic fields (EMFs) emitted by mobile phones. Pointing to the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission, which hold that cell phones’ effects on human health are neither significant nor harmful, industry leaders have thus far publicly shrugged off EMF risks. The reaction of a Disney Mobile spokesman as quoted in a Business Week story in June 2006 is typical: “Safety concerns ‘really [haven’t] been an issue here in the U.S. for quite some time now…. Disney is relying on the FDA.’”

This strategy of duck-and-cover might work in the short run. But smart players in the mobile industry would be wise to proactively provide consumers with designs that minimize exposure to EMFs, thus reassuring consumers and hedging against bad news in the future.

What, EMF Worries?
Over the past decades, a number of studies have pointed to the risks inherent in cell phone technology. Michael Kundi, a professor at the Institute of Environmental Health at the Medical University of Vienna, has stated that since 2000, 17 epidemiological studies have suggested that cell phones, held close to the head, can cause brain tumors and cancer. “Never before in history,” Kundi writes, “has a device been used that exposes such a great proportion of the population to microwaves in the near-field and at comparatively high levels.” In 2005, another research team (Balkisi et al., published in the journal Pathologie Biologie) showed statistical evidence that long-term users of mobile phones may suffer from headaches, extreme irritation, forgetfulness, and decreased reflexes, among other complaints. A different study (S. Lonn et al., 2004) suggests that the use of mobile phones over a 10-year period might increase the risk of acoustic neuroma (a nerve tumor in the ear) threefold. And in October 2006, American scientists warned that men using cell phones for more than four hours a day might damage their sperm.

To be sure, the significance of these studies is inconclusive. Louis Slesin, publisher of Microwave Journal, a monthly journal that has tracked the issue for 25 years, told Business Week: “There is plenty of data showing that we may have a serious problem on our hands, but at this point no one really knows for sure.”

William Stewart, the chairman of the U.K. Independent Expert Review Group that studied the impact of mobile phones in 2000, explains the quandary: “In relation to radiation, it often takes a long time for things to become obvious.” The epidemiological effects of chemicals and other toxins are difficult enough to establish with certainty, but EMF is even more perplexing; it cannot be seen or tasted, and its effects on tumors, cancer, and allergies (for example) are extremely difficult to isolate from other environmental factors. Nonetheless, concerns about the data have prompted a number of groups of physicians and researchers to write to the European Parliament, urging members to heighten the precautionary approach and stressing the need for the adoption of new safety standards as well as full and independent review of scientific evidence pointing to the hazards of EMF exposure.

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  1. “A Phone Safe Enough for the Kids?” Business Week, June 19, 2006: The cell phone industry sees a hot new market, but critics are worried. Click here.
  2. Dr. Elizabeth Cullen, “Report to the Joint Oireachtas Committee, Dail Eireann,” February 2005: Sums up research on EMF as presented to the Irish Doctor’s Environmental Association. Click here.
  3. Gregor Harter and Steffen Schröder, “Start-Ups in a Time of Upheaval for the Mobile Industry,” Booz Allen Hamilton white paper, 2006: This white paper studies 3,000 startups and finds slowing growth, increasingly saturated markets, and difficult challenges ahead. PDF download. Click here.
  4. Art Kleiner, Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success (Doubleday, 2003): This book about “core groups” of organizations contains a chapter on fulfilling the noble purpose of great organizations. Click here.
  5. Michael Kundi, “Mobile Phone Use and Cancer,” Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2004: Overview of the epidemiological evidence, the resulting uncertainties, and a call for more focused study from a member of the medical faculty of the University of Vienna. Click here. An audio presentation by Kundi is also available. Click here.
  6. S. Lonn, A. Ahlbom, P. Hall, and M. Feychting, “Mobile Phone Use and the Risk of Acoustic Neuroma,” Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, November 2004: Medical journal article. Click here. 
  7. Nancy McVicar, “Court Victory Is a First for Programmers,” South Florida Sun- Sentinel, October 2, 2005; reprinted on Woman awarded workers’ compensation for radio-frequency radiation exposure on the job. Click here.
  8. Ian Sample, “Warning to Male Mobile Users: Chatting Too Long May Cut Sperm Count,” The Guardian, Oct. 24, 2006: A summation of the research. Click here. 
  9. Microwave Journal: Includes a collection of studies regarding the potential harm caused by EMF exposure. Click here.
  10. Strategic News Service: Weekly newsletter about technology and business, regularly covers emerging news and implications of mobile phone health hazards. Click here.
  11. Vienna Doctor’s Chamber: Offers guidelines for limiting contact with mobile phones. Click here.
  12. Wireless Consumers Alliance: This nonprofit organization site contains references to class-action lawsuits against wireless carriers. Click here.
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