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Can Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

I know you've written before about potential health risks from cell phone use. I recently heard a report that sounds truly alarming about the cancer risk as well as other dangers. Is there new evidence?

Answer (Published 11/5/2009)

You may have heard about a recent report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for health-protective policies. The EWG reported on key studies (including some published from 2007 to 2009) that link radiation from long-term cell phone use with increased risks of brain and salivary gland tumors, migraines and vertigo, as well as behavior problems in children, including hyperactivity. Among the findings cited:

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  • An analysis of 25 earlier studies by two research groups showing a 50 to 90 percent increase in the risk of glioma, a usually malignant brain tumor on the side of the head favored for cell phone use in individuals who had used cell phones for more than 10 years, and a 60 percent increase in acoustic neuromas, benign but troublesome tumors of a cranial nerve among long-term cell phone users
  • A 50 to 60 percent increased risk of salivary gland tumors among people who used cell phones frequently.
  • A 10 to 20 percent increased risk of hospitalization for migraine and vertigo among long-term cell phone users.
  • An 80 percent increased risk for emotional and hyperactivity problems among young children who use cell phones and whose mothers used cell phones during pregnancy.

All of this sounds very alarming - and it isn't good news - but it is important to keep some of these numbers in perspective. When speaking in terms of a percentage increase in risk, bear in mind that if, for example, one person out of 100 is normally at risk of a brain tumor, a 100 percent increase in risk means that 2 people out of 100 would be at risk. It does NOT mean that as a cell phone user, you have a 100 percent chance of developing a brain tumor.

The EWG report maintains that current U.S. government radiation standards are outdated. It noted that in 2008, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging member countries to develop lower radiation limits for cell phones; no such steps have been taken in the U.S. Here, particular concern is focused on the amount of radiation that could penetrate a child's softer, thinner skull (roughly twice the amount that could penetrate an adult skull) and that long-term cell phone use starting in childhood could pose even bigger risks than those already documented. Experts in the U.S. and Europe have advised limiting youngsters' cell phone use.

I noted that the EWG check list for safe cell phone use is similar the safety tips I've been recommending for some time:

  • Save long conversations for conventional phones.
  • In your car, use a cell phone that has a remote antenna outside the vehicle.
  • Always use a headset and keep the phone itself away from your body.
  • Find out how much radiofrequency energy your cell phone emits. (This measurement is called the Specific Absorption Rate or SAR; find the SAR for your cell phone. The SAR permitted in the United States is 1.6 watts per kilogram.) The EWG also has a tool that may be easier to use to check on your phone's emissions.

To eliminate the most immediate danger of cell phone use to yourself and others, don't talk or text while driving.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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