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Should you or your kids keep a cell phone pressed against your heads for hours?

By Joe Romm  

"Should you or your kids keep a cell phone pressed against your heads for hours?"

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No.

[Note: This post is slightly off-topic, but it is in response to a comment on an earlier thread. I hope it useful for my readers.]

I was asked on the previous radiation thread “Do you advise members of your family to take the train rather than fly? Get rid of their cell phones …?” and “What kinds of radiation do you consider dangerous?” Well, of course I advise people to take the train if possible. Even ignoring the issue greenhouse gas emissions, have you flown a plane recently? Indeed, by the time oil hits $200 a barrel, which may be just a couple years away, air travel will be both expensive and unpleasant.

The radiation people should worry the most about is ionizing radiation, “highly-energetic particles or waves that can detach (ionize) at least one electron from an atom or molecule.” Beta particles, neutrons, alpha particles, X-rays, gamma rays,and some UV — this is what most people think about when they worry about radiation. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about non-ionizing radiation, like microwaves or extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic radiation.

On the specific matter of cell phones, I don’t have to advise members of my family, since my cousin Louis Slesin, runs “Microwave News: A report on non-ionizing radiation,” which Time magazine has called “meticulously researched and thoroughly documented,” and Fortune magazine has called “the most authoritative journal on ELF fields and health.”

So, should your kids (or you) keep a cell phone pressed against the side of their heads for hours at a time? I wouldn’t and I don’t — and I won’t let my daughter when she grows up. You can get advice from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Based on Advice from an International Expert Panel. They note: “Electromagnetic fields from cell phones are estimated to penetrate the brain especially in children.”

“Model estimate of the absorption of electromagnetic radiation from a cell phone based on age (Frequency GSM 900 Mhz) (On the right, color scale showing the Specific Absorption Rate in W/kg).”

CNN’s medical correspondent interviewed a number of experts, including Slesin, and offer “5 tips to limit your cell phone risk,” which I excerpt:

1. Use the speakerphone

This was, without question, the favorite alternative of the experts I talked to….

2. Use a wired headset with a ferrite bead

No, this is not a piece of jewelry. A ferrite bead is a clip you put on the wire of a headset….

3. Use a Bluetooth earpiece

A Bluetooth earpiece still has radiation, but it’s at least 100 times less than the radiation you get when you hold a cell phone to your head…. [And don't keep it on your ear all the time since,] “when you’re not talking; it still sends out a signal.”

4. Use a “hollow tube” earpiece

It’s just like a regular wired earpiece, except the last six inches or so — the part next to your ear — is a hollow tube. There’s no wire under the plastic.

5. Get a phone with less radiation

Phone radiation is measured in specific absorption rate, or SAR. To look up the SAR for your phone, check CNET.com.

I would also recommend switching ears from time to time if you do have the phone pressed against your head.

I am fortunate in that I work at home, so I don’t need to use a cell phone very often.

You can choose to ignore the risks, of course, but from my perspective, I think the science is more than strong enough to raise concerns, and the measures needed to minimize risk are trivial.

For more information or to stay up to date on all things microwave, go to “Microwave News: A report on non-ionizing radiation.”

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8 Responses to Should you or your kids keep a cell phone pressed against your heads for hours?

  1. Larry Coleman says:

    Joe, I strongly disagree. There is no good evidence that ELF radiation causes any health problems. The Pittsburgh report does not report any evidence, nor do you. Because there is none. The Pittsburgh report is especially simple-minded as, for example, when it says that “Studies in humans do not indicate that cell phones are safe.” Well, of course not. Proving a negative is pretty hard, like impossible. This whole cell phone issue is a great example of an effect that stays right on the edge of detectability decade after decade, which is one of the standard hallmarks of a non-effect. Joe, file this one under “Cold fusion, N-rays, and such.”

  2. Joseph says:

    The data on this is not clear at all. See Orac’s take.

  3. Joe says:

    So you didn’t spend any time looking at the studies cited on Microwave News.

    Since this is off-topic, I’m not going to go any further. The literature is there for everyone to see and decide what risks they do or don’t want to try to minimize.

  4. Larry Coleman says:

    Yes, I looked at it. It is completely unconvincing. One has to remember that 1 in 20 studies will show significance at the 5% level when there is absolutely nothing there. This issue keeps going because people – especially journalists – are pulled in whenever the 1-in-20 study pops up. A similar case occurred about 20 years ago when a Swedish group looked for health effects of power lines and AC fields in buildings. They looked at about 150 (as I recall) correlations and found five, including childhood leukemia. This made a big splash. The researches violated one of the fundamental rules of epidemiology by looking at so many correlations. Doing that guaranteed that they would get a handful of “significant” correlations which makes their results meaningless. Cell phone studies have had the same problem: always at the margin of detectability, teased on by the 1-in-20 study.

  5. There’s a 13-country Interphone study, under the auspices of the World Health Organization, that is more than two years late but is expected to be the definitive study to date on this issue. Several countries in the study, including Israel, Australia and Sweden, have found statistically significant increases in cancer for people who have used cellphones for more than 10 years. This preliminary, though yet to be published data (though it will be), has led many jurisdictions (including the Pittsburgh cancer institute) to issue precautionary recommendations. The head of Interphone, Elisabeth Cardis, has also supported such precautionary measures when children are concerned, plus she is launching a second Interphone focused on children. Sure, if you do what the cellphone companies say and take the “body of knowledge” over the past 20 or so years, there is little evidence. If you take a slice of knowledge from the last two or three years, the trend becomes much clearer. What do the cellphone companies do? They dismiss these concerns by saying the problem is “recall bias” — i.e. anyone who has used a cellphone for 10 years or longer obviously has a problem remembering which side of the head they hold their phone on.

    Let’s remember: Most cancers don’t appear until 10-plus years out. That essentially means epidemiological studies done during the past 10 years are meaningless. Studies done before that are also meaningless because people didn’t use the phones long enough for it to matter — neither did children. Sure, if by 2020 the data is still inconclusive then maybe this matter can be put to rest. Until then, precaution is a wise approach.

    I’ve been chatting with Slesin for a couple of years now on this topic and he is spot on: this is a trend worth watching. Let’s all hope he’s proven wrong in the end.

  6. Larry Coleman says:

    For a view different from the previous one, see:

    http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/93/3/166

    Yes, the article is seven years old and is mostly about residential EMF, but the current cell phone claims are eerily reminiscent of that earlier issue. As noted in the article, however, Microwave News refuses to give up on the EMF claims despite a definitive study to the contrary, all of which calls into question its objectivity on cell phones.

  7. Peter Foley says:

    MIT is calling Joe, they want your diploma back. If there was a bit of truth to this– brain cancers would be shooting through the roof.

    Maybe tinhats(Faraday cages) will be be the latest fashion for fruitcakes.

    [JR: You're going need to come up with better evidence than that. Cancers take many many years to develop. I suggest that you stay tuned for the big study that is coming out at the end of this year.]

  8. Larry Coleman says:

    Yes, we all need to look at the evidence, which includes whatever the upcoming study reports. While waiting for it, we need to remember that it is rare for a single study to establish a correlation…unless the relative risk is at least 2 or 3. The smoking/lung cancer correlation has a relative risk of about 15, but most studies of cancer correlations are down around 1.3, which is what I am wagering will be reported in the upcoming study, if anything. If it is as large as 2.0, I will be very surprised because it would almost certainly have been demonstrated by now and would not require a large study to do so. In epidemiology distinguishing a large thing (lung cancer rates for smokers) from a small thing (lung cancer rates for non-smokers) is easy. What is hard is the far more typical need to distinguish a small thing from another small thing. The test of the objectivity of Microwave News will be whether they recognize this basic fact of epidemiology if the study shows a RR of less than 2…or whether they jump on any “significant result” coming our of the study and claim that the effect has been established. If they want credibility, they ought not over-interpret the result.