Cell Phones & Your Health: The 411

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EMR_1Illustrated By Gabriela Alford.
We're with our cell phones 24/7. If they're not in our purses or pockets, they're sitting on our nightstands, collecting emails and texts, waiting to wake us for another day. And, as they've permeated our existences, researchers have become more concerned with how they're affecting our health.

Cell phones — in fact, all electronics — give off energy waves known as electromagnetic radiation. EMR is divided into various subsets based on frequencies. For example, radio waves, the kind cell phones emit, have the lowest frequencies. Meanwhile, the ones with the highest frequencies, like X-rays, are known to cause cancer. Visible light, the type of EMR we can actually see, is smack dab in the middle.

In 2011, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer published the Interphone Study, which was conducted to figure out if mobile-phone use increases the risk of brain tumours. The researchers interviewed participants over five years using a very detailed questionnaire. While the majority of the roughly 14,000 respondents showed no increased risk of brain cancer or benign brain tumors over the course of 10 years, the results differed slightly for the heaviest 10% of callers.

The study suggests that users with the highest number of total recalled hours spent on phone calls may have had a slightly higher rate of glioma, a cancerous tumor that develops on the brain or spine. What’s more, the glioma was more likely to show up in the temporal lobe, right by the ear. And, both glioma and meningioma, an often benign brain tumor, were more likely to show up on the same side of the brain that people usually used their phone on. The study also indicated another type of tumor, one that develops on the nerve connecting the ear to the brain, was more likely to occur on the same side of the head where a cell phone was usually used.

While this information would typically help prove correlation, inconsistencies led scientists to believe the possible connection was due to reporting bias. For instance, a woman with a brain tumor on her left lobe might believe she used her cell phone more often on her left side, whether or not she actually did. It should also be noted that the study participants were only estimating the duration they spent on phone calls and not exact call times.
EMR_2Illustrated By Gabriela Alford.
In terms of resolving the potential links between cancer and very heavy cell-phone use, the study is littered with suggestions, maybes, and mights. Ultimately, the scientists concluded that the statistical relationship between cell-phone use and cancer was so small, there is no measured, elevated risk of developing brain tumors. However, it calls for further examination of cancer risk for individuals with the highest number of hours spent on cell-phone calls over longer periods of time.

This is a fiercely debated topic, yet it can be difficult to find people in the scientific community willing to speak on the record about it because, as one official told me, “scientific studies take time” and “governments don’t speculate.” The World Health Organization offers equally vague answers on its website. “Because many cancers are not detectable until many years after the interactions that led to the tumour, and since mobile phones were not widely used until the early 1990s, epidemiological studies at present can only assess those cancers that become evident within shorter time periods,” writes E. van Deventer, team leader of their Radiation Programme in the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere — cell-phone-related studies need more time.

“However, results of animal studies consistently show no increased cancer risk for long-term exposure to radio-frequency fields,” says Deventer. So, then there’s no real connection between cancer and cell-phone use? “Based largely on these data, IARC has classified radio frequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), a category used when a causal association is considered credible, but when chance, bias, or confounding cannot be ruled out with reasonable confidence,” he writes. It’s important to note that Group 2B means the jury is still out on the substances. As a point of reference, caffeic acid found in coffee is also listed in the 2B category. Still, we’re left wondering: Do cell phones cause cancer or not?
EMR_3Illustrated By Gabriela Alford.
Here’s what we do know: Radio waves from your cell phones are extremely low frequency, making them non-ionizing and not high enough to damage DNA. Even if these low-frequency radio waves do cause any kind of damage, no one knows how much. Still, there are some people who think that cell-phone use is a public-health issue. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at SUNY Albany, edited an independent report confirming that radio frequencies can damage human health. The study, BioInitiative 2012, has largely been derided by the greater scientific community as biased. Carpenter agrees there isn’t hard evidence that cell phones cause cancer but points out: What if we’re wrong?

“I would certainly not argue that all of the evidence is 100% convincing [in proving a connection between cell phone use and cancer]," says Carpenter. "But, I think if you read those reports coming elsewhere, they don’t deny that’s there’s evidence for harm. They often say, 'Well, it’s not conclusive.' What do they mean by 'conclusive'? One-hundred-percent proof? That’s not the appropriate standard.” So, while many scientists are pretty sure talking on your cell phone won’t cause cancer, they can’t say that without a shadow of a doubt. That’s why they continue to study cell-phone use. But, it will be a while before we have any definitive answers.
EMR_4Illustrated By Gabriela Alford.
If you are concerned, there are some pretty simple things you can do to limit your interaction with your cell phone's radiation. Instead of holding your phone next to your head, use a headset. Consider using a landline when you’re at home rather than relying solely on your phone. Some people believe they are sensitive to EMR, reporting a variety of symptoms, from fatigue to dizziness, that have been termed Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS). However, it's important to note that no causal link has been found between electromagnetic radiation and EHS, so it's possible that the symptoms can be explained by other environmental factors or other diseases entirely. If you think you might be sensitive to electromagnetic waves, check out the WHO breakdown of EHS.

A very recent study conducted by the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research (MTHR) program out of the U.K. found no health risks associated with cell phone use in an 11-year period. Like the Interphone Study, the MTHR report relied heavily on participant memory, which can be flawed. Still, the report was exhaustive, testing not only the effect of cell phones, but also the effect of cell towers on both on human health and fetal health. While the report is confident that cell phones won’t make you sick, it recommended a follow-up study to see if any symptoms pop up beyond a 10-year period.

That study, called COSMOS, is currently tracking 290,000 mobile users over an extended period of time and hopes to resolve uncertainties related to long-term use. While more research is needed — and underway — the best, current studies we have don't show a substantial risk. Until better data is in, it's not unreasonable to take some precautions, like texting instead of calling when you can. But, really, when was the last time you used your cell to actually call a friend, anyway?