Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Is Your Cell Messing with Your Cells? The health effects of mobile phones

21st century technology is pretty amazing stuff. Over the past year we have explored a number of tech-topics (from solar power, to graphene, to Moore’s Law) that underscore just how influential new innovations can be on our day to day living. The drawback to all these new gizmos is that we are effectively living in a giant, uncontrolled experiment with respect to the health effects. Technology is moving forward at such a fast pace that we often adopt things as a normal part of our lives before we fully understand what impact those things can have on us. All you need to do is look at ads like this one from the 50’s, marketing the wonderful health benefits of using beauty products containing radium (the radioactive element that killed its discoverers) to understand that we often get ahead of ourselves when it comes to new science.


One topic that is beginning to attract some attention is whether or not cell phones are giving us brain tumors. Mobile phones are so convenient and so increasingly useful that we haven’t even begun to consider if they might not be too good to be true in the sense of safety.  In 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer unhelpfully told the world that the radio frequency fields emitted by cell phones were “possibly carcinogenic.” But the science remains unclear.


First off, the radio waves emitted by your cell phone are not even close to the same thing as the fallout from an atomic bomb, so you can put that out of your mind right now. Nuclear bombs, X-rays, and radium infused beauty products all emit “ionizing radiation.” That means that the energy they give off shakes up the atoms in your body enough to knock some electrons off of them. This creates atoms with a different charge than they usually have and wreaks havoc on things like DNA. Cell phones give off “non-ionizing radiation” meaning that the energy will still shake up your atoms, but your electrons will generally remain intact


Therein lies the first problem with the “cell phone mutating our brains” hypothesis. Based on what we know right now, there isn’t a mechanism for them to cause cancer. That means that pretty much any study you hear about looking at cell phones and cancer is relying hugely on correlation. That is to say, the researchers are looking at how often two things occur together and trying to make guesses about one causing the other. This can be a useful method when there are no other options, but it can also lead you to conclude that global temperatures are rising because the number of pirates in the Caribbean has declined dramatically since the 1700’s.


Even still, the correlational data from studies on cell phones isn’t entirely clear. One Danish study looked at over 400,000 cell phone users and found no evidence of increased cancer risk (Johansen, et al. 2000). Another study from Israel looked at cancer rates in a small community located very near to a cell-phone transmitter station and found cancer rates over 10 times the national average (Wolf & Wolf, 2004). Especially worrying, if you are a fan of healthy sperm, research from Hungary has linked cell phone use to deficient motility (AKA poor swimmers) (Zavaczki et al., 2005).


The only thing we can say with any degree of confidence right now is that excessive cell phone use probably isn’t a good idea. A number of studies, including a French one published a few weeks ago, have suggested that while normal use may or may not cause problems, using your phone for at least 30 minutes per day over a period of several years can triple your risk of brain tumors. Researchers compared high-intensity users (ex. people working in sales) to normal users and the results were bad news.


If you’re worried about your phone scrambling your brain there are a few things you can do. Don’t make unnecessary calls that last a long time, send text messages (who doesn’t love texting?), and use your speaker phone option to keep the phone’s antenna away from your grey matter. It might be a few years before we find out the truth about the health risks of constant connectivity. In the mean time, it might be an idea to use your head... Just in case you're inadvertently cooking it.


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great explanation-you may find this interesting as well:
http://vitalforcetechnology.scarabmedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/EMF-FINAL-Whitepaper-5-29-14.pdf

Sketchy Science said...

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Nicholas Henry said...

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