The Cell Phone Safety Question

Daily Health Solutions, Featured Article
on February 23, 2011

Cell phones: We can’t imagine life without them, but we’re plagued with mixed messages about their safety.

In a groundbreaking study published in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association, scientists found that holding a cell phone to the ear for less than an hour led to changes in brain activity in the areas close to where the phone is held. The researchers, including Nora Volkow, an acclaimed brain scientist and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, are careful to say their discovery doesn’t resolve the question of whether cell phones can cause brain cancer — but it does challenge the notion that the radiation emitted by the devices is too weak to have any effect on our bodies.

Is it any wonder we’re confused? We know radiation is cumulative, that the amount of exposure you get over your lifetime adds up, so there’s no “undoing” it. And we understand that too much radiation exposure may increase the risk of developing cancer. But how much is too much?

Unlike imaging devices, cell phone radiation emissions are “non-ionizing,” meaning their electromagnetic waves aren’t strong enough to break DNA and chemical bonds in the body, like X-rays are.

That’s led many people to conclude that cell phones don’t pose any cancer danger, and, indeed, a number of studies have failed to find a link. The Interphone International Case-Control Study, a nearly 10-year effort, broadly concluded that cell phone users did not have an increased risk of brain cancer.

But a little-cited part of the study did detect a link between “heavy” cell phone use — defined as an average of 30 minutes a day over 10 years — and a higher rate of gliomas, a type of brain tumor. Similar studies out of Sweden, India and Israel respectively have also noted a rise in tumors in the head and neck area (some benign) when investigating long-term use.

“The weight of the evidence, in my judgment, is pretty clear,” says Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany—SUNY. “It’s pointing to there being a small but significant risk to people who have used cell phones for many hours a day for a long period of time.”

And while cell phone manufacturers have loudly dismissed concerns, trumpeting (and in some cases underwriting) studies that have found no link between use of their products and cancer, they’ve quietly added warnings in fine print that urge users to hold the phone up to an inch away from their ears.

The authors of the JAMA study have said they plan to launch a long-term investigation on cell phone use, but in the meantime there’s no harm in exercising caution. Dr. Carpenter suggests using a landline when possible, and a hands-free device when not. A wired headset is better than a Bluetooth, though the latter is still preferable to holding the phone to your ear. Also when possible, place your phone on a nearby surface like a desk or table, rather than carrying it in your pocket.  

At the end of the day, even experts who have dedicated their careers to studying the effects of radiation we are exposed to in our everyday lives advise consumers to keep calm.

“We shouldn’t be panicked — the stress is probably worse for your health,” says Dr. Carpenter. “But we shouldn’t be ignorant, either. The right thing is to have some knowledge, but to understand that life is full of hazards, and this one may be no more significant.”