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Cell Phone Radiation and Brain Cancer

Published: June 9, 2011

At a World Health Organization conference last week, 31 scientists from 14 countries reviewed current scientific literature regarding cell phone radiation. The scientific panel determined that there was enough information to deem long term exposure from cell phone radiation as a “possible carcinogen”

They came to this conclusion when their review revealed a correlation between cell phone usage and certain types of brain cancer.

Now that the science is out, what should happen? Should we all run around in a panic and bury our cell phones in the backyard? Should we take Samsung, Blackberry, AT&T, and Apple to court? Should the government ban cell phones? Or should we look at the facts, and try and reach some reasonable conclusions?

Cell phones have been listed as a “possible carcinogen” by the WHO, but what does this actually mean? A “possible carcinogen” is a category of cancer causing agents that include many things including: lead, car exhaust, chloroform, and some foods like coffee and pickles. These are all agents that have had limited scientific evidence suggesting that they might cause cancer. The key word here is limited. I don’t see a huge public outcry over the possible connection between coffee and bladder cancer, even though it exists. The problem of course, is that when it comes to cell phones, were talking about radiation and brain cancer, which is a lot scarier than bladder cancer from too much coffee. Who needs a bladder anyway?

Let’s take a look at cell phone radiation, and see what damages it might cause. Cell phones emit a long wavelength radiation, known as non-ionizing radiation. Cell phone radiation is more akin to microwave radiation, rather than X-rays. What this means, is that there is no known mechanism for which cell phone radiation can damage DNA, making it an unlikely candidate as a cancer causing agent.

Wait – but didn’t the WHO say that cell phone radiation DOES cause cancer?

Here lies the heart of the debate. Cell phone radiation itself should not cause any direct damage to DNA as something like an X-ray might. There simply isn’t a biochemical mechanism for it. Non-ionizing radiation at the wavelength produced by cell phones does, however, mimic a low powered microwave. So using a cell phone is similar to cooking your brain. Well, I mean it is like slowly cooking your brain.

I’m not helping my “don’t panic” argument, am I?

Realistically, the reason the data is so heavily debated is due to the fact that cell phones have only been in heavy usage for a few decades. The danger that microwave radiation allegedly poses, is only now becoming apparent. So using your cell phone tomorrow, or the next day, or the next year won’t suddenly give you brain cancer. Nothing has drastically changed in the cell phone world. Cell phones are just as safe (or unsafe depending on how you look at it) as they were yesterday. It is the continual exposure of radiation to a person’s brain to over decades that some studies are claiming should be cause for concern.

The fact is, even if cell phones were to hypothetically increase the risk of developing brain cancer by an astonishing amount, the numbers are still underwhelming. The current rate of brain cancer in the United States is about 5 deaths for every 100,000 people. If we make a completely off the wall claim and say that cell phones increase brain cancer rates by 100%, then that means that 10 of every 100,000 people (0.0001%) would develop the disease.

And let’s remember, other than the common sense notion that “cooking your brain is bad,” we don’t know the specific mechanism that seems to have some cell phone users developing brain cancer.

So while I wouldn’t recommend getting all panicky over this new study, I would recommend taking some advice from the experts on precautionary measures, if only to make sure you don’t end up as an unlikely statistic.

The radiation from a mobile phone comes from its antenna. The closer it is to your brain, the more potential damage it can do. Cell phone manufacturers know this, and the even recommend keeping your cell phone about an inch away from your head during use. This isn’t exactly practical, however, so the best way to get around this problem is through the use of a wired headpiece. Using your phone in this manner will limit the amount of radiation your body absorbs, thereby limiting the risks of developing brain cancer.

Texting is another method of communication that allows you to keep the phone away from your head. I know there is often a steep learning curve involved with texting, especially for people who are techno-illiterate, but when it comes down to it, texting is not just for teens. In today’s multi-tasking heavy world, texting can be a boon to anyone needing to be having two conversations at once.

Limiting your mobile phone conversations can be an effective method of limiting your exposure, but in today’s world it seems more and more people are doing without landlines, so this might not be the most plausible safety precaution.

In particular, children with mobile phones need to be extra careful. Children have thinner skin and skulls, which means that more radiation will be absorbed. Furthermore, children are still undergoing brain development, so the thermal effects of cell phone radiation might cause cognitive impairment. No studies have been done on the effects of cell phone radiation on children, so all the cautions are speculative, but not over the top.

The “possible carcinogen” classification of cell phone radiation by the WHO is no reason to panic. What this announcement should do, is help facilitate a dialogue between scientists, cell phone manufacturers, and the general public. It is important that more research is done. We are still in the infancy of widespread mobile phone use, and what the future holds is anyone’s guess.