Q: I’m 28 and have been a cell phone user for over 8 years. Mostly, I text, but will I find out in my fifties that I am at risk for brain cancer?
A: No doubt you caught wind of the recent World Health Organization (WHO) reclassification of cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. This change in heart toward cell phones came about for several reasons. First, many individual cell phone studies have reached inconsistent results. The WHO multinational team of 31 scientists considered the entire pool of studies. With this pooled information, they found that cell phone use was associated with an approximately two fold increase in one type of brain cancer, Glioma, and a slight increase in a non-cancerous tumor called an Acoustic Neuroma. Brain cancer is not a common cancer- some 22,000 are diagnosed annually in the U.S. Not all types of brain cancer showed an association with cell phone use. There are now large, high quality studies underway to look at this association in both adults and children. These studies will take many years to conclude as brain cancer grows slowly and takes many years of provocative exposure before it begins to grow.
Basic science studies looking at the effects of microwave radiation from cell phones on cells in the lab support the heightened concern of long-term cell phone use. Cell phone radiation is called non-ionizing. X-rays are an example of ionizing radiation. While non-ionizing radiation is less damaging to our DNA than ionizing radiation, it does heat the cells up closest to the phone. This is also how microwave ovens work.
So yes, cell phone use is an exposure that may lead to cancer. There are ways to minimize your exposure. Two factors influence your exposure to cell phone microwaves: 1) how close your phone is to your head and 2) how strong a signal the cell phone must generate to stay connected to a cellular base station. These two facts help you to limit your exposure. Texting instead of phone calls also moves your cell phone away from your head, thus reducing your microwave exposure. Use a hands-free device or the speaker phone function so your phone is further from your head. The FCC guidelines recommends no closer than 5/8 of an inch. Though, more distance greatly decreases the strength of the microwaves before they hit your head. Likewise, limit your cell phone calls in number and duration, especially when the reception is poor. This includes in the mountains and while driving. When your reception is poor, your cell phone will increase its signal. When you’re driving, the reception varies and this will prompt your cell phone to boost its signal. Both situations increase your microwave exposure. Never talk on the cell phone while driving, as this is the quickest way to find out just how hazardous cell phones are to your health.
Also, parents do not let your kids put phones to their heads. Scientists agree that the developing child’s brain is more susceptible to the damaging effects of cell phone microwaves as their brain tissue is growing. Note that brains don’t slow down in development until the age of 25. Yes, their bodies stop growing, but the young adult brain is quite actively developing.
Cordless home phones put out 1/600th the amount of radiation, so they are much safer. Also men, cell phone radiation effects sperm quality, so avoid putting your cell phone in your pants pocket. Keep your phone farther from your testes. Same with laptops, do not actually use them in your lap. Keep the heat and radiation away from your lap.
Like all technology, cell phones are “good” and perhaps worth the known and unknown risks if they bring two invaluable things in your life: deeper connection and presence with people in your life (i.e. love), or freedom. If your phone is facilitating this, it is an excellent use of technology.
Nexus September/October 2011