For most of us, cell phones are a fact of life. We use them for texting, surfing the internet, gaming, and of course — talking. But could cell phone use cause cancer? The World Health Association (WHO) recently announced a possible link between cell phone usage and a type of brain cancer called glioma.
The vast majority of Americans have cell phones. According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry, as of December 2010, there were 302.9 million wireless subscriptions in the United States alone. That is an increase from 110 million users in 2000. Globally, an estimated five billion people are cell phone users, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
As part of the conclusions in the WHO statement, Dr. Jonathan Samet, overall chairman of the study’s Working Group says, “The conclusion means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk.”
With the number of cell phone users and the amount that we use cell phones both on the rise, there has been more of a focus on health risks and concerns associated with the radiofrequency energy emitted by cell phones. The waves come from the antenna.
The concern surrounds the effect on the brain and other tissues in the head because cell phones are usually held there and these tissues absorb the radiofrequency energy. The emissions by cell phones are a form of non-ionizing radiation, like that emitted by microwaves. According to the American Cancer Society, “they cannot cause cancer by directly damaging DNA. [Radiofrequency] waves are different from stronger types of radiation such as x-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet (UV) light, which can break the chemical bonds in DNA.”
A cell phone user’s exposure to radiofrequency energy varies depending on a number of factors including the amount of time spent on the phone and the amount of cell phone traffic in the area at the time. The phone model used also makes a difference because different phones emit different amounts of energy.
The American Cancer Society says that about 30 studies have been conducted into the possible link between cell phones and tumors.
“In summary, most studies published so far have not found a link between cell phone use and the development of tumors,” it states on its website. “However, these studies have had some important limitations that make them unlikely to end the controversy about whether cell phone use affects cancer risk.”
One of those limitations, for example, is the lack of long-term tracking of patients. It can take decades for brain tumors to develop and cell phones have only been used extensively for about 20 years.
The consensus seems to be that more research, observation, and time are needed to clearly establish a link between cell phones and cancer.
One of the National Cancer Institute’s key points on its cell phones and cancer risk fact sheet is that “further research is needed to investigate possible health effects in children and persons who have used cell phones heavily for many years.”
Further research is already underway. In the meantime, cell phone users can take some steps to limit or lower exposure to radiofrequency waves. The American Cancer Society suggests the following:
- Use a hands-free device. Moving the antenna away from the head will significantly decrease the amount of waves reaching the brain and head tissues.
- Limit your cell phone use. For example, use it only for shorter conversations or when a landline phone is not available.
Author: Megan Donley