Who’s Calling?

cell phones blog photoThe June issue of The University of California Berkeley Wellness Letter takes on a subject near and dear: cell phones. (The article first appeared online in February.)Cell phones are such a significant part of our daily lives it seems inconceivable that we managed without them just a few short years ago. Yet in spite of their many benefits, there remain significant concerns about the risks associated with our most reliable and portable technological asset:

  • risks to drivers, passengers and pedestrians
  • possible connection with brain tumors
  • possible connection with other tumors
  • long-term effects of early introduction

While the risk to drivers is now virtually undisputed – cars + cell phones = trouble – the tumor debate is unresolved and children, who may play with phones long before they can talk, will remain guinea pigs until long-term effects can be measured.

The incidence of brain tumors has risen since the 1950s, but it has changed little in the last two decades, since cell phones were introduced, and the role of phones is unclear. The Interphone study, published in 2010, was supposed to resolve the issue once and for all. It did not. The study had many shortcomings and the results were questioned by the researchers themselves. Subsequent studies in Scandinavia concluded that cell phone use 1) did not, and 2) did increase the risk of malignant brain tumors.

Further studies in the U.S. found that the radiation emitted by cell phones could affect the brain health of rats, but how that finding might translate to humans is uncertain. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer calls cell phone emissions a “possible” human carcinogen.

The Wellness Letter concludes that further study is both necessary and challenging, in part because of the rapidity of change in the technology. It also advises “taking simple precautions,” particularly for children and pregnant women: “Minimize holding a cell phone up against your ear; instead use a wired headset or put the call on speakerphone….Text rather than call. Especially limit phone use when it shows few bars, indicating a weak signal, which means that more emissions will be produced by the device.”

For more information, see the article on cellular phones on the American Cancer Society website and the EWG article on the California public health guidelines for cell phone users.