If you’re like me, you’ve come to regard your smartphone as an appendage. My favorite use of my phone is to replace my memory lapses with instant gratification: Who’s the guy who appears with Steve Coogan in those British “trip” movies—the one who created a tiny voice-in-his-throat “man in the box” that sounds like a ventriloquist who’s swallowed his dummy? Google, google: Rob Brydon. Voila! (If you’ve never seen him, I recommend his offbeat humor and his movies with Coogan.) But I’m veering off-topic.
Because I tend to catastrophize, I occasionally worry what all that zapping with radio frequency radiation is doing to my body—and specifically my head. So I took notice in December when the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued guidelines on “How to Reduce Exposure to Radio Frequency Energy from Cell Phones.” (Note: there is a link, but it doesn’t seem to work. However, If you Google the title, the article comes right up.)
To be sure, this issue has been around for years, and there’s certainly no consensus among scientists that cellphone use is dangerous, as the CDPH acknowledges. However, a press release on the topic quoted Dr. Karen Smith, the CDPH Director: “Although the science is still evolving, there are concerns among some public health professionals and members of the public regarding long-term, high use exposure to the energy emitted by cell phones.” (Here, too, the link didn’t work. But the press release is titled “CDPH Issues Guidelines on How to Reduce Exposure to Radio Frequency Energy from Cell Phones.” On cdph.ca.gov, it’s dated December 13, 2017.)
If there is a risk, no matter how small, it could affect many people. Roughly 95% of Americans own a cellphone today, and 12% (myself included) use their smartphones daily to access the Internet.
The greatest concern involves children, many of whom start using smartphones by the age of 10 and keep them with them all day long. “Children’s brains develop through the teenage years and may be more affected by cell phone use,” according to Dr. Smith, who encourages parents to consider limits on their kids’ cellphone use and definitely turning them off at night.
Although it’s worth reading the 3-page article, which also links to other information sources, here, verbatim, is a summary of the CDPH safety guidelines as they appeared in the press release:
—Keeping the phone away from the body
—Reducing cell phone use when the signal is weak
—Reducing the use of cell phones to stream audio or video, or to download or upload large files
—Keeping the phone away from the bed at night
—Removing headsets when not on a call
—Avoiding products that claim to block radio frequency energy. These products may actually increase your exposure.
I’m aware that many highly reputable researchers (without industry ties) emphatically reject the notion that cellphones pose a danger, noting that the amount of radiation from cellphones is extremely limited—and that it has actually decreased in recent years.
There have been numerous studies: most (but not all) have found no clear evidence of a relationship between cellphone use and cancer, though a National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet, “Cell Phones and Cancer Risk,” notes that “researchers have reported some statistically significant associations for certain subgroups of users.” It doesn’t elaborate on those subgroups at that point, but elsewhere refers to a study that found increased incidence of glioma, a virulent malignant brain tumor, among study participants who spent the most time on cellphone calls.
But the NCI also points out the problems that lead to inconsistent findings with regard to whether cellphone use does or does not increase risk of cancer, such as recall bias (how accurately participants report critical details); inaccurate reporting; participation bias (self-selection among those who sign up for such studies, eg, they’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or they used cellphones frequently); and other variables. (https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/radiation/cell-phones-fact-sheet.) So it’s tough to do a really good, reliable study.
A thoughtful article on this topic appeared in The Atlantic in 2017: “Do Cellphones Cause Brain Cancer or Not?” Prompted by Senator John McCain’s diagnosis of glioblastoma, author Adrienne LaFrance writes: “For years, researchers have explored whether cellphone use can increase a person’s likelihood of getting cancer. And for years their findings have been mixed—and in many cases controversial. The consensus, if there is one, is the health risks of regular cellphone usage are probably quite small, if they exist at all. But it’s hard to prove a negative, so the question remains open-ended.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/07/do-cellphones-cause-brain-cancer-or-not/534303/).
And many researchers continue to seek answers. Several large studies are now under way. The UK Imperial College London is involved in what LaFrance calls a “highly anticipated study” that covers five European countries, exploring the potential impact on health of long-term use of cellphones.
The NCI Fact Sheet also refers to the COSMOS study, begun in Europe in 2010, which plans to follow its roughly 290,00 participants, who were at least age 18 when they enrolled, for 20 to 30 years. We can only hope that these large studies can somehow avoid the pitfalls of earlier research yielding contradictory findings and truly advance our knowledge of this important issue.
In the US, the National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health has been engaged in studies of rats and mice “to help clarify any potential health hazards, including cancer risk, from exposure to cell phone radiofrequency radiation, and to better inform protection for public health.”
A draft of the reports’ partial findings was released in February, 2018. It found “low incidences of tumors in the brains and hearts of male rats (but not females).” Although the animals were exposed to frequencies and modulations used in the US for calls and texting, they received this radiation in abundance: in 10-minute on/off increments that totaled slightly more than 9 hours a day—from before birth through the age of two.
There were also findings of tumors in other organs at the exposure levels studied (brain, prostate, pituitary, and adrenal glands, liver, and pancreas), but the researchers termed these findings “equivocal”—not clearly linked to the radiofrequency exposure.
John Bucher, PhD, the NTP senior scientist on the study, pointed out that because the animals’ exposure far exceeded that of even the highest levels of human usage, no direct extrapolation to human health should be made. However, he observed that “the tumors we saw in these studies are similar to tumors previously reported in some studies of frequent cell phone users.”
In March, the findings underwent peer review. If you really want to get into the weeds and see how the panelists viewed the strength of the evidence on each of the findings concerning carcinogenic activity (“clear,” “some,” or “equivocal”), go to Actions from Peer Review of the Draft NTP Technical Reports on Cell Phone Radiofrequency Radiation March 26-28, 2018. The final reports are expected to be available in the fall of 2018.
In view of all the confusing studies, what is a prudent course? LaFrance reports that greater use of text-messaging and video-calling, which keep the phone a distance from the person’s head, may reduce health risks. She adds: “Because the data linking cellphone use and cancer is so murky, consumer health advocates say people should make regular use of hands-free calling options to reduce exposure to radiation; and carry their phones in a pocketbook or on a belt clip” rather than next to their bodies or in a pocket.
And she quotes a caveat from Consumer Reports writer Jeneen Interlandi: “This is particularly important when the cellular signal is weak—when your phone has only one bar, for example, because phones may increase their power then to compensate.” (https://www.consumerreports.org/cell-phones/what-the-cell-phone-brain-cancer-study.)
My intention here is not to make everyone anxious; the data are not at all clear or persuasive that our ubiquitous cellphones are a health risk. And I’m aware that I’m simply touching the surface on a highly technical and controversial issue. But enough legitimate sources are urging us to take a thoughtful inventory of our cellphone use that I felt it was worth bringing this information to your attention.
I am especially focused on the potential impact on children. And so is the American Academy of Pediatrics. In “Cell Phone Radiology & Children’s Health: What Parents Need to Know,” they write: “Children are not just little adults; their growing minds and bodies make them uniquely vulnerable to the effects of the environment around them, including cell phone radiation. Because technology is being adopted by children at younger ages than ever before, it’s even more important to investigate if cell phone usage is a health hazard.”
AAP supports more research and limiting cellphone use for children and teenagers, and offers safety tips comparable to the ones included in this posting (as well as emphasizing not texting while driving and being careful about texting or talking on the phone while walking or doing other activities).
For my part, while I have no intention of giving up my beloved smartphone, I have begun adopting some of the CDPH guidelines and other suggestions. I now use my home phone whenever I can while I’m in the house; I put my smartphone on speaker mode when talking (though I have to make exceptions for some friends with hearing difficulties who somehow find it less clear); I text more often than I had previously (Verizon must be happy about that!); and I place my smartphone far away from me when it’s charging overnight. When I don’t need the alarm, I turn the phone off completely.
What about you? Did this posting bore the hell out of you or annoy you, or did you find it useful and helpful? Has it raised further questions you’d like me to [try to] answer? Are you unmoved by what you’ve read—or are you considering changing what are probably now ingrained habits of use? If the latter, how ready are you to do that—and which one(s) seem most doable? And of course, if you have particular expertise or knowledge of this topic, please do share it with us.
I look forward to your comments. If the “Leave a Reply” box isn’t visible, click on the title above (“Should We Get Smarter With Our Smartphones?”), and it will appear–at the very end, below previous comments.
Note: I found the responses to my posting “About Cats, Dogs, and Preconceived Notions,” thoughtful and interesting, and I’ve replied to each one. I hope if you haven’t read them, you’ll take the time to do so. Click on the posting title, or the yellow word “comments,” and scroll down below the text; two that appeared under “Greetings!” are also worth a visit. In addition, I’ve added an ADDENDUM to that posting to describe the journey my photos took—unbeknownst to me until I stumbled on them elsewhere in cyberspace.