The number of mobile phone subscribers in the Philippines has soared from over 22. 5 million in 2003 to over 57. 3 million in 2007. It continues to rise daily at a very fast clip, allowing us to maintain our dubious claim as the text capital of the world. On the other hand, statistics in the United States show just how deeply ingrained cell phones have become in people’s lives: Fully 78 percent of all American adults own them, including 86 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and 55 percent of those who are 65 and older. Overall, it is estimated that there are three billion cell phone users in the world.
Each time a cell phone user makes a call, it emits a low level of radiofrequency energy as the phone’s antenna generates radio waves that ultimately transmit people’s voices from one phone to another. The amount of radiation depends on how long a person stays on the phone, how he holds the phone to his head, and whether he uses it in the city or the country. Though studies are being done to see if there is a link between cell phone use and the development of tumors of the brain, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) has categorically said that there is no definitive link between the two.
So why does the controversy persist? Studies trying to link a behavior to an outcome are inherently difficult. Researchers typically ask people (who may, in fact, have cognitive impairment as a result of the brain cancer) to recall their cell phone habits. Brain tumor patients who know about the potential risk of cell phones may be more prone to what is known as recall bias, reporting using their cell phones at a higher rate than they actually did. And brain cancer itself is rare: According to the NCI, only one in 165 people are diagnosed during the course of a lifetime with a cancer of the brain or nervous system.
To put this into perspective, lung cancer is roughly 10 times more common. Cause For Concern On July 21 last year, the head of a prominent US cancer institute issued an unprecedented warning to his faculty and staff: Limit cell phone use because of the potential risk of cancer. The warning from Dr. Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, is contrary to numerous studies that have not found a link between cancer and cell phone use, and a public lack of worry by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Herberman based his alarm on early, unpublished data.
He said it takes too long to get answers from science and he thinks people should take action now. David Carpenter, director of the Institute of Health and Environment at the University of Albany, supported Herberman’s move. He said, “Society must not repeat the situation we had with the relationship between smoking and lung cancer where we waited until every “i” was dotted and every “t” was crossed before warnings were issued. He added that like messages that warn of health risks on cigarette packs, cell phones “need a precautionary message.
” Added Herberman, “Recalling the 70 years it took to remove lead from paint and gasoline, and the 50 years it took to convincingly establish the link between smoking and lung cancer, I argue that we must learn from our past to do a better job of interpreting evidence of potential risks. ” A driving force behind the Herberman memo was Devra Lee Davis, director of the university’s Center for Environmental Oncology. “The question is, do you want to play Russian roulette with your brain? ” she said in interview. “I don’t know that cell phones are dangerous.
But I don’t know that they are safe. ” One study that Herberman and Carpenter quote is a paper published last year by the Royal Society in London which found that adolescents who start using cell phones before the age 20 were five times more likely to develop brain cancer at the age of 29 than those who didn’t use a cell phone. “And it only occurs on the side of the head where you use the cell phone,” Carpenter said. However, some experts have labeled this study, and a similar one from Sweden, as “biased and flawed.
” Herberman emphasized that at the heart of his concern is that “we shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later, when it comes to our children. ” In that memo he sent to about 3,000 faculty and employees, Herberman said children should use cell phones only for emergencies because their brains are still developing. Adults should keep the phone away from their heads and use the speaker phone or a wireless headset, he said. He also warned against using the cell phones in public places such as a bus because it exposes others to the phone’s electromagnetic fields.
The Other Side In fact, other than the University of Pittsburgh, no other major academic cancer-research institution has sounded the same alarm about cell phone use. And certain members of the scientific community took exception to Herberman’s advice, “It’s important to not confuse exposure with risk,” says Peter Inskip of the NCI. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society (ACS), says, “The University of Pittsburgh exaggerated the risks. They were unnecessarily scaring people. Most of the scientific community was wondering what Herberman, with no expertise, was doing.
” For example, the NCI’s data show that overall, brain tumor rates have been steady. From 1987 to 2005, the rate of brain cancer has not increased despite the increase in cell phone users, from 110 million in 2000 to 208 million in 2005. In 2000, a multi-million-dollar study called Interphone began exploring the potential connections between phone usage and disease, looking at the habits of 14,000 people, half of them with cancers of the head and neck. Thirteen countries participated, including Australia, Canada, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Today, about 50 of these international researchers are still arguing about how to present the results from Interphone, some of them suggesting an association between cell phones and brain cancer, others do not. A 2008 University of Utah analysis looked at nine studies — including some that Herberman cited — with thousands of brain-tumor patients and concluded that “we found no overall increased risk of brain tumors among cellular-phone users. ” In 2007, studies in France and Norway concluded the same thing.
“If there is a risk from these products — and at this point we do not know that there is — it is probably very small,” the FDA says. Joshua Muscat of Pennsylvania States University who has studied cancer and cell phones in other research projects partly funded by the cell phone industry, said there are at least nine dozen studies that have found no cancer-cell phone link. And of course, the cell phone industry stands by the safety of its products. “The significant weight of the evidence demonstrates that radiofrequency energy in mobile phones poses no credible health risks,” says Motorola spokeswoman Paula Thornton Greear.
Says Joseph Farren of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association: “Our position is pretty clear. There is a consensus among the scientific experts around the world — the FDA, the National Cancer Institute, The World Health Organization — all of these organizations have reviewed the available data and have concluded that there is no link between adverse health effects and wireless use. ” Beating The Odds So, up to now, no one is really close to truly answering the question that was asked as early as 16 years ago: Are cell phones really safe?
The debate isn’t most likely to go away soon and that definitive study isn’t likely to get published in the near future. Meanwhile, here is what the experts are recommending that you do: • Minimize usage. As long as your mobile phone is turned on, it emits radiation that enables it to communicate with base stations. The radiation emitted, however is strong and more frequent when you’re talking or messaging. • Keep it out of your pocket. The farther you are from a base station, the more radiation your phone must emit to get a signal, which causes your phone to heat up when you have low reception.
Make calls only when you have strong reception, hang up before your phone heats up, and store your phone away from your body when it’s not in use. • Always use a headset. The electromagnetic waves emitted by handsets may affect your inner ear mechanics over time. Using a headset moves your mobile away from your ear. • Send a text instead. It’s actually a safer way to communicate. When you text, you hold you phone away from your body. This exposes yourself to less radiation than when you have the mobile to your ear. • Switch to Bluetooth. Use a Bluetooth headset; it emits only a minuscule amount of electromagnetic energy.