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Is Your Cell Phone Giving You Cancer?


This evidence could be troubling, considering cancer from radiation takes a long time and a large amount of exposure to develop, and it is only within the last 20 years or so that cell phones have been more heavily used by the general population.

A high percentage of Americans may fall into the heavy usage category. Pew Internet Research reports that cell phone use in the U.S. has increased dramatically over the past decade. Today, eight in ten adults are cell phone users, and about one quarter of all adults live in a household with a cell phone but no landline phone. Also, Nielsen expects smartphones, which put out more electromagnetic radiation, to overtake feature phones in the U.S. by the end of 2011. Smartphones, a $2.2 billion industry, already have 42.7 million subscribers in the U.S. There are now 5 billion wireless subscribers globally.

"We've got many more people using cell phones, using them for longer than they were in those [earlier] studies," said Dr. Newton. "Maybe the effect has now kind of blossomed, become a little more obvious when you study it in a large population. It's kind of hard to pin it down...if you look at the literature on radiation exposure in general and the development of cancer in human tissue, there's a lag time. It often takes 10 years or 15 years or more for that radiation exposure to induce a cancer cell or induce a tumor into the human tissue."

Last February, a study by the National Institute of Health revealed that cell phone radiation can increase brain cell activity after only 50 minutes. Brain activity of 47 healthy adults was measured while using an active mobile device pressed against the head. Cell activity was increased when compared to the control data measured when the phone was turned off. Potential adverse effects from the cell phone-induced brain cell activity were not known or discovered.

If you're worried about cell phone cancer risk, there are easy ways to minimize exposure to cell phone radiation:

Don't press the cell phone up to your ear:

Even safety manuals for Blackberries and iPhones recommend not holding the phone directly against your ear. Dr. Newton recommends keeping your cell phone a half-inch to an inch away from your ear to minimize exposure to electromagnetic field radiation from the phone. "Radiation drops off as the square of the distance. Something that's twice as far away only emits one fourth of the radiation exposure," says Dr. Chang.

Send text messages instead of calling

It seems like most Americans would not mind having a reason to text more, but sending text messages instead of calling keeps the phone away from your head. Just don't text while driving! "I think texting is a very good alternative. People do it all the time, and in terms of this kind of risk from the phone it is a very good way to minimize your exposure," says Dr. Newton.

Use the speaker phone function

Holding the cell phone away from your head reduces exposure to electromagnetic field radiation

Use corded headphones

This is an easy way to eliminate radiation exposure without diminishing call clarity. "If you use a cord, that's zero radiation," says Dr. Chang. "The safest thing would be a corded headset, holding the phone a foot away from your body, for example.

Bluetooth devices may emit radiation

The safety of Bluetooth technology is unproven. "In terms of the Bluetooth devices, I don't think we really know yet whether or not they're safe," says Dr. Newton. "There hasn't been enough dedicated epidemiological study of those devices yet and they're so new that even if they might cause a problem it may be too soon to see it."


Eirish Sison is a health writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Published June 7, 2011


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