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The science is still out on whether the long-term use of cell phones—which emit electromagnetic radiation when they send and receive signals from towers or WiFi devices—can affect human health. But for people who want to reduce their exposure to this type of energy, the California Department of Public Health has published new guidelines on how to do just that.
The three most common brain tumor types — and the ones most cellphone and human health studies focused on — are gliomas (malignant tumors of the brain and spinal cord), meningiomas (mostly noncancerous tumors of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, though a small percentage are cancerous), and acoustic neuromas (noncancerous tumors on the main nerve that leads from the inner ear to the brain). Note that of these, gliomas are the main concern — they generally have more severe outcomes than meningiomas and acoustic neuromas.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people speculate, joke, or jokingly speculate that their cellphone might be giving them cancer. It comes from a very reasonable place of discomfort — few people understand how radiation works, we put our phones right beside our brains all the time, and technology in general often feels like it ought to be causing some sort of societal ill.
As to increases in brain tumors tied to cell phone use, it’s too early to tell due to a lack of hard data, says Dr. Carlo. “We’re never going to see that in time to have it matter. Here in the US, we’re six years behind in getting the brain tumor database completed, and currently the best data are from 1999. By the time you see any data showing an increase, the ticking time bomb is set.”
“We see either no change or very small increases in incidence in some tumor types,” Quinn Ostrom, the Baylor College of Medicine researcher who has been analyzing these cancer trends, explained. “I would be inclined to say this isn’t as much of an increase as you might expect if cellphones were causative [of brain tumors] due to the very sharp way use of these devices has gone up over the last 20 years.”
A cellular phone is basically a radio that sends signals on waves to a base station. The carrier signal generates two types of radiation fields: a near-field plume and a far-field plume. Living organisms, too, generate electromagnetic fields at the cellular, tissue, organ, and organism level; this is called the biofield. Both the near-field and far-field plumes from cell phones and in the environment can wreak havoc with the human biofield, and when the biofield is compromised in any way, says Dr. Carlo, so is metabolism and physiology.
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(Some common flaws in these studies: The summaries of the evidence weren’t comprehensive, the researchers often didn’t look at the quality of the studies they found, and they failed to do other simple things that would limit bias from creeping in. They also relied on case-control studies, a poor method to determine causality — more on that soon.) So we didn’t include these eight reviews in our analysis.
As a rule, modern medical equipment is well protected against exposure to radiowave radiation. Therefore, there is generally no need for concern regarding the effects of mobile phones on the normal function of the equipment. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Health recommends not to have a mobile phone in the immediate proximity (a distance of 30-50 cm from the portable medical equipment or from medical equipment implanted in the patient's body).
The only consistently recognized biological effect of radiofrequency radiation in humans is heating. The ability of microwave ovens to heat food is one example of this effect of radiofrequency radiation. Radiofrequency exposure from cell phone use does cause heating to the area of the body where a cell phone or other device is held (e.g., the ear and head). However, it is not sufficient to measurably increase body temperature. There are no other clearly established effects on the human body from radiofrequency radiation.