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Health Matters

Concerns raised about cell phones

Conway McLean, DPM, Journal columnist

Society has changed dramatically in recent years and has done so very quickly. Technology especially has had a tremendous effect on every aspect of our lives. Try as you might to avoid the effects, it cannot be escaped. One electronic device that has altered completely how we communicate, as well as how we live, is the cell phone.

Our mobile phone has become an essential part of our daily existence. Few of us would dream of leaving the house without it. But are there dangers to holding an electronic device against our ear for a large part of our day? Perhaps you’ve not thought about this, but many have. What are the health consequences of this technology, which is constantly receiving and producing radiation, being held mere inches from your brain, and sometimes for hours on end.

Cell phones emit radiofrequency radiation (radio waves), a form of non-ionizing radiation, from their antennas. Simply because you don’t feel this radiation, and can’t see or hear it, in no way means these emissions are harmless. Many respond by emphatically declaring our government protects us, and wouldn’t allow this technology to be sold if it were dangerous. According to official sources, the current safety limits for the amount of exposure from cell phone radiofrequency energy are acceptable for protecting the public health.

The radiation emitted by cell phone is referred to as radio frequency energy, aka RF. According to the National Cancer Institute, there is insufficient evidence that mobile phone radiation increases cancer risk in humans. So is there no cause for concern? There may be since some impartial studies have demonstrated cell phone radiation can indeed cause genetic damage and increase the risk of cancer. And not just brain cancer, but also salivary gland, thyroid, bone cancer and more. Fertility may be affected, with concerns of damage to fetuses, damage to sperm, and an increased risk of miscarriages.

What of the visual wavelengths produced by the screen? Concerns have been raised that smartphone light may lead to permanent damage. Smart phones and other handheld devices all transmit light. It appears the blue light component may be harmful to your eyes. Scientists have discovered the blue light emitted from your device has the potential to lead to macular degeneration. This happens to be one of the leading causes of vision loss in the US. It does so by damaging the eye’s retina.

I won’t do any more than mention another topic, one also relevant to the dangers of mobile phone use. Texting while driving. Enough said. Then there’s the neurological, psychological, and emotional changes that can be produced by being constantly “plugged in”, viewing all manner of content. Although apparently now the norm, conversation between people is unnecessary since texting friends and family is preferable, at least to some recent generations.

The Federal Communications Commission regulates cell phones, amongst many other things. They have set radiation standards for cell phones at 1.6 watts per kilogram averaged over 1 gram of tissue. This is a well-defined and a limited amount of radiation which can be easily measured.

A noted scientist recently revealed the studies which established these levels were based on tests on rats. Brain anatomy and function are very different in humans, which makes it hard to extrapolate these results to humans. Medical experts not associated with the research say that, yes, there are dangers to human health from the repeated and routine use of cell phones and other mobile devices.

Is there conflicting evidence? Reporters from a national newspaper performed a study using accredited lab technology which mimic human tissue. They tested the radiofrequency radiation emitted by various models of popular cell phones and found most of the phones exceeded the legal limit set by the FCC. A recent study found good evidence linking brain tumors and use of hand-held phones. Just months later, a long-term Danish study contradicted those results, finding no solid association.

What are the biologic consequences of RF radiation? Essentially, it operates in some way as a microwave cooks food. This invisible energy can heat tissues. Organs, like the eyes and testes, are particularly vulnerable because there’s not enough blood flow to cool them down. If RF radiation is absorbed by the body in large enough amounts, it can produce thermal effects, such as alterations in DNA, and even cell destruction.

Although nearly impossible to isolate, we at least know that cancer rates have increased since the advent of universal mobile phone use. Over that period, the standardized incidence of cancer increased from 384 cases per 100,000 persons in 1982 to 490 cases per 100,000 in 2016. Certainly, a factor in this is our greater longevity. Researchers estimate about two-thirds of the increase is because we are living longer. If this theory is accurate, what of the remainder?

Cancer is among the leading causes of death worldwide. In 2018, there were 18 million new cases and 9.5 million cancer-related deaths worldwide. By 2040, the number of new cases per year is expected to increase to 29 million and the number of cancer-related deaths to over 16 million. Between 2010 and 2020, we expect the number of new cancer cases in the US to rise 24% in men, and 21% in women. Can we say with any certainty it is not due to cell phone use? To many, it seems only logical.

Experts opine perhaps we should not be so quick to blindly accept the official declaration that cell phones are safe. Government agencies, including the FDA, are extremely influenced by industry. Many have concluded the information provided by these sources is often manipulated in favor of industry. There is no question, cell phones emit radiation. Perhaps the question should concern the possibility that low-level radiation builds up over time.

This is not the occasion to discuss the consequences of cancer, but we can talk prevention (always a better and healthier approach). What can be done to reduce one’s exposure? Various practices have been developed to limit unnecessary exposure, and perhaps that is all that’s necessary. Naturally one of these techniques is to reduce your use; unplug from your device whenever possible. Also, carry your phone away from your body as much as you can. A loose pocket is better than a tight pocket.

The basic concept seems to be keep it away from you. The farther from your brain and body the better. Putting your cell on speakerphone or using a headset is recommended. When not using the phone, keep it on airplane mode. And don’t sleep close to your phone. As to the safety of Bluetooth technology, a headset using an actual cord is better (although newer phones don’t even have this option).

Numerous concerns on this issue have been raised of late. The FCC and the FDA were asked to reassess their guidelines for radiation from cell phones yet, despite strong evidence, they refused to change. And now the country looks to embrace the next technological advance, certain to expose more people to even more RF radiation, 5G coverage.

Do we know enough about the long term consequences of this energy, with chronic, repeated exposure? Are we to suffer greater ills from this technology, more than already perhaps we do? Our science is, as of today, unable to provide definitive answers. Or, some would say there are those possessing such knowledge, and they choose not to say.

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, with a move of his Marquette office to the downtown area. McLean has lectured internationally on wound care and surgery, being double board certified in surgery, and also in wound care. He has a sub-specialty in foot-ankle orthotics. Dr. McLean welcomes questions or comments at drcmclean@outlook.com.

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