Davis: The effects of cell phones

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There are no studies that conclusively show that prolonged use of cell phones causes brain tumors or other ill effects, but a review of evidence done in the U.S. and a study done in Sweden point in that direction.

According to a May 2011 story on the Medscape web site, "After reviewing all the evidence available, the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) working group classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans," panel chairman Jonathan Samet, MD, chair of preventive medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine, said at a news teleconference. "We reached this conclusion based on a review of human evidence showing increased risk of glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, in association with wireless phone use."

The article goes on to say that, "In finding cell phones to be "possibly carcinogenic," the IARC means that heavy cell phone use might — or might not — cause a specific form of brain cancer called glioma. The finding means that research is urgently needed to find out whether cell phones actually cause cancer, and how they might do it." In a 2005 Consumer Affairs report, "A Swedish study finds that users of digital phones in rural areas may be at greater risk of brain cancer. Its authors say the link is troubling, although they acknowledge that the amount of data is small and wider research is needed to amplify the findings."

Common sense may not always be the best guide when it comes to drawing conclusions about the consequences of human behavior but, if I had to bet, I would wager that the world will be experiencing some sort of epidemic of brain tumors or other above the neck pathology in the coming decades. If a person holds a cell phone to their head for hours every day, common sense might tell you that the electromagnetic energy that radiates from the phones will make its way to a person's brain. The next question to be answered is, "What happens to the brain after years of such exposure?"

While the scanty research that has been done deals with the probability of cell phones causing brain tumors, there are other effects that these little devices might have. They generate heat and the brain and structures in the head can be affected by exposure to high temperatures. There is even some evidence that the electromagnetic energy may alter the structure of cells and genes. The research conducted by Dr. George Carlo and Martin Schram, who wrote a book about the effects of certain types of electromagnetic radiation is far ranging. A reviewer of their book noted, "One by one, alarming signs appeared in Dr. Carlo's research: that cell phones interfere with pacemakers, that developing skulls of children are penetrated deeply by the energy emitted from a cell phone, that the blood brain barrier which prevents invasion of the brain from toxins can be compromised by the cell phone radiation and, most startling, that radio frequency radiation creates micronuclei in human blood cells, a type of genetic damage known to be a diagnostic marker for cancer."

All of these studies really don't tell us much, but they do point to the need for more research to provide more conclusive information. Sadly, the best study may end up being done retrospectively when all of those people who develop brain tumors are studied in the coming decades. Then, of course, there is the politics of cell phone research. Cell phone manufacturers have become rich and powerful, rivaling the kingpins of the pharmaceutical industry. I doubt they would want to see any research that makes people use their products less, so you can be sure they will either stifle research or try to control research by offering to fund researchers.

The possible ill effects of cell phone usage is a topic that most people would rather ignore, but since this technology has become such an integral part of our lives we no longer have the luxury to wait and see what happens. If we do, we may merely look at troubling data about ruined lives that could have been protected if we were more proactive when we had the chance.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at rbdav@comcast.net.

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