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Monthly Archives: March 2017

7 Simple Ways to Cut Your Cell Phone Cancer Risk

Does the World Health Organization’s statement that cell phones may cause cancerhave you thinking twice about making that phone call?

Of course it’s alarming to think that something that’s become such a can’t-live-without can be linked to brain cancer, but there’s a lot even the most cell phone-addicted people can do to minimize health risks.

Any potential links to cancer stem from the low levels of radiation cell phones emit. Lower your exposure to the radiation, and you’ll reduce the potential links to cancer or other health problems:

  1. Use a headset. Sounds obvious, but headsets emit much less radiation than cell phones do, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and they keep your cell phone away from your head. The farther away you are from a source of radiation, the less damage it can do.
  2. Text when you can. Your constantly texting teens are onto something: Cell phones use less energy (and emit less radiation) when you text than when you talk, says the EWG. Texting also keeps the radiation source farther away from your brain.
  3. Use cell phones for FYI-only calls. Don’t use your cell phone for that long overdue, hour-long catch-up with your sister. Keep calls as short as possible —Do you need me to get the dry cleaning, honey? — and switch to a landline if they’re veering off into chitchat territory.
  4. Watch the bars. Can you hear me now? If you’re struggling to maintain a connection, ditch the call and wait until you have better service. When your phone has fewer signal bars, it has to work harder (and, therefore, emit more radiation) to connect.
  5. Keep the phone away from your ear when you can. EMF-Health.comrecommends waiting for the call to connect before you bring the phone to your ear, which minimizes radiation exposure. And when you talk, tilt the phone away from your ear and bring it in close when you’re listening. That’s because the radiation levels are “significantly less when a cell phone is receiving signals than when it is transmitting,” Lin Zhong, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University in Houston, told The New York Times.
  6. Don’t make calls in elevators or cars. You already it’s dangerous to talk and drive; EMF-Health.com says that cell phones use more power to establish a connection in enclosed metal spaces like cars and elevators.
  7. Make sure your kids use the landline. It seems like even toddlers are using cell phones today, but experts say kids are the most vulnerable to potential radiation dangers. The EWG says children’s brains absorb twice as much cell phone radiation as adults. According to The New York Times, health authorities in Britain, France, Germany, and Russia all have warnings against letting children use cell phones.

The Truth About Everyday Radiation Exposure

Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis understandably has people around the world worried about radiation exposure and the potential health risks it may pose. According to the latest reports, radiation from Japan was detected in Southern California late this week, but experts are quick to point out that the levels are far from dangerous. The readings were “about a billion times beneath levels that would be health threatening,” a diplomat with access to United Nations’ radiation tracking told the Associated Press.

Nor is it unexpected. “Whenever radioactive particles get in the atmosphere, they have the potential to spread around the world,” says James Thrall, MD, president of the American College of Radiology. “But they get diluted as they travel, so they’re unlikely to pose any real health problem.”

In fact, we’re probably exposed to significantly more radiation every day than the miniscule fallout arriving from Japan. Here’s a quick tutorial on radiation to put our collective anxiety in perspective:

What Is Radiation?

Radiation is a form of energy in waves. It exists on a spectrum, with low-frequency radiation (from radio waves and microwaves) on the low end and high-frequency radiation (from gamma rays and x-rays) on the high end. All radiation affects the cells in our bodies to some extent, but the lower the frequency of the waves and the lower the exposure, the less dangerous it is.

To understand the risks of high-frequency radiation — the kind we’re talking about in this article — think back to high school physics: These waves have enough energy to knock electrons off molecules, which can cause damage to cell DNA that can ultimately lead to cancer.

How Are We Exposed to Radiation?

We encounter radiation each day from a variety of sources. The average American is exposed to about 6 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation annually, according to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC). Half of this typically comes from background radiation that occurs naturally in the environment, and half comes from medical tests, such as X-rays, mammograms, and CT scans.

According to Kelly Classic, MS, spokesperson for the Health Physics Society, sources of environmental radiation include:

  • Radioactive compounds in soil and building materials like concrete, brick, and stone
  • Radiation from outer space that your encounter when you fly on airplanes or visit high-altitude places
  • The mineral potassium in your own body (a small fraction of potassium, which our bodies need to function, is radioactive)
  • Radon gas in the home, which accounts for about 2 mSv of exposure each year, and is the largest contributor of background radiation

Finally, there’s the kind of radiation released during nuclear reactions, such as what’s disseminating from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Here’s a look at various sources of radiation exposure (dose of radiation in millisieverts (mSv)), according to data from the Health Physics Society and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By way of comparison, a single dose of radiation below 0.01 mSv is considered negligible by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.

  • Banana: 0.0001
  • Dental X-ray: 0.005
  • Living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant: 0.01 (per year)
  • A flight from New York to Los Angeles: 0.04
  • Smoking 1 ½ packs of cigarettes: 0.08
  • Chest X-ray: 0.1
  • Living at sea level: 0.25 (per year)
  • Mammogram: 0.3
  • Living in Denver: 0.5 (per year)
  • Abdominal CT scan: 14
  • Measures between reactors No. 3 and No. 4 during the March 15 explosion at the Fukushima plant: As high as 400 per hour

What Level of Radiation Exposure Is Safe?

It’s well-established that exposure to large amounts of radiation at once can cause acute sickness and even cancer. (A 1,000 mSv-dose can trigger acute radiation sickness, causing symptoms such as nausea and vomiting; 3,000 mSV can be lethal, according to Thrall.)

But there’s no good data on the long-term risks of the low levels of radiation to which we’re continually exposed.

According to the World Nuclear Association, annual exposure to 100 mSv or greater carries a measurable, though small, increase in cancer risk. Below that level, it’s believed that your body’s cells are able to heal themselves from radiation. “There are enzyme systems in the body that repair damage from these low levels of background radiation,” says Thrall.

But even small levels of radiation exposure may impact cancer risks later in life.

This has been of particular concern in the medical community, where some experts worry that increasing use of diagnostic CT scans (which has skyrocketed from 3 million annual scans nationwide in 1980 to 70 million in 2007, according to MedPage Today) will impact future cancer rates. For example, in one 2009 study, National Cancer Institute researchers estimated that one in 270 women and one in 595 men who had a heart CT at age 40 would eventually develop cancer related to the test.

While the health benefits of necessary diagnostic imaging usually outweigh the small risks of secondary cancers, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before any procedure involving radiation to understand exactly what you’re getting, why you need it, and what the potential health risks may be.

Bottom line: Americans are exposed to far more radiation in their daily lives — and especially from certain medical tests — than from dispersed particles traveling across the Pacific. “With what we know now about the situation in Japan, there are no personal or public health risks apparent for people in the United States,” Thrall says.

Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

Though it seems hard to believe, cell phone technology only became widely available in the 1990s. By December 2008, about 87 percent of the United States population had cell phone service — that’s an estimated 270 million users.

But the growing popularity of cell phones has prompted concerns about their cancerrisk. Some think that low-level radiation produced by cell phones could increase that risk, particularly related to head or neck tumors.

Cancer Risk and the Cell Phone: About the Exposure

It is true that cell phone users are exposed to radiofrequency (RF) energy, which is a low-frequency form of radiation. Cell phones emit this radiation mainly through their antennas. A cell phone user’s total exposure to RF energy from the device depends on:

  • The amount of time they spend on the phone
  • The amount of RF energy produced by their specific cell phone
  • The distance from the cell phone to the nearest cellular tower — the farther away the phone is, the more RF energy it must produce to provide a clear signal
  • The amount of cell phone traffic at the time — again, the phone must produce more RF energy to compete with other calls
  • The use of a Bluetooth headset or other hands-free device, which puts distance between the cell phone and the user

Cancer Risk and the Cell Phone: Myth vs. Fact

Researchers are doubtful that RF energy in and of itself has the potential to be harmful, says Michael J. Thun, MD, vice-president emeritus of epidemiology and surveillance research for the American Cancer Society.

For one thing, RF energy is much less powerful than known forms of cancer radiation. “The radio frequencies that cell phones emit are halfway between a FM radio and a microwave,” Dr. Thun says. “These emissions do not have enough energy to break DNA. They are different from X-rays and other types of ionizing radiation like cosmic rays and gamma rays.”

Other people have postulated that RF energy could cause tumors by heating the cells in the head and neck, much as microwave ovens use energy to stimulate molecules and heat food. This, too, has been shown to be unlikely, Thun says. “This [theory] has been tested in mice and rats,” explains Thun. “These studies have not shown any evidence that low-level radio frequencies from cell phones promote the development of tumors.”

Cancer Risk and the Cell Phone: What Other Studies Show

Epidemiological studies and research using lab animals have so far found little evidence of a relationship between cell phones and cancer. These studies have:

  • Compared cell phone users with non-users and found no significant difference in cancer rates
  • Studied people with brain tumors and found that they do not report more cell phone use than other people
  • Exposed lab rodents to known carcinogens and RF energy and found that the energy didn’t have any impact on tumor development
  • Found no evidence of a “dose response,” in which increased use of cell phones equals increased risk of brain tumors

However, cell phones are such a new phenomenon that it’s difficult to make any pronouncements regarding long-term effects. “We’ve only had 10 or 15 years of experience, so the final votes aren’t in,” Thun says.

Also, some studies have found slight evidence of a possible risk. For example, a few studies have found slightly increased cancer risk on the side of the head to which users hold their cell phones, although other studies found no such evidence.

Thun suggests a simple solution for those who worry about cancer from using a cell phone. “People who are concerned about the safety of cell phones can use a headset or speakerphone, or some other device that holds the phone away from their heads,” Thun says. “That eliminates their exposure.”

Kids and Cell Phone

Gone are the days of kids stretching the cord of the one house phone into a quiet corner to have some privacy while chatting with friends. Now kids as young as 5 years old are using cell phones.

Aside from concerns that cell phones give kids more phone privacy than you might be comfortable with, some parents are worried that cell phone radiation could be causing them physical harm. Cell phones emit low levels of electromagnetic radiation, and some are concerned that this can increase the risk for cancer and other health problems — and that children may be more vulnerable than the adult population because their brains are still developing. Also, over the course of their lifetime, they could be exposed to radiation for many more years than adults who started using cell phones much later in life.

Although several studies have been done on adults (and only adults), the results have been mixed and none has yet given a definitive answer to the question of whether cell phone use increases cancer risk. Even the largest study done to date couldn’t conclude that cell phones increase the incidence of tumors, but more, wider research is already in the works. Also, one large study involving children is under way.

What is a parent to do in the meantime? First, consider the existing research, and then make a game plan.

Cell Phone Radiation: The Research

In a recent, large study, researchers interviewed 5,117 adults in 13 countries with two of the most common types of brain tumors about their cell phone use. They found no increase in risk for brain tumors among people who used cell phones. Although those who had the highest exposure to cell phones may have had a higher risk for one particular type of brain tumor, the study authors said study biases and errors could have contributed to the results and they found it to be inconclusive.

Other studies have taken different approaches. “The best evidence comes from a surprising type of study,” says Anatoly Belilovsky, MD, medical director of Belilovsky Pediatrics in Brooklyn, N.Y. Most people have a favorite side to hold their cell phone, and researchers have compared the incidents of tumors on the favorite vs. the other side, he says. Having a tumor on the favorite side was anywhere from 1.3 to 6 times higher, Dr. Belilovsky reports. While 1.3 times is a very small increase in risk, 6 times higher is substantial, he adds. The findings also seem to suggest that people who use cell phones the most have a slightly higher risk of cancer on the same side they use it, he says.

The problem with cell phone studies is that there are so many other factors that cell phone use may be linked to and that could cause an increased cancer risk, such as job stress or being a business frequent flyer, which also exposes you to radiation, Belilovsky says.

Protect Your Kids From Potential Cell Phone Dangers

With so many unknowns, how do you answer your tween or teen’s plea for a cell phone? Here are some guidelines for parents:

Wait for a good reason to give kids their own cell phones. The age at which you give your kids phones depends on a lot of factors — need, affordability, and, yes, even how many of their friends have one.

The most important reason may be for safety. Gary Baker, a communications director in New York City, gave his twin boys cell phones in seventh grade when they were 11 and started taking public buses to school.

If there’s not a pressing reason, waiting may be a good idea. “You don’t want to leave them completely outside of their social group,” Belilovsky says. But it’s also not a good thing for them to develop a callus on their outer ear, he adds.

Allow texting. Actually talking on a cell phone is old-school for many kids. They’ve switched to texting, and that’s a good thing, Belilovsky says, because it keeps the phone away from their head.

Get a hands-free device. A cell phone emits radiation from its antenna, which is on the handset. Using a hands-free device will ensure that your kids aren’t putting the antenna next to their head when they talk.

Limit their minutes. Unlimited minutes may not be the best cell phone plan to choose if you’re concerned about health risks. It’s like giving your kids an open invitation to permanently attach the phone to their ear.

Put the cell phone to bed every night. One way to cut down on the amount of time your kids spend on the cell phones (and to help them get more sleep) is to make a rule that the phones go on a charger at bedtime. And make sure the charger is outside of their rooms. That’s what Baker did for his twin boys (who are now 12) when late-night phoning and texting started to become a problem.

Keep a land line at home. It may be a good rule of thumb to hold long conversations on a land line and tell your kids the cell phone is only to be used when they’re on the go or making a quick call.

Although results have been inconclusive, there’s no doubt that researchers will continue to study the potential effects cell phone radiation may have on kids’ brains. In the meantime, enforcing judicious cell phone use may be the best protection.