Have you ever wondered whether it is a healthy idea to hold your cell phone, a device that emits electromagnetic radiation, so close to your brain, face and neck? The International Agency for Research on Cancer [PDF] of the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on May 31, 2011 that the radiation emitted from cell phones might place a person at a higher chance of developing brain cancer. The announcement, detailed in a WHO press release, proclaimed that the radiation created by cell phones is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
WHO formulated the warning after a panel of 31 scientists from 14 nations scrutinized approximately 30 studies that explored possible connections between cell phones and various types of cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, scientists in countries all over the world performed studies throughout the 2000's to determine whether a link exists between cell phone use and cancer. From reviewing the results of such studies, scientists concluded that cell phone users have a slightly elevated risk of developing glioma brain cancer and acoustic neuroma tumors.
According to the Mayo Clinic, glioma brain cancer occurs when tumors known as gliomas develop in the tissues of the brain or spinal cord. Gliomas, according to the Society for Neuroscience, release harmful, excessive amounts of glutamate, a neurotransmitter. As these large amounts of glutamate come in contact with surrounding brain cells, the neurotransmitter kills the cells, thus destroying brain tissue. According to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, acoustic neuroma tumors are benign, or non-cancerous, tumors in the cells that line the auditory nerve located in the head.
Many of the studies that the scientists examined corroborated the notion of a relationship between cell phones and an increased chance of developing certain brain cancer. However, the scientists did not have solid proof to classify the electromagnetic radiation released from cell phones as being unquestionably carcinogenic because some studies did not show cell phones can raise one’s risk of developing cancer in the head and neck region.
One such study with results that disprove the possibility of cell phone radiation being carcinogenic is the Interphone study, which was performed by a group of researchers from 13 nations. According to the WHO, the Interphone researchers observed 2,708 cases of glioma brain cancer and 2,409 cases of meningioma tumors–benign tumors in the membranes that encase the brain. The researchers studied the health and cell phone usage of the study’s participants to determine whether a correlation between an individual’s exposure to cell phone radiation and one’s likeness to develop gliomas and meningiomas exists. These scientists concluded that a human’s cell phone usage does not increase his chance of developing cancers.
According to Lynne Zwart, M.D., a pediatrician who is currently observing at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and who has treated numerous cancer patients, “Since the 1990s, it has been thought that even very low-frequency electromagnetic fields may cause cancer. Because cell phones create electromagnetic fields, there is reason to believe that they might be carcinogenic to the brain, one of the vital organs with which cell phones come in close contact.”
The electromagnetic radiation given off by cell phones is referred to as “non-ionizing,” meaning that the radiation does not strip atoms of their electrons. According to the National Cancer Institute, tissues nearest to the phone’s antenna absorb the radiation released from a cell phone.
One 2009 study published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration demonstrated that when humans used cell phones for 50-minutes, glucose was metabolized more quickly in the brain tissues located in closer to the cell phone antenna than in the tissues farther away.
“The fact that non-ionizing radiation emitted by cell phones increases the glucose uptake in brain cells located close to the position of the cell phone further corroborates the claim that cell phones could indeed lead to brain cancer, since cell phone radiation changes cellular activity in the brain in this respect,” Zwart said.
As a result of the WHO’s announcement, several scientists have been urging cell phone users to change their behavior.
“I believe that you don’t necessarily have to cut down on your cell phone usage to prevent brain cancer. You could, rather, use a headset or the speakerphone setting when talking on your cell phone in order to avoid having your phone be in direct contact with your head,” Zwart suggested.
David Heger, a frequent cell phone user and father of three adolescents who own mobile phones, says that, despite the WHO warning, he continues to allow his children to use cell phones because they typically use their phones to send text messages. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, in 2009, 54% of teenagers ages 12 to 17 years old texted, whereas 38% of adolescents used their cell phones to make calls. The statistic of teenagers using their cell phones is expected to rise rapidly in the years to come.
“Though cell phone usage might pose a higher brain cancer risk for adults, who typically use their phones to actually talk, I believe cell phone usage is less dangerous to teens since they often use their phones simply for texting,” stated Heger.“Therefore, I don’t discourage my kids from using their cell phones.”