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How Safe is Your Cell Phone?

Prolonged Use Increases Hazards—Especially Among Children

by Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.

Do cell phones cause cancer? If you look closely at recent studies, the answer depends on how the phone is used.

In May 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) added cell phones to its list of potential carcinogens, or cancer- causing agents. This category includes chloroform and exhaust fumes from leaded gas.

Then, in August 2011, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) published a study which, on the abstract’s front page, stated that children using cell phones regularly were not more likely to develop cancer. This finding was widely reported in the press.

Who do you believe? Let’s look more closely at the JNCI study. Deep within the text, the study defined regular cell phone users as anyone using cell phones for at least once a week for six months or more.  Therefore, this study found using cell phones once a week for six months will not produce cancer.

Does this mean cell phones are safe? If smoking one cigarette a week for six months does not cause cancer, can we conclude cigarettes are safe? 

The JNCI study also found that individuals with cell phone subscriptions for at least 2.8 years showed a 115 percent increase in brain cancer. For those using cell phones for at least 4 years, brain cancer increased by at least 274 percent. The longer the individual owned the cell phone, the greater the likelihood of cancer.

The WHO classified cell phones as potential carcinogens after a team of 31 independent scientists from 14 countries examined all available research on cell phones, including comprehensive reviews and meta-analyses of long-term effects. This research showed using cell phones for a minimum of 1 hour a day for 10 years or more at least doubled the likelihood of brain cancer. The cancer occurred on the side of the head where the phone was held. 

Many of these research papers can be viewed online. Search under leading researcher Professor Lennart Hardell of Sweden. This research also showed that portable (cordless) phones increase risk of brain cancer. 

How the Brain is Affected

The human body is transparent to cell phone radiation, which falls in the radio frequency (RF) range. Cell phone radiation passes through our skin into every cell of our physiology. The radiation can then interfere with the body’s internal processes. Cell phone radiation, traveling though our body and oscillating many millions of times a second, tries to shake the atoms, ions, and other charged components in our cells, causing havoc.

For instance, scientists have found that external electromagnetic radiation can rupture cell membranes, causing calcium ions to leak into other cells, disrupting the balance of neurotransmitters and biochemical processes. Research also shows that radiation can damage DNA, which is known to lead to cancer. David Carpenter, M.D., Dean of the School of Public Health at the State University of New York, stated he believes up to 30 percent of childhood cancers are due to electromagnetic radiation.

Holding a cell phone to one’s ear has been compared to putting a mini-microwave oven beside the head. Even when the cell phone is not being used, as long as it is on, the phone is sending signals every few minutes to cell phone towers. The closer the phone is to your head, the stronger the radiation you receive. 

Other Research

Health effects of cell phones were studied as early as 1993, when epidemiologist George Carlo, Ph.D., was commissioned by the telecommunications industry to research cell phone safety. Dr. Carlo’s team found DNA damage, leakage of the blood brain barrier, inability of cells to repair, and other effects. Dr. Carlo’s findings were published in his book, Cell Phones: Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age.

Previous clinical studies on cell phones, which looked at intervals less than 10 years, did not show consistent results. This finding was not surprising since chronic and degenerative conditions, such as cancer, can take many years to develop. Studies funded by industry were much more likely to show no effect.

How Do You Protect Yourself?

If using a cell phone 1 hour a week for 6 months is safe, while using a cell phone 1 hour a day for 10 years causes cancer, so what? This is a huge range. If we are using a cell phone somewhere between these two extremes, are we safe?

It is difficult to determine an exact safety range because we are all different. Some people are more electromagnetically sensitive. Also, we are exposed to other sources of electromagnetic radiation and the total exposure adds up. Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., author of the book Zapped, developed brain cancer after three years of daily cell phone use. Dr. Gittleman’s excellent book describes many different measures to protect against electromagnetic radiation.

Specifically for cell phones, one can use a speaker phone, an airtube (blue tube), or a wire headset with ferrite clip, to keep the cell phone away from the head. (The ferrite clip is needed with the wire headset to block the radiation from traveling up the wire.) Also available are anti-radiation cell phone pouches, which protect the head on one side while allowing the cell phone to transmit on the other side.

Effects on Children

Because of their thin skulls and their rapid growth rate, children are particularly susceptible to effects of cell phones and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. Dr. O. P. Gandhi at the University of Utah showed that because of their thinner skulls and bones, children absorb 50 percent more radiation into their brains than adults.

Cell Tower Power

Many studies have shown increased incidence of cancer in the vicinity of cell phone and other RF towers. In San Francisco from 1973 to 1988, the Sutro tower was the dominant source of RF radiation. During this time period, New Zealand researcher Neil Cherry, Ph.D., found white childhood cancer peaked right under the Sutro tower at 18 times the expected value and then smoothly dropped with distance. Two kilometers away from the tower, the cancer rate was 7 times expected. Five kilometers away from the tower, the cancer rate was still 4 times the expected value.

Smart Meter Invasion

Up until recently, utility companies sent employees to record readings on the electrical and gas meters outside our homes.  However, many are now using smart meters, which contain RF transmitters that broadcast usage back to utility companies.

In July 2011, Dubuque became the first city in Iowa to start using smart meters, as part of a pilot project. In California, several cities and counties have stopped using smart meters due to citizen concerns.

These devices transmit radiation in all directions, including into our homes and playgrounds. Also, because they operate as part of a smart grid, the meters could be transmitting virtually 24 hours a day.  Calculations show one needs to be at least 92 feet away from a 1-watt smart meter to be safe. 

Dirty Electricity

For more information on dirty electricity, another form of RF radiation, see the author’s youtube video “Dirty Electricity MUMEcofair” Parts 1 and 2. In a published study at a California school, teachers teaching in rooms with high levels of dirty electricity experienced up to 7 times the expected cancer rates.    

Richard Wolfson, Ph.D. (physics), wrote a regular monthly column on public safety issues from 1997 to 2001 in Alive, Canada’s largest circulation health magazine.

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Comments (2)Add Comment
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written by Garry, October 07, 2011
Interestingly scary! Thanks for the clear overview...i use my cell phone waaay too much!
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written by Asher, October 07, 2011
I agree that cell phones can definitely be hazardous if used in excess. I personally find that when I use one it gives me an instant headache and heat that may last for many minutes after the use. It would be great if the industry could be more aware of this and take measures to reduce the radiation instead of trying to cover up the negative research.

Thanks for writing this Richard!
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