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Elizabeth Barris holds a cellphone by its 'tail.' The former Santa Monica resident is leading a charge to reduce the impact on public health from radio waves emitted by wireless devices and transmission towers.

(photo by Photo Courtesy Elizabeth Barris)

CITY HALL — Our modern world contains many new devices that provide convenience and luxury, but could they be making us sick?

That’s a question confronted by Elizabeth Barris, a former Santa Monica resident who has been on a quest to raise awareness about electronics that most take for granted, and the potentially hazardous risks they might pose.

Full disclosure: The medical community has not uniformly embraced the concept that cell phones, wireless networks or other low-level emitters cause any kind of adverse health risks.

Nonetheless, there’s a growing number of people advocating for more stringent regulations on consumer products that have been linked, however tenuously, with cancer and other health risks.

Barris first became aware of the issue when she started showing symptoms that she could not explain, including a ringing sensation in her ears and pain.

She narrowed the source of the problem down to her cell phone, which emits a low-level radiation that government bodies such as the Federal Communications Commission have determined safe.

Not so, Barris said.

Those frequencies, capped at 1.6 Watts per kilogram, are kept at levels that don’t cause any obvious warming of the skin underneath, but ignore any other effects, which Barris claims can lead to things like brain tumors.

“I was personally affected by my own cell phone,” Barris said. “It drew me to start looking into the issue.”

Barris got rid of her cell phone, but the symptoms did not subside.

Confused, she checked for radiation using devices she bought online, and traced the source to a nondescript building near her apartment.

The owner of the building had allowed a wireless company to put cell phone towers — transmitters that provide the network that carries calls and other cell phone data — on his roof for a monthly fee, she said.

The proximity to the cell towers, she decided, was what was causing her symptoms.

Barris’ health continued to deteriorate. She bought cloth lined with silver mesh to keep the radiation out, but it wasn’t enough to stop the waves.

In the end, she left Santa Monica for Topanga, where there are no cell phone towers.

Still, she found no respite.

Although her symptoms related to cell towers subsided, soon after the Southern California Edison company began its rollout of new electrical meters on the Westside.

These meters, referred to as “smart” meters for their ability to analyze energy usage and report it directly to power companies, utilize wireless technology to accomplish the goal.

“I feel these effects,” she said.

Although she and others have asked to opt-out of the smart meter program, the company will not permit it, wrote David Song, project manager for corporate communications for Southern California Edison.

“The (California Public Utilities Commission) mandated SCE to replace all mechanical meters with smart metering infrastructure designed to help achieve California energy policy goals relating to improved electric system reliability, customer energy efficiency and demand response, and reduced environmental impact,” Song wrote.

The medical community doesn’t stand behind the assertion that any kind of wireless waves definitively cause cancer or other health effects.

It also doesn’t completely discount the possibility.

The World Health Organization, the public health arm of the United Nations, recently came out with a statement classifying cell phones as “of concern.”

While no studies performed over the last two decades have established that health problems are caused directly by cell phones, the organization wrote that the increasing use of cell phones across the world and lack of conclusive data merited a greater deal of study.

In fact, according to Dr. Edward Zaragoza, an associate clinical professor in the department of radiology at the David Geffen UCLA School of Medicine, “the linkages are at best quite weak.”

“These electromagnetic signals have been around for decades, really, and it’s only now that people are coming with symptomatic complaints,” he said. “There’s not any good science out there that substantiates the adverse effects in terms of a person’s well being in terms of mood and anxiety. There are sporadic reports of linkages between certain conditions of the head and neck.”

Doctors and scientists have hypothesized that cell phones and other low level radiation could have caused benign growths like the one that Elizabeth Taylor had removed, Zaragoza said, but it has not been substantiated.

“Most medical academies around the world have concluded that there isn’t enough evidence to make a statement that cell phone usage is dangerous,” he said.

To be safe, some cities have considered putting warning labels on cell phones, if only to recognize and inform buyers about the potential for harm.

Barris pushed to have the City Council mandate that similar labels be put on cell phone packing within city limits, but council members didn’t go quite that far.

Instead, they got on board with throwing their support behind educating the public about potential dangers, said Councilmember Kevin McKeown.

“Based on the World Health Organization announcement, the message is clear: Think twice about holding a transmitting cell phone to your ear for hours at a time,” he wrote in an e-mail. “If possible health consequences become more clear, we’ve asked staff to advise us so we can consider possible appropriate action at a later time.”

ashley@www.smdp.com

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