Are cell phones dangerous to health? A recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association stirred up concerns once again that cell phone use when held close to the head could potentially cause brain cancer from radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation emissions.
The article reported that handheld cell phone use increases neural function as measured by brain glucose metabolism. These changes occurred mostly in the region of the brain closest to the antenna and receiving most of the radiation. Nobody knows the implications of this effect, other than we now understand that cell phone radiation can alter brain metabolic activity and neurophysiology. The authors correctly conclude that this does not imply that cell phone use can increase the risk of brain tumors. This finding is of unknown clinical significance. But because it demonstrates that radio-frequency emissions are biologically active, it raises more questions than answers.
As to cell phone use causing brain tumors, review of the scientific literature gives mixed results. A large review of the relevant literature published in the journal Epidemiology in 2009 concluded that the overall data was insufficient to prove a causal association. For brain tumors such as malignant glioma, acoustic neuroma and meningioma, the study lengths were too short to make any conclusions since it may take many years for tumors to develop. The authors concluded that increased risk for any tumor of the brain, head or neck was not demonstrated within 10 years of cell phone use. In a more recent Swiss study, no association was seen in children after five years of use.
The strongest evidence of an association between cell phone use and brain tumors comes from studies conducted in Sweden between 1997 and 2004. These researchers found an association of increased incidence for malignant glioma and acoustic neuroma especially on the same side of the head the user most often held the phone. The highest risk was for those people with first use less than 20 years old and for those with greater than 10 years of use. Another separate major study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that the increased risk was reserved only for those with the heaviest cell phone use. The heaviest users had a 40 percent increased risk for malignant glioma.
The energy emissions from cell phones may also alter neurotransmitter and other neurochemical activities of the brain influencing emotions and other neurologic conditions. There are studies demonstrating that regular to excessive cell phone use, especially in children and young adults, is associated with anxiety, poor emotional stability, depression, fatigue, dizziness, sleep disturbances and headaches. These studies only show an association, not cause and effect.
In May 2011 the World Health Organization announced that it was classifying the electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell phones as “”possibly carcinogenic.”” But it acknowledges, as do virtually all researchers and organizations including the National Cancer Institute, that the evidence is inconsistent and insufficient to make any firm conclusions and that more research is needed.
Many authorities are particularly concerned about children whose brains are still developing and who may be more susceptible to the radiation exposure over a lifetime of use.
The most definite conclusion at this point is that the danger of distraction while driving is the greatest health risk to cell phone users and to others on the road. The data on this are clear. Studies have considered cell phone use while driving as the equivalent of driving with an alcohol level of 0.08.
Indiana should join the growing number of states that make cell phone use while driving illegal. We’ll sort out the risks of cancer down the road.
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