08 November 2007

Cell phone/cancer verdict

Studies on cell phone health effects seem so contradictory that we just ignore them. But a new heavyweight analysis of the science says: it's time to take the warnings seriously.

It's like a detachable (semi-detachable for some) part of your own body. It's your conduit to work, your link to family and friends, a memory store, a status symbol, and, particularly in a country with crime rates such as ours, a life-line. South Africans shake their heads in disbelief when they remember how they used to take long road trips before the advent of the cell phone.

It's a wonderful, indispensable little tool, and we're not prepared to go through life without it. But that's also potentially a problem: if a technology is used so ubiquitously and intimately by so many people (over two billion world-wide), many of them children, we need to be absolutely sure it's safe.

And we're not at all sure. A year ago, I wrote in an article on cell phone radiation:

"The current general consensus is that it probably doesn't do much harm - if any - but that it can cause small discernible biological changes."

Cancer study changing minds
Well, I've now modified my stance. Mainly because of a highly influential research analysis this year by Swedish oncologist Dr Lennart Hardell of University Hospital, Orebro, and colleagues. Hardell, who has been studying cell phone health effects for many years, came to the following sobering conclusions:

If you've used a cell phone for over 10 years, you are at increased risk for developing certain kinds of brain tumours. Specifically, you have double the risk of developing glioma, an often malignant cancer of the central nervous system; and 2.4 times the risk of developing acoustic neuroma, a benign tumour growth of the nerve that connects the brain with the inner ear. Acoustic neuroma can lead to hearing loss and brain damage.

Tumours more likely on right side
These tumours are more likely to grow on the side of the head you hold your phone – the right side, for most of us.

Hardell's team concluded their work by cautioning: "Our findings stress the importance of longer follow-up to evaluate long-term health risks from mobile phone use…an increased risk for other types of brain tumours cannot be ruled out."

One of the difficulties of studying the health effects of cell phones is that they've only been with us for a relatively short time (about 20 years), and many diseases, such as certain cancers, take decades to develop. Hardell's team was therefore interested in analysing studies that looked at reasonably long-term cell phone use – at least a decade. At this stage, many people haven't been using their cell phones that long, but, as the years go by and research into the matter continues, the body of evidence will grow.

Other negative effects suspected
In addition to cancer, researchers will also be looking at other suspects identified in previous cell phone studies: hearing loss, increased risk of stroke as a result of higher blood pressure on the side of the brain the headset is held, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

There has also been concern about the effect on the eyes and the testes. The type of radiation cell phones put out is a kind of electromagnetic radiation called radiofrequency energy (RF). Large amounts of RF energy can heat body tissues and increase body temperature, and cause damage. The eyes and the testes are particularly vulnerable to RF heating because there's relatively little blood flow in these organs to carry away excess heat.

Meanwhile, what do we do?
The modern world is pretty well addicted and no-one's about to stop using, but, as Hardell et al stress: "These results indicate that caution is needed in the use of mobile phones." By caution, they mean reducing your exposure to cell phone radiation by changing your calling habits a little in the following simple ways:

  • Spend less time talking on your cell. Make more calls from your land line, or send text messages instead of making calls. Make a serious decision to never drive and talk: apart from any possible radiation worries, the biggest proven danger for cell phone users is a car accident.
  • Increase the distance between yourself and your cell phone. Use a hands-free set and carry the phone away from your body. Even holding a handset marginally further away from your head helps.
  • Use the other ear sometimes! I can't say I've seen this tip recommended by any medical authority, but I've certainly been trying to remember to do it since the abovementioned study came out.

And if you have kids, impress upon them the importance of keeping cell calls for crucial use only; lay down the law on this if necessary. Children are considered to be particularly vulnerable to cell phone radiation, as their skulls are thinner.

- (Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Expert, Health24, October 2007)

Would health concerns make you change your cell phone habits?

EnviroHealth Centre

Lennart Hardell, Michael Carlberg, Fredrik Söderqvist, Kjell Hansson Mild, L. Lloyd Morgan. Long-term use of cellular phones and brain tumours: increased risk associated with use for 10 years. Occup. Environ. Med. 2007; 64: 626-632.


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