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Cell Phones: Safe or Not?

The ubiquitous cell phone has become indispensable to all. Especially for the young, these devices are changing social interaction. They constantly use cell phones for texting, checking mail, searching the web, e-banking, e-commerce, taking pictures and tweeting.

In just 18 years, the mobile phone has evolved from an uncommon, expensive, unwieldy gadget to a convenient, sleek, smart all-purpose gadget forming a pervasive part of modern life. With its use exploding, the number of subscribers is expected to cross 7.3 billion this year – surpassing the world population, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Given this scenario, it becomes imperative to understand its effects on the human health.

Several research shows cell phones may be posing serious health hazards. Most users are aware of the risks, that may vary from germs, traffic accidents, electromagnetic radiation to serious health effects such as changes in brain activity and sleep patterns.

The world over, a certain widespread apprehension prevails among public that the use of handheld mobile phones may lead to malignant disease, especially brain cancer and, to a lesser extent, leukaemia (cancer of the bone marrow or blood). The anxiety is about potential harmful effects of exposure to radiofrequency-modulated electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs).

Of particular concern is the potential carcinogenic effect from the RF-EMF emissions of cell phones delivered to the brain. However, it is unclear whether acute cell phone exposure affects the human brain. Doctors and researchers express divergent views. Many of the studies so far have not found a connection between mobile phone use and cancer, but a few studies have established significant risk of brain tumors. Some scientists have classified RF-EMF fields as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’.

The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has advised caution about the potential dangers of radiation from RF-EMF.

Another study conducted at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, USA, found that the human brain is sensitive to the effects of RF-EMFs from acute cell phone exposures. The findings suggest that brain absorption of RF-EMFs may enhance the excitability of brain tissue, according to the research study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). A series of studies in Sweden has found links between cell phone use and brain tumours, particularly with its long-term use (10 years or more), and in those who began using cell phones before they attained 20 years of age. However, another large study in Sweden did not find an increased risk of brain cancer among people between the ages of 20 and 69.

Besides, the international CEFALO study, which compared children who were diagnosed with brain cancer between ages seven and 19 with similar children who were not, found no relationship between their cell phone use and risk for brain cancer. The multicenter case-control study was conducted between 2004 and 2008 in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland.

India-born physician and oncologist Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee recently said in New Delhi, ‘preponderance of evidence suggests that there is no link’ between radiation from mobile phones and cancer. The drastic increase in cellphone usage does not mirror incidence of brain cancer, neither is the radiation emitted by cellphones of the nature that can directly damage DNA, Mukherjee, Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, had written in an article in the New York Times.

But, Mukherjee also says the last word has not been said on the matter of cellphone radiation and cancer. The Interphone study has a serious recall bias – people did not always correctly recall the extent of their cellphone usage. He says there is a need to examine how radiation of that wavelength can be carcinogenic.

Though it may be early to connect cell phone radiation with cancer, users ought to be conscious about its prolonged use. Besides links to cancer, medical researchers continue to examine health risks associated with mobile phone use.

Cell phones have been found to be frequently contaminated with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (MRSA). Staph skin infections, including MRSA, can quickly turn into deep, painful abscesses. The bacteria might remain confined to the skin, or burrow deeper into the body, causing potentially life-threatening infections in bones, joints, surgical wounds, the bloodstream, heart valves and lungs. Indiscriminate placing of mobile phones anywhere can result in germs and bacteria being attached to it.

As public debate, based on various studies, on the possible negative effects of cell phone continues, users are growing exponentially. Conversely, corresponding research on hazards caused by extensive and prolonged use of cell phones does not seem to be keeping pace with its technological growth and applications. Intensive research is required to establish conclusive evidence on various risks, especially cancer.

This would help users understand the potential hazards and take effective measures in controlling its usage. Another grey area is the lack of adequate data on radiation from towers or base stations which are mushrooming. This could pose an even greater threat to people’s health.

The author is an independent journalist
K V Venkatasubramanian

K V Venkatasubramanian

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