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Are Cell Phones Harmful to Your Health?

FILE - People us their mobile phones to receive and share information.

Cell phones and mobile devices that use electromagnetic radio frequencies continue to invade nearly every aspect of modern life despite concerns that they might prove harmful. But extensive research into the health effects of these devices has only produced inconclusive evidence.

“The evidence is not certain that these devices are dangerous,” said Jonathan Samet, M.D., Director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Southern Californian’s Keck School of Medicine.

The wireless industry agreed with this assessment. While declining an interview with TECHtonics, a spokesperson for CTIA -The Wireless Association said in an emailed statement that “CTIA and the wireless industry defer to the scientific community when it comes to cell phones and health effects:”

… The scientific evidence shows no known health risk due to the RF energy emitted by cell phones. As the FDA states on its website, ‘[t]he weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems.

The statement said that despite the extensive research that has been done in this area, CTIA supports ongoing studies:

If any person or organization has any information that is not currently available to the wide array of public health organizations and agencies with well-documented conclusions in this area, we encourage they make that information available to those groups for their expert review.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) website defers to the International Agency for Research on Cancer on this issue:

The electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

The U.N. agency said it will conduct a formal risk assessment of all studied health outcomes from radio-frequency fields exposure by 2016.

Some consumer and health advocates argue that cell phones could cause tissue heating or contribute to brain cancer if they are held near the head for extended periods of time.

Samet said some studies suggest there is evidence that exposure contributes to increased brain cancer risk, while others have turned out negative.

A shopkeeper stands beside mobile phones charging from a generator in Tintafor, Sierra Leone, Sept. 17, 2009
A shopkeeper stands beside mobile phones charging from a generator in Tintafor, Sierra Leone, Sept. 17, 2009

Last month, about 200 scientists appealed to the United Nations to adopt guidelines to protect against the electromagnetic energy produced by wireless devices.

Representing the scientists in a related video, Dr. Martin Blank of Columbia University Medical Center said electromagnetic radiation is damaging living cells and killing people immaturely.

“People who are concerned about the health risks of electromagnetic radiation will say that there are short-term effects as well as longer-term disease risk,” said Samet. “So they’ll talk about effects on, for example, sleep or possible heart rhythm or other problems … But the scientific evidence is mostly focused on long-term and potential cancer risk.”

Cell phones produce low-level non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation can range from low frequencies all the way to the ultraviolet end of the spectrum.

“When we use a microwave,” Samet said, “that’s a form of non-ionizing radiation that has enough energy to heat things. So with cellphones, there’s a possibility that there could be some heating, although most people who understand the physics of this type of radiation say there is not enough energy to really heat tissues that much.”

Unlike higher-frequency ionizing radiation, Samet said “we don’t think it directly damages DNA. And it is the direct damage to DNA by ionizing radiation that leads to cancer.”

Ultraviolet Ionizing radiation can generate enough energy to break chemical bonds, cause cancer and have other effects.

“Exposure to these types of radiation is roughly inescapable in our society,” said Samet. With so many wireless devices, cellphone towers and other systems coming into the daily lives of so many people, he said any potential exposure would be important, given the billions of phone users all over the world who use these devices throughout their lives.

“It’s important to make sure that we understand [if] there are any risks and then we track the exposures,” he said. “And this is one of the world’s largest industries; and hopefully we’ll find a way to make sure that these devices, which are incredibly useful for many purposes, don’t cause any harm.”

He said there is also room to find out how much electromagnetic energy these devices emit and how much exposure their users are getting. “That’s a picture not too well worked out,” he said.

Brain cancer registries can aid in tracking and understanding any actual increase in brain cancer, said Samet, although it would be too late to do anything about it then save to try and reduce exposure and hope for a decline similar to what happened with cigarette smoking.

“On the good side, the power output of the phone is less than it used to be,” he said. “And I think our use patterns have changed. So … this will always be a sort of changing landscape and it’s one that we should be keeping up with.”

Ongoing studies are trying to determine the long-term effects of this type of exposure. But some people are not taking chances. The city council of Berkley, California, recently passed a law that requires retailers to tell consumers how far their cell phone should be held away from their body.

A similar, earlier measure in San Francisco requiring retailers to display the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) or the amount of radio-frequency energy a body absorbs ran into stiff opposition from the wireless industry.

If you are concerned about the level of exposure you might be getting, you should ask your wireless provider for details. Use hands-free devices to keep the cell phone at a distance and limit the time it is placed on the ear.

For more information, check out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s cell phone safety guidelines.