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Cell Phone Radiation: Danger or Deception?

Q:  I want to understand more about the supposed risk of cell phone radiation.  Is there real evidence of harm from scientific research yet, or just suspicion?  I’d really like to discourage my clients from using their phone so much – especially children and teenagers which really alarms me!   I mean their brains are still forming!   I know – what a bummer to have such a convenient appliance be toxic.  But I am now convinced. I wasn’t before; I was a serious skeptic. But no more! It just doesn’t seem like rocket science to me that holding a constantly “on” radiation source against your head off and on for hours almost every single day is a bad idea – and I am definitely not a scientist!  But I feel like I need more data to influence my clients.  What can you share?

A:  I agree that this is an excellent focus area for all of us in evaluating how our client’s lifestyle choices might be contributing to current – or future! – illness.  Bottom line:  yes, there is clear evidence of damage to human tissue caused by radiation from sustained use of cell phones against the head and possible increased risk of disease.   You are right that there is indeed highly mixed data in the medical media.  I think there are two tenets that make research into this health risk contentious and inconsistent in results from study to study:  (1) frequency of usage, (2) duration of usage,  and (3) frequency emitted from various cell phone brands/models.   Long-duration, long-term, and high-frequency use has clearly been demonstrated to be of higher risk than its opposite.  Of particular note:  the vast majority of cell phones in use today emit a radiation level when placed directly against the head (especially of a child) that is well-above the approved maximum by the U.S. FCC (that is 1.6 W/kg).   Most people are shocked to find out that the user’s manual for virtually every cell phone sold today specifies that the phone must be held a distance away from the body or the safe radiation SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) will be exceeded.  Of course, “a distance away from the head” is not how the average person actually uses their phone!

Because of the typical time delay between ongoing exposure and the manifestation of overt disease (e.g. brain tumor or other cancer), the health risks of cell phones have indeed been widely disputed.  Obviously there is also widespread desire within the industry to avoid exposure and alarm regarding such a ubiquitous lifestyle tool.

Given the status of research into this topic today, I encourage my clients to take the following actions to reduce their risk disease related to cell phone usage.

  • Don’t wear a cell phone attached to the body (e.g. in a holster at the hip/waist or tucked into the bra).
  • Avoid putting the phone directly against the head during all calls.  Make use of a headset to minimize EMF transmission (ideally air-tube style headset) or use speaker-phone mode.  While using the headset, make sure the phone is at least 6 inches away from the body.
  • Minimize the duration of calls.
  • Do not sleep with the cell phone near the head (ideally turn phones off at night, but if it must be on, place the phone at least a foot away from the body).
  • Don’t allow children to use cell phones routinely, especially for long-duration use against their body (e.g. video games).
  • Avoid purchasing a phone with the highest SAR usage rating.  There are many online resources which report typical SAR ratings of various phones (e.g. this is a “top 20 highest” listing and remember these levels assume usage “at a distance from a head”).

Here are some points (and links to formal research abstracts) that might be helpful to you:

  • DNA damage from long-term cell-phone use.  This is a general study of the ability of low intensity microwave radiation to damage DNA.  Later in 2009, the clinical journal Pathophysiology took this topic up as a focus area.   This follow-up article (not a study) highlights some of the industry politics/funding issues at play.
  • Cell phone use by a pregnant mother results in harm to the unborn fetus’ brain (animal study).   I think this study is particularly provocative because the exposure periods used were quite conservative and actually representative of the low-end of typical usage.
  • Long-term cell phone use increases the risk of brain tumors.  This meta-study is interesting in that it explores why previous studies in this areas yielded mixed results and emphasizes the blinded (more objective) study results.
  • Cell phone use impairs sleep quality and duration.  Even based on a single exposure, the effects are statistically significant.
  • Risk of acoustic neuroma (non-cancerous nerve tumor) increases dramatically from long-term cell phone use (10+ years).  This study highlights the difficulty in showcasing the risks  of cell phone use because of the long duration development of disease.
  • Impairment in sperm count and viability in males.  Be sure to take a look at the figures from this study; there are a couple of really provocative, simple graphs that would make great client education tools.   This additional study (link goes to full text, not just abstract) is also an excellent overview of research into many different topics regarding reproductive health risks of cell phone use.
  • Epidemiological studies assessing the relationship between cell phone use and rates of brain cancers are inconclusive; some report an association, whereas others do not.  Results of this study provide evidence that acute cell phone exposure affects brain metabolic activity and that EMF radiation is absorbed by brain tissue.

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