How safe are cell phones?

Current scientific evidence does not demonstrate that wireless phones cause cancer or other health risks

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population now uses mobile phones, according to a study by the International Telecommunications Union. But how safe are these phones?  Scientists are not sure, but some evidence is starting to suggest that there may be a risk along with the convenience.

Mobile phones go by various names — cellular telephone, cell phone, mobile, wireless  — and an estimated four billion people use them worldwide. India has seen a phenomenal growth in cell phone users in recent years.  Each of these phones has a tiny radio transmitter to communicate with the wired telephone network; and for years scientists have been trying to determine whether those RF (radio frequency) transmissions might be harmful.

In the United States, where 270 million people use cell phones, a Senate sub-committee recently brought together some experts to review the evidence to date and focus on whether more research is needed. 

One problem is that mobile phones have been in widespread use for a relatively short period of time. An Israeli researcher, Siegal Sadetzki, said cancers triggered by environmental factors, such as radiation, may take a decade or more to develop.  
“In the case of brain tumours, it may reach even 30-40 years,” he said.  “For example, the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred in 1945, while the first report demonstrating brain tumours among the survivors was not published until 1994 — fifty years later.”

Sadetzki added, “I believe that cell phone technology, which has many advantages, is here to stay.  The question that needs to be answered is not whether we should use cell phones, but how we should use them.”

Although many studies have been inconclusive, some newer studies are turning up evidence that long-term use of mobile phones may be dangerous. 

John Bucher, a senior official at the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said, “There have been some hints recently that there is an increase in brain cancers in people who have used these cellular communication devices for a number of years.” Bucher’s agency is funding a large-scale animal test designed to simulate in rodents the kind of exposure that humans get when using cell phones, but results won’t be available until 2013 or so. 

In the meantime, Dr. Linda Erdreich of the consulting firm Exponent reviewed scientific evidence on potential health hazards and found no proven link.  “All of the agency reports that assess the evidence using a comprehensive approach reach similar conclusions: that the current scientific evidence does not demonstrate that wireless phones cause cancer or other health effects,” she said.

Although quite a few studies have been published, the experts called before the Senate sub-committee saw a need for more research.  One of them, from Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, said, “We need international, well-designed, human volunteer studies.  These studies should be aimed at proving or disproving whether human bodies respond to mobile phone radiation.  In spite of years of research, we still do not have the answer to this basic question.”

Until we do, mobile phone users who might be worried about the possible effect of emissions from their phones can take some precautions recommended by experts.

Use a headset: A wired one is probably safer than a wireless Bluetooth earpiece, or use speakers.

Use a low-radiation model handset.  Keep the phone away from your body, while talking or between calls; and keep your phone on your belt, not in your pocket.

Use text or SMS rather than voice mode. Limit children’s cell phone usage, since young brains may be more sensitive to radiation emitted by the phones.

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