Can your mobile phone make you sick?

This post aims to highlight some of the current findings and concerns on the health risks associated with mobile/cellular phone use.

Are there risks associated with mobile/cell phone use? The short answer is YES. Over the last few weeks there has been considerable discussion in the media about the fact that in May, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO), labelled cellular phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. This designation has also been placed on materials such as lead and gasoline, which inherently highlights the gravity of the WHO’s concern. However, some scientists are pointing to studies, such as those concluded in Europe in the early to mid-2000s, that have not been able to show any link between cell phones (or rather cell phone use) and cancer. Nevertheless, the ferocity of the debate overshadows the fact that some experts are still deeply apprehensive about health risks associated with long-term cell phone use.

What are those health risks?

Much of the concern and scientific study on mobile phone use and cancer is focussed on the head. Specifically, researchers are trying to determine whether or not, or the extent to which, electromagnetic radiation from cell phones affect the brain and other tissues in the head, such as those of the ears, spinal cord and salivary glands.

So far, and although more research is necessary, in its May press release, the IARC was of the view that there is a link between electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and the occurrence of gliomas and acoustic neuromas.  (A glioma is a type of tumour that is generally found in the brain or spine, and can be cancerous. On the other hand, an acoustic neuroma is a benign tumour of the inner ear.) Links between cell phones and other types of cancer have not been established, hence further study is required.

Other niggling concerns

While the research to date is not fully conclusive, it is critical to appreciate the attention that is being given to determining how safe cell phones are.  As at the end of 2010, there were an estimated 5.3 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide, and that figure will continue to grow (ITU). Theerfore continued vigilance and more definitive answers are vital to ensure that the world is correctly informed about health risks, and if necessary, can better position itself to manage them.

Outside of any link between cell phones and cancer, there are a number of other health concerns that require consideration or further study:

  • The impact intensive use. Some of the earlier studies referenced by the scientific community were conducted over periods of 10 to 20 years, such as between the mid-80s or 90s and the early or mid-2000s. However, it has only been in the last 10 years that lower cost services have become widely available, which has resulted in more intensive cell phone use. It is therefore anticipated that through this significant change in behaviour, the effects of cell phone use on the human body (good or bad) will become more evident.
  • Duration of scientific studies. Many scientists are of the view that earlier studies covered too short a period to yield conclusive results. Many cancers, in particular, take decades to develop; so current and future research must be designed to run for longer periods of time.
  • The impact of non-ionising radiation on the body.  Unlike X-rays, which is considered a form of ionising radiation, the radiation from mobile communications is non-ionising – similar to microwave ovens. This means that unlike the former, which detaches electrons from atoms and molecules (to form ions), the latter produces thermal energy that is sufficient to heat the body at the cellular level. The FCC (USA) and the European Union have established safety limits for radiation from cell phones. However, more research is necessary to determine what effect if any, prolonged exposure to the radiation from cell phones can have on the human body, especially when the device is in close physical contact, such as being carried on one’s person, and when it is placed close to one’s ear during use.
  • The health risks of cell phones for children. As cell phone ownership and use become increasingly ubiquitous among adults, a growing number of children and adolescents worldwide are also owning and using cell phones. This occurrence is of particular concern to the medical profession, who are worried that any harmful effects from cell phone use will be more acute in children, since their skulls are thinner and their nervous systems are still developing. Studies with children and young adults are currently on going, but the results will not be available for some time to come.

How to reduce possible risks?

The health risks associated with cell phone use has been receiving wide debate over the last few years, and each camp is passionate about its position. For the reader, some circumspection is recommended. Although mobile phones have revolutionised our professional and personal lives, early reports suggest that there could be consequences (e.g. a greater risk of developing gliomas and acoustic neuromas).

To the extent possible, persons can try to limit their cell phone use and not carry the devices on their bodies. More importantly, and even manufacturers have made this recommendation: people should avoid using the device close to their ears (head).  Hands-free options, such as earpieces and using the speakerphone facility, are advised.

These alternatives are pre-emptive measures until we have some real answers. The last thing the world needs in the coming years is an epidemic of illness caused by prolonged cell phone use.

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4 Comments

  • I was expecting the article to take the view we witness in the media, where they categorically dismiss possible problems arising from mobile phone use. I think, as pointed out in the article, there is need to be cautiously mindful of possible long term adverse health effects mobile phone use. Very informative.

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