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It’s hard to know how worried we should be about these risks. We aren’t seeing the kind of obvious correlation that there is between smoking and lung cancer, for example, where the CDC estimates smokers are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers. But we also don’t have as much research to draw on for cell phone exposure, and we know that usage is climbing dramatically. Many of us plan to use cell phones for the next 50 years or longer. It would be nice to know that they’re safe.
“I think the results are inconclusive,” says Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan. “Which, in my view, mean’s that the jury’s still out.”
The official position
Despite years of research, it seems we still don’t really know for sure whether cell phones cause cancer. Many official agencies make it clear that no link has been proven, but they go out of their way not to rule it out.
FCC: The FCC says “there is no scientific evidence that proves that wireless phone usage can lead to cancer or a variety of other problems, including headaches, dizziness, or memory loss. However, organizations in the United States and overseas are sponsoring research and investigating claims of possible health effects related to the use of wireless telephones.”
CDC: The CDC claims “there is no scientific evidence that provides a definite answer to that question [Can using a cell phone cause cancer?]. Some organizations recommend caution in cell phone use. More research is needed before we know if using cell phones causes health effects.”
National Cancer Institute: The National Cancer Institute says that “studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck. More research is needed because cell phone technology and how people use cell phones have been changing rapidly.”
More health dangers from phones
“This is a snapshot of what we know now,” says Straif, adding “what we know now is not necessarily the full picture.” With tobacco, the only clear evidence early on linked it to lung cancer, but every time it was reassessed, additional cancer sites were added. This won’t necessarily be the case for cell phones, but it’s possible.
Brain cancer is not the only risk that has been associated with prolonged cell phone use. There have been studies linking it with tumors in salivary glands and thyroid glands. There’s increasing evidence of a link with neurological disorders and neurodegenerative effects, and it may negatively affect fertility. Some scientists have even suggested that the increase in cases of ADHD and autism could be related to the rise in cell phone use.
A growing number of people are also self-diagnosing electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which is associated with a long list of symptoms and supposedly triggered by proximity to cell phones and other electromagnetic fields. It’s not a recognized medical condition, and there have been double blind studies with positive and negative results.
Whether it’s a real condition or not, sufferers certainly believe it is real. Popular Science just ran an interesting piece on the town of Green Bank, West Virginia where there’s a growing electrosensitive community who’ve moved there because the town is in the heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone.
But the technology is getting safer, right?
“We know that with the new technology, the third and fourth generation, the exposure, in terms of non-ionizing radiation, has reduced by an order of magnitude,” Straif told Digital Trends. “The overall trend for exposure per minute has reduced since [the original studies, such as the Interphone study, which ended in 2006]. However, at the same time, probably the talk time on the phone for the average person has increased.”
“We have no indication that 3G or 4G is any safer and, in fact, the preliminary research on both suggests that it may be more harmful.” he says.
Part of the issue is that the standards that are currently in place to govern radiofrequency emissions were never designed with cell phones in mind.
“The current federal standards and international guidelines are way too high because they were only developed to protect against thermal effects, yet most of the studies are showing non-thermal effects,” says Moskowitz. “They clearly should be revisited. Many experts have called for such a review and that effort continues.”
You can check the SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) rating for your phone. Manufacturers have to publish this information publicly. Here is Apple's RF exposure data for the iPhone 6 as an example. It tells you about the amount of radiation being absorbed into your body when using the device.
[Note from Jean Hudon: It is interesting to mention that according to iPhone 6 SAR Nearly Exceeds Legal Radiation Limits for Simultaneous Rating (...) "HOW MUCH HEALTHIER COULD AN APPLE BE? For example, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 SM-N910V made for Verizon has an FCC measured SAR of only 0.20 W/kg (watts per kilogram), while an Apple iPhone 6 Plus exposes a user’s head to a whopping 1.18 W/kg. Seems rotten of Apple that an iPhone exposes a user to several hundred times more potentially harmful RF radiation. The most capitalized and most successful technology company in the world can’t compete with Samsung to build a lower radiation iPhone. They could if they wanted to!"]
Some countries are taking the threat more seriously than others. Belgium passed legislation that forces the manufacturer and retailer to prominently display the SAR value of each device. The country has also banned the sale or advertising of cell phones for children aged 7 and under. France recently passed similar laws including a ban on Wi-Fi in nursery schools and introducing restrictions in schools for children up to the age of 11.
What can you do if you’re worried?
“If you are concerned, and you want to take some steps to reduce your exposure, there are easy ways to do that,” says Straif. “For example, using a hands-free kit, which drastically lowers the exposure to the brain, or talking less over the phone.”
There are a few obvious precautions you can take if you want to reduce your exposure and risk, but they mostly amount to not using your phone.
- Limit the amount of time you use your phone
- Don’t keep your phone next to the bed at night
- Turn Airplane mode on or turn your phone off when you don’t need it
- Don’t carry your phone close to your body
- Don’t hold it to your head, use a headset for calls instead
“Reducing our exposure considerably is feasible and would probably do a lot to reduce the public health burden,” says Moskowitz. He has a one-page tip sheet offering more advice.
Future research and answers
“What we really need is better epidemiological studies,” says Straif. “Ideally cohort studies that go from the exposure to the cancer, instead of case control studies where we select people with cancer and controls, and try to assess their exposure retroactively. Such cohort studies could, for example, make use of the objective data from service providers about the usage of mobile phones, so we would get a much better picture of the actual usage. These studies are in the pipeline, but they take a long time.”
For some people that evidence can’t come fast enough.
“People love these devices. They’re great devices for a variety of reasons. People don’t want to believe that they could possibly cause them harm,” says Moskowitz. “The public health establishment in the U.S. is also in denial, but it’s just a matter of time before this issue comes back to bite us.”
Note : Jean Hudon is the co-founder of the Quebec's Coalition Against Electromagnetic Pollution and webmaster of cqlpe.ca and jegardemoncompteur.com