Cells phones are now such an essential part of our daily technological arsenal that it’s almost hard to remember they started out as a luxury item. In the United States, 250 million people have cell phones, and worldwide that number jumps to five billion. That is a lot of people to be concerned about, considering we still don’t know exactly how cell phone usage might affect our brains — even though we’ve written many times before about the effects of cell phone radiation on brain tissue.
Now, a new study has proven unequivocally that the radiation emitted from cell phone antennas alters our brain activity. While these effects may not necessarily be harmful, it’s impossible to argue any longer that cell phone usage has no physical impact on brain tissue.
The research, which took place through the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, focused on the brain’s increased metabolism of glucose while using a cell phone.1 The 47 study volunteers underwent PET scans while holding cells phones to their heads that were either off or on but muted. The scientists discovered that more than 50 minutes of exposure to a cell phone that is on boosts activity in the area of the brain nearest the antenna by approximately seven percent.
The amount of electromagnetic radiation coming off of a cell phone is relatively small, but this study was designed to pick up even small changes in brain metabolism. And it leaves no question that the brain responds to the weak signals when they are in close proximity. Since it is only within the last 20 years that cell phone use has truly exploded, its long-term effects are as yet unknown, and the research performed to date is inconclusive as to exactly how much — and what kind of — damage we are causing when we use cell phones regularly.
And use them regularly we do. Especially the under-30 segment of the population, for whom cell phones are the primary means of communication. More and more people are giving up landlines and only using cell phones, which means that many of us are using our cell phones for a good deal longer than the 50-minute threshold outlined in the study as the point at which our brain activity reacts to the radiation exposure.
No one knows for sure whether this exposure can cause brain tumors or other abnormalities, at least in part because the vast majority of the studies on cell phone safety have been funded by none other than the cell phone industry. Nothing like an unbiased opinion, right? But even industry-funded studies have found significant increased risks of brain cancer and genetic damage, and that risk hovers around 20 percent for each accumulated year of cell phone use.
One of the few independent studies with no industry backing took place in Sweden a few years ago. Researchers there found that the risk of brain cancer increases by five percent for every 100 hours of use and that those who start using cell phones as teenagers increase their risk of brain cancer by 420 percent.2
The largest study on cell phone safety to date, the Interphone research, was bankrolled by the telecommunications industry. Not surprisingly, the researchers involved found no elevated risk of brain tumors except when cell phones were used at the “highest levels,” an amount they considered far-fetched in real life. In reality, the investigators on that research defined “regular use” as using a cell phone once a week for six months or more3 — not exactly the limits most of us have set for ourselves.
Many cancer specialists and neurosurgeons take precautions themselves with cell phones and recommend others do the same. Do some research and purchase a phone with low radiation emission; use a Bluetooth or other hands-free device such as a wired earbud with a built-in mic even when you’re not driving; don’t use your cell phone when you have a weak signal; limit the time your children use cell phones since they are more vulnerable to the radiation; use the speaker instead of holding the phone to your ear; and text instead of calling — but never when driving a car or working as an engineer on a train. These suggestions may not eliminate the risk, but will hopefully provide enough protection to keep our brains safe.
1 Volkow, Nora D.; Tomasi, Dardo; Wang, Gene-Jack; Vaska, Paul; Fowler, Joanna S.; Telang, Frank; Alexoff, Dave; Logan, Jean; Wong, Christopher. “Effects of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Signal Exposure on Brain Glucose Metabolism.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 23 February 2011. American Medical Association. 25 April 2011. <http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/305/8/808.abstract>.
2 Soderqvist, Fredrik; Carlberg, Michael; Hardell, Lennart. “Use of wireless telephones and self-reported health symptoms: a population-based study among Swedish adolescents aged 15-19 years.” Environmental Health Journal. 21 May 2008. BioMed Central Ltd. 27 April 2011. <http://www.ehjournal.net/content/7/1/18>.
3 Cardis, Elisabeth. “Brain tumor risk in relation to mobile telephone use: results of the INTERPHONE international case-control study.” International Journal of Epidemiology. 17 May 2010. International Epidemiological Association. 27 April 2011. <http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/39/3/675.abstract>.