FDA Steps Up Wireless Health Research

SAN MATEO (03/27/2000) - The last time I wrote about the health risks associated with cell-phone use, I received a number of intriguing responses. I consider myself as conspiracy-minded as the next guy, but I think some of you may have watched one too many episodes of The X-Files.

To answer one reader's question: No, I don't think aliens are using cell phones to control our behavior with the intent to colonize our planet. But given the way some people behave when they're on these things, sometimes I'm not sure.

Nevertheless, readers raised some legitimate concerns that prompted me to investigate further. Stories of researchers going public with information that is harmful to the wireless industry because they had been spurned by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA). Tales of studies funded by the CTIA that came back with less-than-ideal results and that were not released publicly. But these are just rumors and innuendo -- nothing grounded in fact. Americans love a good conspiracy.

But something happened recently that made me raise an eyebrow. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed reports that it has called for more tests on wireless health issues, and asked that the tests be overseen by the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Department of Health and Human Services.

Presumably, the FDA has not been satisfied with the studies that have been conducted to date, and it is stepping up its involvement. The organization has declared the studies a high priority, and FDA officials would like to see certain studies that indicated potential health concerns repeated.

What does this all mean? It means that the FDA is doing exactly what it should be doing: getting more involved rather than letting the CTIA run the show. It means that there have been studies that are cause for further investigation.

What does it not mean? It does not mean you should trash your phone, pager, or wireless PDA (personal digital assistant). Those things cost a lot of money and shouldn't be wasted; if you really don't feel comfortable using them anymore, you can send them to me.

In the meantime, we'll sit back and wait for the FDA -- hopefully, a truly disinterested third party -- to conduct its studies and let the public know if there is any cause for concern. I seriously doubt there will be any changes made to the way we use cell phones -- maybe a small warning label or something, but nothing serious. Just look at how long it's taken to get the word out about cigarettes, and if I had to guess, I would say that using a cell phone is at least as addictive as smoking.

What do you think the FDA or other government organizations should be doing to inform the public about the potential health risks involved with using cell phones? Write to me at dan_briody@infoworld.com.

Dan Briody is an InfoWorld editor at large.

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