July 31, 2014
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6 cell phone safety wake-up calls

No doubt about it, cell phones offer convenience. Cell phones provide us with a virtual safety net of constant, instantaneous connection, tethering us to one another - and to emergency services - in times of need. But are there health and safety implications of being so super-connected so much of the time? Rather than go into a panic worrying about what-ifs, stay on the line for this guide to 6 cell phone health concerns.

Wake-up call: tumours and cancer

Your cell phone is actually not a phone. It's a two-way radio that emits low-powered radiation. Cell phones nestle against our ear, our cheek, and our chin, exposing us at very close range to radio signals. But does holding a radio device to our heads expose us to enough radiation to lead to tumours and cancer?

An extensive study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2009, analyzed data over a 30-year period and noted no significant increase in the number of people diagnosed with brain tumours. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reviewed and compiled a substantial quantity of scientific research on the topic and announced in May 2011 that radiation from cell phones is possibly carcinogenic to humans. These findings are based on the increased risk for glioma, a malignant brain cancer, associated with cell phone use. The WHO's classification means that there could be some risk - a positive association has been seen between glioma and cell phone use - but further research still needs to be done to rule out other factors that may have contributed to this positive link.

It's been hard to measure the impact of cell phone exposure, since it takes some cancers more than 10 years to develop, and the usage stats for the device have exploded in recent years. But some of the most current research available has managed to trace users over more than 10 years and has turned up a possible association between tumours and brain cancers. The heat generated by cell phones and the close proximity of the radio frequencies emitted by cell phones have also been suspected as a possible cause of tumours in the head and neck, in the salivary glands, for example. Because of inconclusive and conflicting research, many health experts encourage caution.

Wake-up call: child safety

The better-safe-than-sorry approach especially applies to children's cell phone use. A child's smaller, still-developing brain, softer tissue, and thinner skull could make them more vulnerable than adults to penetrating radiation. Couple this with the fact that today's kids use cell phones more and more often and at younger and younger ages, and the threat to their health could multiply. Many advocates promote limiting use as a precautionary measure.

Wake-up call: impaired driving

It's little wonder that several US states have imposed bans on cell phone use while driving: Driving while using a cell phone can cause impairments comparable to those caused by drunk driving. And that's with either handheld or the supposedly safer hands-free version. Turns out, the lack of attention may be a bigger problem than not having your hands available. When you're involved in a phone conversation, your attention is split between listening, formulating responses, speaking, and the road in front of you.

Wake-up call: dirty dialling

British researchers smudged cell phone reputations worldwide when they released the results of their swab testing of the wireless devices. All of the accumulated heat from the phone, our skin, our mouths, and the pockets, pouches, and purses in which we stash phones can create a breeding ground for bacteria that can cause everything from the common cold to a staph infection to meningitis. But don't push the panic button just yet! The presence of the bacteria doesn't necessarily lead to an infection. Regularly wiping down the surface of your phone will keep it clean enough.

Wake-up call: sleeplessness

Certainly, an annoying ring tone or the content of a phone call could keep you awake at night, but cell phones specifically may cause sleeplessness. In one sleep study, when participants were exposed to wireless signals for three hours, it took them longer to fall into a deep sleep than another group exposed to no signals. Some also reported headaches. And you may be able to blame cell phones for cranky teenagers. Excessive cell phone use has been found to make teens more prone to restlessness and disrupted sleep.

Wake-up call: infertility

As cell phone minutes increase, sperm count decreases. So says research from the journal of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Compared to other men, those who chat on their phone for more than four hours a day had a lower average sperm count and fewer viable sperm. Though there may be a connection, the same researchers continue to investigate whether electromagnetic radiation is the cause of the dip in sperm production or if lifestyle and occupational factors may affect men's output.

Common sense cell phone safety

  • Use cell phones only when absolutely necessary. Use a landline when you can.
  • Distance yourself from your phone. Even a few centimetres between your body and your phone can diminish risks. Try hands-free devices, like earpieces or the speakerphone function.
  • Try an earpiece phone, such as ones that use Bluetooth technology. These emit much less radiation than a regular cell phone held to your ear.
  • Shop around for a phone with less radiation. Guides to cell phone radiation by brand are available online.
  • If you're a parent considering getting a cell phone for your child, keep in mind the health and safety concerns for younger bodies. Also, keep in mind that most cell phones do a lot more than just make phone calls. Think about whether your child is ready for the responsibility of owning a phone, a camera, a wireless internet connection, and a text messaging system. And think about how tricky it will be to monitor their use of all of those tools.
  • If you're in your car and you simply must make a call, pull off the road to a safe spot to have your conversation.
  • Set a cell phone curfew so your sleep will not be affected.
  • To put some distance between you and your phone, don't carry your phone in your pocket or on a belt clip.

Amy Toffelmire


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