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Could Your Cell Phone End Up Killing You?

A new debate is raging over whether prolonged cell phone use poses serious health side effects.
 
 
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In the debate over cell phones, there doesn't appear to be any consensus on what, exactly, the harmful health effects on cell phone users may be. Unfortunately, the scary truth is that no one knows the full extent of problems caused by these must-have consumer electronics, because they've only become ubiquitous in recent years.

Nevertheless, at least one group of people who has been using cell phones longer than the rest of us has started to draw some connections.

In an extensive piece on cell phone health hazards in this month's issue of GQ, a 35-year-old investment banker who five years ago was diagnosed with a brain tumor just behind his right ear -- where he presses his phone -- said that his industry has, "been using cell phones since 1992, back when they were the Gordon-Gekko-on-the-beach-kind-of-phone." The banker said four or five colleagues at his firm also have similar tumors.

Indeed, health experts say many often miss the fact that it can take anywhere from 10 to 30 years for brain tumors to develop from exposure to all kinds of electromagnetic radiation, including the kind from cell phones.

But it doesn't always have to take so long. LeBron James, the 24-year-old star basketball player for the Cleveland Cavaliers had a benign parotid tumor removed in June last year. While the cause of his tumor is undefined, radiation is likely to be the culprit -- and cell phone use may be, too.

Both benign and malignant tumors of the parotid, a salivary gland, have long been linked to ionizing radiation including X-rays and gamma radiation following environmental exposure. (Nagasaki and Hiroshima survivors are one example.) And in a widely cited 2008 study, parotid tumors have been linked to cell phone use.

The report includes some stats that are enough to make even the most ardent addict consider dropping his or her iPhone or Blackberry. If you've used your cell phone regularly for five years, your chance of having a parotid tumor is increased by 34 percent. If you've had more than 5,479 calls in your lifetime, your chances are upped by 58 percent. For folks who live further from big cities, prospects are even dimmer -- your chances of getting a parotid tumor are increased by 96 percent if you have a lifetime exposure of more than 1,035 hours. (While you might imagine living in a big city exposes you to more cell phone radiation, in rural areas, cell phone towers are further apart so mobile phones have to emit higher levels of radiation in order to communicate with the nearest antenna.)

Of course, not everyone is on board with the idea that mobile phones are bad for you. The forthcoming Interphone study, a massive decade-long, 13-country epidemiological study of tumors among users of mobile phones, is expected to be less alarmist than the parotid tumor study. The problem with that study, however, is that its $30-million price tag is being footed by none other than the wireless industry. And the study is getting more expensive as it's been fraught with delays, reportedly caused by the researchers' inability to reach consensus.

In anticipation of what seems like the study's impending release, the International Electromagnetic Field Collaborative released a report (PDF) last year criticizing the presumed results of the Interphone study. The methodology is flawed, says the IEFC, because it excludes, among other things, cordless phones, children and young adults (presumed to be among the more vulnerable demographics, due to faster cell growth and thinner skulls), certain kinds of tumors and interviews with deceased and too-sick patients.

In the IEFC report, 43 scientists from 13 countries also reviewed evidence linking cell phone use to brain tumors. Among the studies cited was a sobering Swedish one that found a 420 percent higher risk of brain cancer among people who had started using cellular or cordless phones as teens. Older analog cell phones, which are now mostly out of use, were found to increase cancer risk by 700 percent .

But cell phone risks may not be limited to cancer. The group Electromagnetichealth.org, based at Columbia University, has argued that cell phone use creates cognitive problems, damages DNA and causes infertility in humans. The group's experts, which include physicians, scientists, environmental health experts and epidemiologists across the globe, also say that cell phones cause navigation problems for wildlife, particularly migrating species such as birds and bees.

Faced with damning reports from the scientific community, the Senate held a hearing on the dangers of cell phone use last September. In San Francisco, forcing cell phone retailers to label their products as hazardous has support from the mayor and health activists. And for over a year now, in France, marketing and designing cell phones for minors under 18 has been illegal. (The law was prompted by the aforementioned Swedish study that detailed the heightened risks for youths.)

It's clear that going forward, we'll be hearing a lot more about this issue as a top public health concern. But what's a regular person to do right now? What with electrical appliances, computers, Bluetooth devices, Wi-Fi, GPS receivers and over 2,000 satellites orbiting our planet in outer space -- to mention but a few examples -- electromagnetic pollution surrounds us all the time, even if you live in the middle of nowhere.

The IEFC recommends people use corded landlines whenever possible (a difficulty for those among us who've abandoned their landlines for the convenience of cell phones). They also recommend using cell phones as answering machines -- turning them on to check for messages and returning calls only. Carry your phone in a purse or bag, not on your body. Don't use your cell when you're inside a building or car because your phone will have to emit increased levels of radiation to send out the signal. Relying on text messages and non-wireless hands-free devices may also reduce health risks.

Some or all of these recommendations are not practical for many of us, particularly in a society where we are expected to be wired and easy-to-reach at all times. But the way it's starting to look, cell phones may be the tobacco of today. By the time we finally get the message that we should kick the habit, it may be too late.