March 31st, 2014

Health & Ed | January 10th, 2013
Are our cellphones killing us?
Cellphone radiation may be linked to cancer and other diseases
Written by | Visual by Amina Batyreva

When I was in high school, barely anyone had cellphones before the age of 15; today, most ten-year-olds without a mobile phone are considered an anomaly. Whether awake or asleep, cellphones are deeply embedded in the fabric of our daily lives. With a technology so seemingly dependable, hardly an hour goes by where I don’t reach for my phone to check the time, to text or call my friends, or even just to check the weather. We never question the technology running our phones as damaging in nature, because in some form or another the use of telecommunications is accepted as the prevailing norm of communication and thus inherently safe to use. Since everyone uses it, it’s supposed to be safe right? A growing body of research, however, has raised questions on the effects of the exposure of radio frequency energy or radio waves from cellphones on our bodies.

Cellphones emit these waves as a form of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation, a form of energy emitted by charged particles, which can be absorbed by tissues closest to where the phone is held. Debate over the potential risk that cellular technology presents has grown in recent years, based in instances of cellphones causing minor illnesses such as headaches or fatigue. There is also a growing worry that cellphone radiation can cause more serious illness such as various forms of cancers. Studies like the Interphone study have tried to prove this – it is the largest study linking cellphones to brain tumours. Types of cancers include glioma, brain tumours that start in the brain and spine; and meningioma, tumours in the central nervous system, which coordinates all our motor and sensory functions.

Despite the debate, there is still no consistent evidence that the radiation emitted by cellphones increases the risk of cancer. This lack of conclusive evidence makes it difficult to decide whether we should limit our usage, or ignore all cases claiming danger. At present, the only known biological effect of cellphones on humans is heating, but the heating is too minimal to measurably increase body temperature. However, if there exists a non-identified threat, we may be putting ourselves under more risk than we realize by pushing the problem under the rug.

The debate over cellphones specifically, as opposed to microwaves and other electronics, is especially worrisome because of our frequent daily use, and the consequent proximity to body tissues as we lift the phones to our ears. On a global level, the number of cellphone users has risen to 6 billion people, according to a UN report based on 2011 data – enough for an epidemic of far greater reach than any we’ve seen before should radiation pose a health risk. Not to mention that over time, the number of cell phone calls per day, the length of each call, and the amount of time people use cell phone have increased.

Ultimately, it’s up to the informed individual to decide on whether cell phone use needs to be checked based on the cautionary anecdotes that occasionally crop up. The general public is unaware of the possibility of danger, and expert organizations such as the American Cancer Society have concluded that “there could be some risk associated with cancer, but the evidence is not strong enough to be considered causal and needs to be investigated further.”

Another problem in measuring this data is that most people don’t know how much they actually use their cellphones. When people are asked how much on average they use their phones, they are usually inaccurate in their perceptions, which gives studies a lot of recall bias. The latter, coupled with the lack of evidence surrounding the issue, presents the average consumer a dilemma. Would people reduce their cell phone usage to less than fifty minutes a day because they read it in a few studies or news reports, or would they take their chances by waiting for the experts to come up with more satisfying research?

As far as our daily lives are concerned, there are steps we can take to prevent health risks, at least to some extent. According to recommendations by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Communications Commision (FCC), exposure to radiofrequency energy can be reduced by reserving the use of cell phones for shorter conversations or only for times when a landline phone is not available. Also, using a hands-free device may be a good idea, to place more of a distance between your head and the phone.

Apart from trying to reduce our dependence on cell phones, another way of prevention might be to put more pressure on cell phone companies to both monitor their technology standards and inform us, as consumers, of the potential risks. Various efforts have been made to inform consumers of the risks, but more at the institutional level than within local communities. In 2011, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that radiofrequency radiation is possibly a precursor to cancer. Since then, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) backed a U.S. House bill entitled the Cell Phone Right to Know Act. This bill proposed that “radiation warnings be placed on mobile devices.” It also initiates the creation of research programs to study the effects of cellphone radiation, while forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to review radiation guidelines.  The AAP has also raised concerns about the lack of revision in cellphone standards of cellphone companies since 1996.

Cellphone companies are seemingly phoning it in on the research and safety of their products. As we see this debate unfold at a relatively early point in our lives, it is important that we take the initiative with preventative measures now, before long term exposure from harmful radiation results in later life complications. Waiting for the scientists to figure it out may just never happen. Who knows what might occur as a consequence?

It is notable to mention that mostly everything in the 21st century carries risks to humans. Why do we pick out of a vast number of threats and single cellphones out as the one thing everyone should be afraid of? Cellphones might inherently carry a threat, true. We didn’t know the drawbacks of cigarettes when we first started consuming them in mass quantities. Cellphones are a relatively new technology, and it is safe to assume that based on that one fact alone the threats related to these powerful mobile devices will be uncovered with time. Seeing as cellphones are slowly replacing our laptops, we can’t get rid of them altogether. We have to be wary of everything, and the bottom line is that moderation is key.

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