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Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
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We Don’t Know About Cell Phones

There are 276 million cell phones being used in the United States. I last wrote a full column about health concerns from these EMF (Electro-Magnetic Field) devices five years ago (“Be Smart With Your Cell” in issues of May 7, 2005). We still don’t know much, and that’s a problem.

We’re surrounded all day long by electromagnetic radiation. Our homes are saturated with radio waves, especially if you’re typing a newspaper column on a wireless laptop, wireless keyboard, wireless mouse and wireless printer, like some of us right now. Not far from me is the wireless remote for the television. Cell phones are different, though, because many of us are holding them next to our brains, again and again throughout the day.

We know that in certain doses some forms of ionizing radiation (nuclear, X-rays, some types of tanning salons) can heat and damage tissue and cause genetic defects. We’re talking about much lower level emissions that seem benign. We really don’t know what happens when a cell phone is used intensely over the course of years, especially if you’re a child with still-developing cells that are more sensitive to changes.

I don’t think there is universal or immediate danger. We’re talking about risk factors. There have been scientific studies linking intense, close and lengthy cell phone exposure to brain bleeds, tumors, ADHD and diminished learning abilities in children and other problems. Some of the findings contradict each other (cell phones cause drowsiness says one study; cell phones cause sleeplessness says another).

Meanwhile, an even larger number of studies finds no correlation between cell phone use and human health problems. Critics point out that it could take 20 years for some types of tumors to manifest themselves in a population, and only a few studies have followed subjects over 10 years, since cells came into widespread use. Many conclusions have been based on surveys, and some people just  misremember details about when and how they’ve used their phones. The science has been hindered by a lack of major studies in the United States. So far, America is sitting this one out.

Other countries won’t wait years for science to come up with a definitive conclusion, especially in a situation where pregnant women, newborn babies and children may be particularly vulnerable. A year and a half ago, the European Parliament declared, by a vote of 522 to 16, that current limits on exposure to electromagnetic fields “are obsolete.” The EU urged member countries to adopt stronger safety standards. Public health agencies in France, Russia and Israel have issued stern health warnings about intense cell phone use, especially by children and teenagers.

We don’t know if cell phones are dangerous, and we don’t know if they’re safe. We may not know for years. Take precautions, and teach your children to take precautions.

Radiation strength decreases significantly as the signal moves away from you, so keep active cell phones away from your body as much as possible (use the speakerphone or a wired headset). If you have to hold it up to your head, vary the side you use. And don’t keep the thing in your pants all the time, pal. If you feel your child should have a cell phone, insist that it be used only occasionally or, even better, for emergencies only. Don’t put it against your ear, sweetie.

Right now, only 19 out of 100,000 Americans will be diagnosed with a brain tumor over the course of a typical year (the risk goes up as you age). However, there have been increases in the number of benign brain tumors, and we don’t know why. Leukemia is now the leading cause of death for children under the age of 14, and we don’t know why. Some people get dizzy or disoriented if they talk on a cell phone too long, and we don’t know why, but we need to find out.

Set down common sense rules for you and your children. You teach your children not to hang their heads out of the car on the Expressway. You can set rules about cell phone use, too.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: