Cell phones are in the news again. The World Heath Organization says they may be associated with brain cancer. This immediately brings to mind a picture of people with aluminum foil wrapped around their heads (probably from an old “Saturday Night Live” skit). Many of us probably would get out the aluminum foil before giving up our beloved cell phones.
Is cell phone radiation worth worrying about or simply the Alarming Headline of the Week?
Finding out increased risk for any exposure, including cell phones, is all about the numbers. Really big numbers give us the statistical power to find even tiny risks. There are 4.3 billion cell phone users on the planet. That should certainly be enough to find some answers.
photo © 2010 yago1.com Yago Veith – Switzerland | more info (via: Wylio)One of the problems with the whole cell phone radiation-brain cancer debate is the use of the word “radiation,” which is used for anything from cell phones to Fukushima. Radiation from nuclear sources is ionizing radiation. This radiation breaks down DNA and is a known risk for cancer. Cell phones emit radiation of an entirely different type. Cell phones emit low-level microwave radiation which is non-ionizing.
You are surrounded by microwave radiation all day, and you practically can’t find a microwave-free place on the planet (maybe a really deep mine shaft, but that offers dangers of its own).
You probably heated your coffee this morning in a microwave oven, then drove to work listening to broadcast FM radio, which is a microwave signal. The GPS in your car works on a microwave satellite signal. Your computer could be hooked to a Wi-Fi network (microwave), and your Bluetooth mouse is also a microwave emitter. Your garage door opener uses microwaves as well as your satellite TV. Your cordless landline phone generates microwaves – all in addition to your cell phone.
If microwave radiation exposure was smoking, we would all be 100 packs-a-day smokers. At that level, it wouldn’t take three months to find a cancer risk. But interesting enough, the brain cancer rate is stable or decreasing over the last 30 years despite the enormous increase in microwave radiation.
The World Heath Organization came to its conclusion based on a small study by Swedish scientists. The study showed an apparent association between cell phone use and a brain tumor called gliomas.
This conclusion has generated tremendous controversy in the scientific community. To start, there is no theoretical basis for microwave radiation to cause tumors. We have a lot of experience with carcinogens, and they have mechanisms that make sense. They damage or modify DNA (the blueprint of life). Microwave radiation doesn’t affect DNA in any way known. So while the lack of a mechanism doesn’t disprove anything, it sure makes the scientific community question the finding.
Other studies, one involving 14 nations, found no increase in brain cancer from cell phone use.
Where do we go from here? One thing I know for sure: we can count on many more studies on this issue and a lot more conversation.