WASHINGTON-Recent studies showing cellular telephones can interfere with cardiac pacemakers have prompted industry-funded research to see if next-generation, digital pocket phones pose a public health problem in the United States.
Wireless Technology Research, a group financed by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and organized two years ago following claims that cellular phones promote brain cancer, will oversee testing on cellular-pacemaker interference at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami and the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“Clearly, once digital phones are widely available there’s going to be the potential for adverse impact,” said Hans Moore, director of Electrophysiology and Pacing at George Washington and a member of one of the teams assigned to collect new data.
Studies in Italy, Switzerland, Australia and the United States last year found cellular telephones sometimes disrupt implanted pacemakers, though power, frequency, usage characteristics and other variables make it difficult to draw conclusions at this time. In Europe, for example, digital cellular operates at a higher frequency and power level than American cellular phones.
“These reports generated valid questions about wireless technology and indicated the need for further investigation,” said Dr. George Carlo, a Washington, D.C., epidemiologist who heads WTR. Carlo, suggesting phones and pacemakers may have to carry warning labels or be redesigned, said test results should be available in four months.
About 700,000 of the 25 million cellular telephones in use today are digital and are said to be more likely than analog telephones to cause pacemakers to malfunction when placed directly over the implanted device. Experts say the possibility of interference decreases significantly when a phone is held six or more inches away from a pacemaker.
In time, most cellular phones will use digital technology and there will be more of them as the technology continues to spread. The industry is growing 40 percent annually and will be challenged in coming years by new, all-digital wireless personal communicators.
About 1 million people in the United States currently have pacemakers and 130,000 are implanted each year, according to Russ Taylor, a spokesman for Medtronic Inc. The Minneapolis-based firm, the largest pacemaker manufacturer in the nation, has recommended to the Food and Drug Administration that patients with pacemakers and defribrillators be advised of how to operate wireless telephones safely.
This is not the first time cellular phones have been linked to health and safety maladies. Several lawsuits have been filed in recent years claiming wireless handsets contributed to brain cancer, but research to date has been insufficient to prove or disprove whether pocket phones are hazardous to consumers’ health. The cellular industry is funneling millions of dollars through WTR for research in the hope of shedding more light on the subject.
Studies in Europe have shown cellular telephones based on Global System for Mobile communications technology can cause a buzzing sound in hearing aids. In this area, too, wireless technical and operating standards in Europe differ from the United States.
As a consequence, federal regulators, industry and the scientific community are looking at ways to better manage electromagnetic interference so wireless phones and medical devices can coexist since wireless technology has been shown to aid in health care efficiency.
In some cases, though, this may not be possible.
Moore said cellular phones are banned in George Washington Hospital’s telemetry unit. Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va., also prohibits pocket phones throughout the facility, but last fall administrators turned on an in-house wireless telecom system using low-power, spread spectrum technology. Kim Jones, director of telecommunications at the hospital, said heavy usage of cellular phones by doctors gave rise to their prohibition.
Congress so far has stayed out of the way. After a hearing last year, lawmakers urged the wireless telecommunications and electronic medical device industries to fix the problem themselves.
The University of Oklahoma, with the help of the cellular industry, last year started a new unit devoted to electromagnetic interference research.