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Q. Dear Umbra,

Everybody has a cell phone and I’m afraid they aren’t very sustainable. The fossil fuels used to make cell phones, to power them, and to put satellites into space boggles my mind. With upgrades every year or so, phones are multiplying exponentially. That concerns me — but what I want to know from you, Umbra, is this: Are we really sure cell phones are even safe to use? I have a Blackberry Pearl, and it seems like I have a headache every time I’m done using it.

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Richard S.
New York, NY

cat on phoneCat got your phone?Photo: Jennifer PredigerA. Dearest Richard,

Wondering if your cell phone can affect your body’s cells, eh? I’m happy to put my phone down to investigate. Truth be told, I, Umbra Fisk, have a very intimate relationship with my phone — it is an alarm clock, pocket watch, video game console, map, and connection to friends, family, and colleagues.

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I’m not the only one so chummy with a gadget, it seems. Cell phone technology has made its way around the world over the last 10 years. It’s used by 272 million Americans (according to a cell phone industries trade group, Cellular Telecommunication & Internet Association). We know cell phone distractions while driving are not good for people’s health, as demonstrated by the driver who was tweeting and went careening off a cliff. (For my health and yours, NO texting while driving.)

As for long-term impacts of cell phones, they’re more complex to decipher. Buried in the fine print of your phone’s manual, you will likely find a warning like this one: “When using the iPhone near your body for voice calls, keep it at least 5/8 of an inch away from body.” Blackberry manuals say to keep an in-use phone 2.5 cm away from your body. But why?

Cell phones emit microwave radiation. When held up to your head, your brain absorbs radio frequency radiation, which can damage DNA. Small adults and children absorb more radiation than people with average and larger sized heads, where radiation reaches two times further into the brain. So why aren’t warnings featured more prominently on cell phones and packaging? A story in The New York Times explains it this way:

If health issues arise from ordinary use of this hardware, it would affect not just many customers but also a huge industry. Our voice calls — we chat on our cellphones 2.26 trillion minutes annually, according to the C.T.I.A. — generate $109 billion for the wireless carriers.

Dr. Devra Davis, founding director of the toxicology and environmental studies board at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and author of Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family writes:

Everything is fine until we have incontrovertible proof that it is not. Yes, we do not have an epidemic of brain tumors in countries that have used cell phones heavily for little more than a decade. But 10 years after cigarettes began to be heavily smoked, we also did not have an epidemic of lung cancer.

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission’s take on radio frequency exposure is, “If there is a risk from these products — and at this point we do not know that there is — it is probably very small.”

Not everyone agrees with the FCC, including Leeann Brown of the Environmental Working Group, which published a science review of cell phone radiation in the fall of 2010: “The FCC needs an update on the most recent science. They are using decades old research for a lot of new technology.” She added, “There’s more than enough evidence for us to rethink our cell phone habits.”

Because it’s a new technology, effects over a lifetime of use are unknown. Brown notes, “Early, short-term studies did not find an association between cell phone use and increased risk of brain cancer or other health problems. However, more recent, longer-term studies (which looked at cell phone use over 10 or more years) have found that frequent cell phone talkers have a higher risk of developing certain types of brain and salivary gland tumors on the side of the head where they tend to hold the phone.”

What’s more, other studies associate cell phone use with greater risk of migraines, vertigo, Alzheimer’s disease, and decreased sperm count.

The good news is with some changes in habits, cell phone users can chat much more safely. Author Ann Louise Gittleman rethought her habits after being diagnosed with a salivary gland tumor she attributed by constant cell phone use. In her book Zapped, she says, “Keep phone calls short: One study showed that just after a two minute cell phone call, the brain’s electrical activity can be altered for at least an hour.”

What else can you do to protect yourself when someone just calls to say “I love you”? Here’s a guide to help reduce your exposure to cell phone radiation:

  1. Make a call before taking a call and use a lower radiation phone. Find out the safety of your phone here. Check out the smartest smart phones with less radiation here.
  2. Use a headset and hold the phone away while you talk.
  3. Carry your phone in a backpack, purse, or man bag. Keep it out of your pocket and off your body.
  4. Talk less and listen more. (A good rule to apply to life in general.)
  5. Text more, talk less — as texting requires less radiation.
  6. Don’t sleep with your phone next to your head. Get a non-phone alarm clock.
  7. Encourage kids to text instead of talking on the phone.

Thanks for calling this one, Richard! TTYL.


Get off your ass alert:

  • Consider turning off your phone when running errands: You will be more present to the world around you and the people in it.
  • Learn more about the impacts of cell phones: “Some electronics, like smart phones and laptops, contain heavy metals like cadmium, beryllium, hexavalent chromium, or arsenic, which have been shown to build up in our bodies and the environment,” notes Annie Leonard in the “Story of Electronics”. Minerals used to make cell phones are frequently mined in war zones like the Congo, contributing to conflict.

    Findings from a 2010 study in Panjab University in Chandigarh, India linked cell phone radiation to the decline in bee populations.

  • Help spread the word about cell phone safety: Share this story with friends! And get involved with the Campaign for S
    afer Cell Phones