On Louisiana State University’s campus, people can be seen walking to and from class and work engaged in a myriad of activities. Most of these activities, aside from reaching a final destination, involve a cell phone. Whether that cell phone usage is for locating a classroom on campus, answering emails or texts, or jamming to a favorite song, most individuals have their cell phones in their hands. In today’s world, people are so attached to their phones that these small devices are practically third appendages. Before we go to bed we check our phones, at night our phones are right beside us, and when we wake up we check what happened on social media while we were asleep. This cycle never really seems to end. The question is; will this dependency on cell phones turn out to be like our dependency on cigarettes? We once believed that cigarettes had no adverse health affects. But once we became hooked on them and years passed, we discovered the harm that cigarettes can really do to the human body.
Photo Credit: Lessons from Happy Hour (http://www.lessonsfromhappyhour.com/wp/blog/2013/06/13/the-emancipation-from-my-cell-phone/)
According to the National Cancer Institute, cell phone use has skyrocketed. From 2000 to 2010, cell phone usage increased from 110 million users to 303 million users, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA). The CTIA predicted that cell phone use is at 5 billion users today. The use of cell phones has increased at an exponential rate, leaving people worried about the health risks associated with the increased use of this technology in their everyday lives.
A number of scientists have differing views on the subject. Some believe that cell phone use without a doubt has the ability to cause detrimental health effects, while others seem to believe the contrary.
According to James Geary, a writer for Popular Science magazine, humans are constantly surrounded by electromagnetic fields (EMFs), or areas of energy produced by electrically charged objects. Just as cigarette clouds follow smokers, imagine clouds of radiation following cell phones users. Geary classifies these EMFs in three groups. There is the extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation that is emitted from household appliances and power lines. Then there is radio frequency (RF) radiation from cell phones, home phones, televisions and radios, and ionizing radiation produced by x-rays, CT scans and nuclear bombs. Ionizing radiation is known to have the ability to cause detrimental effects on the human body such as headaches, tissue damage in the brain and cancer. ELF and RF radiation are classified as non-ionizing radiation, in other words, “harmless.”
Photo Credit (cancer.gov)
Ionizing radiation is so toxic because it is powerful enough to break molecular bonds resulting in cellular damage that can lead to diseases. John Boice, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and scientific director of the International Epidemiology Institute, says that cell phones emit non-ionizing radiation, which is all around us, so they cannot cause the cellular damage that leads to diseases. “We are bathed in a sea of non-ionizing radiation [on a daily basis],” Boice said. Just as cigarette smokers have a lingering scent of smoke on their clothes, cell phone users have radiation waves constantly trailing them.
However, James Geary says cell phones are safe because the EMFs (electromagnetic fields) are too weak to causes any damage on the human body. Geary says that the only health effect scientists have seen non-ionizing radiation have on the body is the minor heating of nearby tissue.
The National Institute of Cancer outwardly agrees with both John Geary and John Boice. Their website states that there is no evidence from studies on cells, animals or humans of a link between cell phone use and brain or other tissue damage. The National Institute on Cancer showcases a number of statements on the matter, from expert organizations. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) states that the weight of the scientific evidence has not linked cell phone use with any serious health problems. However, they do suggest that more research be done on the subject. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for the regulation of devices that emit radiation, states that no studies have reported a link between cell phone use and biological changes in the human body. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) states that there is no scientific evidence that proves cell phones can lead to cancer or other health problems such as for example headaches, dizziness or memory loss.
On the other side of the argument, many scientists and members of the general public do believe that cell phones have the potential to cause cancer in humans. So, how affected are students on LSU’s campus?
Igor Yakymenko, a scientist for the National University of Food Technology, writes, “These data are a clear sign of the real risks this kind of radiation poses for human health,” (Engel, pg.1). Yakymenko articulates that the radiation from your phone can add up over time and cause a range of health problems. These problems range from skin problems to headaches to cancer. Just smoking has the potential to cause health problems, Yakymenko says that years of cell phone use has the potential to build up in the human body and cause health problems years down the road.
In 2011, 31 scientists added cell phones to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on cancer (IARC) list of substances that are “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Cell phones sit on the list right next to gasoline and engine exhaust.
Some scientists including Siddhartha Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, are stuck in the middle of this debate. Mukherjee says there has never been a study that links cell phone use to brain cancer, nor one that ruled this possibility out.
The director of the IARC says, “It is important that additional research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones. Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices or texting.”
The director of the IARC states that scientific research on cell phone use and possible long-term health effects are currently underway. One study called COSMOS was launched in Europe in March 2010 to do just that. The study has approached 290,000 cell phone users ages 18 and older and plans to follow them for 20-30 years. Participants in the study complete questionnaires about their different lifestyles, health and cellphone usage. This information will be supplemented with information from health records and cell phone records. The study aims to follow participants for a range of health effects over many years and their cell phone usage to see if there is a positive correlation between cell phone use and health risks. Other research organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIEHS) are performing lab studies to try to find risks associated with exposure to radiofrequency energy (found in cell phones) and measure effects on rats.
There is no current research-based evidence that allows us to conclude that cell phones pose health risks to humans. That is not to say that new evidence will not come out to suggest otherwise, but, for the moment there should not be a concern about health risks associated with cell phone usage. It is important that more research be done on the subject to ensure that cell phones do not become the new cigarettes. For now my fellow students, enjoy your walk to class with your cellphone in hand. But, be sure to look up before crossing the road. Right now, evidence can only tell us that there is a greater chance of you hurting yourself from lack of attention to your surroundings than you getting cancer from texting.
Cell Phones and Cancer Risk. (n.d.). Retrieved November 16, 2015, from http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/radiation/cell-phones-fact-sheet
Charlie, W. (2011, July 28). New Study: Cellphones Don’t Cause Cancer. Mashable.com.
Engel, M. (2015, July 15). Cellphone radiation can cause cancer: Study. Retrieved November 19, 2015, from http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/cellphone-radiation-cancer-study-article-1.2308509
Geary, J. (2010). Disconnected: your cellphone does not in itself cause cancer. But in the daily sea of radiation we all travel, There may be subtler dangers at work, and science is only just beginning to understand how they affect you. Popular Science, (3). 54.