What is one thing you likely to never forget when stepping out of your home?
Yes, we are talking about your mobile phone. To say that the device has become an integral part of our life will be an understatement. With the world going more digital, the mobile phone too has transformed from a simple communication gadget to a smart device that has changed the way we live. Whether it is talking, texting, sharing e-mails, browsing the internet, playing games or staying connected on social media channels, the fact is we are spending more and more time using our mobile phones.
However, in the recent years, there have been growing concerns about the possible risk of developing cancer from mobile phone use.
Can mobile phone really cause cancer?
There is no simple answer to this question. For every study that confirms the hazards of using cell phones, there is another research that suggests that the results indicating any potential risks are not very conclusive and need further research. The mixed reviews make it complicated to determine the risks of using cell phones.
But why is there a safety concern in the first place? Why it is believed that mobile phones can cause cancer?
There are many reasons why the general user, as well as researchers around the world, are becoming concerned.
Cell phones transmit radiofrequency energy (radio waves), which is non-ionizing in nature. Since mobile phones are usually held near the ears, the most commonly exposed parts include the brain, head and the neck area. Our tissues – nearest to the phone antenna emitting these radiations – can absorb this energy.
The other kind of radiofrequency energy, that comes from x-rays and nuclear radiations, are known to cause cancer. But there is no current evidence that proves a solid link between non-ionizing radiations (from the mobile phones, radar, microwave ovens, etc) and increased cancer risk.
Another reason behind the growing worry is the rapid increase in the number of cell phone users. According to Statista, the online statistics portal, the number of mobile users all over the world are expected to cross an astounding 5 billion mark, by the year 2019. These growing numbers have raised concerns among health organizations all around the world.
What do studies say?
In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a department of the World Health Organization sponsored a Working Group comprising 31 experts and scientists to review a large number of previous studies. Based on the results, IARC classified the use of cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), findings of the IARC study don’t provide any strong evidence and require further investigation. At the same time, ACS recommends that people who are concerned about the risks can limit their exposure by taking preventive steps; such as using an ear piece and reducing their cell phone usage. Since there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding mobile phone safety, reducing the use among children is particularly recommended .
Cancer takes many years to manifest
Cancer takes years, and sometimes decades, to develop. Considering that the use of cell phones has only increased in the past 15-20 years, most of the population studies conducted so far have only factored in the short-term effects.
However, researchers around the world are relentlessly working to unearth the possible links between mobile phones and increased risk of brain tumors, cancers, neurological problems, heart diseases and metabolic disorders.
- A major peer-reviewed study led by the US National Toxicology Program and backed by the US Government found that rats exposed to mobile phone radiations were more susceptible to develop tumours in their brains and hearts; more specifically malignant gliomas of the brain, and schwannomas of the heart. While schwannoma is not a cancer, but a tumor, it can still damage the protective sheath surrounding the nerves – causing intense pain and disability.
“The increases were small (3-4 percent of the controlled sample), but since these are rare tumors, the findings are still significant. What makes these studies even more significant are the findings of similar tumours in humans,”, reports the Scientific American.
- According to a research by renowned Swedish oncologist, Lennart Hardell, MD, people using wireless phones for 20 to 25 years were almost twice as likely to get glioma – a type of brain cancer than is often fatal. The study further reported that the odds of developing glioma increased with years and hours of use.
The study made another disturbing observation; it shows the highest risk of glioma for people who started using mobile phones before the age of 20 . This finding has significant allusions because the rate at which children and teenagers have started using cell phones has increased considerably in recent years.
Mobile phone use carries more risk for children
Children and teenagers are at a far greater risk. It is because they are more vulnerable to the radiations from the mobile phones owing to their “small heads, thinner skulls and higher brain conductivity”, says Hardell . In addition, their nervous system is still in the developing stage, making them even more exposed to the health risks. This population, of children and teens, is also likely to accumulate more years of cell phone usage in their life time, as they have started early. This will lead to a continued exposure to the radiofrequency radiation over a longer duration.
The data on children is very limited. We are still looking for concrete answers and long-terms effects are still being investigated. But in the light of the recent findings, researchers believe that the current guidelines regarding cell phone use and exposure should be immediately revised.
Why take risks? While it is not possible to completely cut mobile phones from our lives, we can still limit our exposure by taking small, but effective steps in this direction.
Tips to minimize your exposure to radiation
- Limit the use of mobile phones; use a landline whenever possible
- Make short calls; text to minimize the talk time. Remember not to text while driving or walking.
- When talking or texting, hold the mobile phone as far away from your body as possible. Try using the speakerphone or a wired headset, but not a Bluetooth device that also emits radiation.
- Do not sleep with your mobile phone under your pillow.
- If you use your phone as an alarm, switch to a bedside clock; or put your device in the airplane mode.
- Avoid using your phone in areas with weak signals such as in elevators or a moving vehicle. Cell phones release the maximum amount of radiations when they are trying to connect to cellular towers.
- Do not allow children to use mobile phones except in emergency situations
- Avoid keeping mobile phone in your pockets.
- Don’t put the mobile phone to your ear until the call is connected
- If you need to make long calls, choose a landline whenever possible. If using a mobile phone, keep switching sides to spread out the exposure.
- Buy a device with the lowest possible SAR (Specific Absorption Rate). SAR is a measure of radio frequency absorbed by the user when using a mobile phone.
- Hardell L, Carlberg M. Mobile phone and cordless phone use and the risk for glioma - Analysis of pooled case-control studies in Sweden, 1997-2003 and 2007-2009. Pathophysiology. 2015 Mar;22(1):1-13. doi: 10.1016/j.pathophys.2014.10.001. Epub 2014 Oct 29.
- Otis Brawley responds to IARC Classification of Cell Phones as Possible Carcinogenic. American Cancer Society.
- Ronnie Cohen. Are wireless phones linked with brain cancer risk? Health News. Reuters. November 2014.