In the last two decades, cell phones have gone from an exciting new gadget to a basic necessity of American social life.
As of May 2013, 91% of American adults own cell phones, over half of which are smart phones. We use them in all parts of our lives, as messengers, alarm clocks, cameras, and calendars - and sometimes even for phone calls. With such an enormous increase in wireless activity in a relatively short period of time, it’s understandable that many people are concerned about the effects this may have on our health.
Is it really the best idea to have an electromagnetic device on our bodies and near our heads most of the time?
One of the bigger concerns people raise is the risk of brain cancer, and understandably so. Around 60% of adults diagnosed with brain cancer will die from the disease, so it’s certainly a good idea to avoid risk factors if possible. But to what extent is cell phone use actually a risk factor for cancer? In a 2011 report, the World Health Organization classified cell phone use as a “possible carcinogen.” For anyone looking for a clear-cut answer, this is probably the most frustratingly vague response. However, with cell phone radiation and other environmental risk factors it can be hard to understand harmful effects right away.
In response to the WHO report, Dr. Keith Black, Chairman of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, noted "the biggest problem we have is that we know most environmental factors take several decades of exposure before we really see the consequences." The very newness of the technology that we’re concerned about also prevents us from getting a clear picture of long-term consequences. Additionally, any study that relies on participants to self-report the frequency of their cell-phone use is subject to the imperfections of human memory and potential subconscious bias.
The Good News
Even with the enormous boom in rates of cell phone use over the last few decades, rates of brain cancer have not risen at the same rate. Brain cancer is still statistically very unlikely, with less than a 1% chance that an American will develop a brain or spinal tumor within their lifetime.
The Bad News
We still have no idea how a lifetime of cell phone use might affect us. There is especially little information regarding the long-term health impacts on children who have grown up with near ubiquitous cell phone use. The results of Interphone, the most extensive global cell phone usage study to date, suggest that there may be a correlation between heavy cell phone use and development of glioma, one of the deadlier forms of brain cancer, but that imperfections in the data prevents them from saying for sure.
The UK has launched a study called COSMOS, which will follow 290,000 cell phone users currently aged 18 years or older over 20 to 30 years, and a recently launched international study called Mobi-Kids will study 2000 people from 10 to 24 years old with newly diagnosed brain tumors, as well as 4000 healthy young people, to better understand the risks associated with childhood brain cancer.
What You Can Do
Hopefully we will have more clear-cut answers soon, but until then the best we can say it’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s a pretty tall order to suggest cutting off cell phone use entirely, but there are simple steps you can take to mitigate your risk:
Minimize Use: Unplug for a few hours and read a book or take a walk outside.
Maximize Distance: If you use your phone as an alarm, put it on the side table instead of under your pillow. Keep your phone in a bag instead of your pocket. Invest in a hands-free headset (not wireless) so you can talk without your head being right up next to all those radioactive waves.
Get Protective: Pong Research develops cases for all the most popular gadgets to help direct radioactive energy away from your body without diminishing the performance of your devices. For expectant mothers, Belly Armor makes lightweight shirts and blankets that help protect developing babies from potentially harmful radiation while in utero.
Stay Informed: The National Cancer Institute offers this handy fact sheet explaining current knowledge on this emerging issue as well as where to go from here.