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Mobile phones may cause cancer, says the WHO. What to do?

You don't have to wear a tinfoil hat to suspect that heavy mobile phone usage isn't beneficial to your health

Cell phone radiation might possibly cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization, which until Tuesday has said there were no health risks. Its International Agency for Research on Cancer has now tied mobile phone radiation to an increased risk for glioma brain tumors.

The judgment doesn't stem from new research. Instead, a panel of 31 scientists from 14 countries including the United States spent a week poring over existing studies.

They added radiofrequency electromagnetic fields to a long list of "possibly carcinogenic" agents, including coconut oil, DDT, gasoline exhaust, lead, talcum powder, and titanium dioxide, as well as some types of HIV and HPV viruses.

Ionizing, solar, and ultraviolet radiation, by contrast, are classified as "carcinogenic." The next level of concern is "probably carcinogenic." Wireless phone radiation falls into the third of five ranked categories.

The CTIA wireless industry trade group quickly responded, stating that the classification "does not mean cell phones cause cancer." The FCC and FDA also maintain that there's no evidence to blame cancer on cell phones.

However, most scientists agree that there's no verdict on whether mobile phones threaten health. Because cell phone radiation is non-ionizing--unlike radiation from nuclear fallout or X-rays--conventional wisdom has held that the only way it harms tissue is when a device overheats. At the same time, few experts say with certainty that using a two-way microwave radio close to your body is absolutely safe, either. After all, humans at the core are electromagnetic creatures, so why wouldn't electromagnetic radiation affect us?

The WHO panel looked at research including the results of the decade-long Interphone study, which generally failed to connect brain tumors with cell phone usage. However, the panel noted that one study tied 30 minutes or more of talking on a mobile phone each day to a 40 percent rise in glioma tumors over 10 years. A February study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that cell phone radiation changed brain chemistry by raising glucose levels.

Watchdog groups accuse the wireless industry of essentially turning the world's 5 billion users into guinea pigs. That includes Devra Davis, an epidemiologist who founded the Environmental Health Trust and wrote the book "Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation." She suggests that many patients of rare brain tumors also happen to be heavy cell phone users--like Sen. Ted Kennedy, who died in 2009.

It doesn't exactly reassure the public that in protesting San Francisco's move to require cell phone radiation labels, the CTIA moved its annual conference to Florida this year.

Given the current state of evidence, though, the only surefire way to turn a mobile phone into a killing machine is to pay more attention to it than the road while driving.

Nevertheless, if you prefer to exercise caution, these common-sense tips to reduce your radiation exposure won't harm productivity or make you look like a hypochondriac.

1. Use a Headset

You'll get far less radiation exposure from a headset than from a phone pressed to your ear. Check out these Bluetooth headsets that fared well in PCWorld's tests. Another option (behind closed doors, please) is to use your speakerphone. If that's not possible, follow the manual. Apple, for one, suggests holding an iPhone five-eights of an inch away from your head.

2. Keep the Phone at Arm's Length

Would-be parents might be wise to keep smartphones out of pockets or belt holsters, since reputable studies connect frequent cell phone usage with a decrease in sperm count and quality. For obvious reasons, there haven't been lab tests exploring how cell phone radiation may affect developing fetuses. But if you're pregnant, you're already avoiding tuna and soft cheese, so why risk holding a phone close to your belly?

3. Text, Don't Talk

There's less radiation involved in text messaging than in making a phone call. (Just don't text while walking, since bumping your head will hurt you faster than any wireless radiation might.)

4. Turn It Off

Even if you check work e-mail at midnight, there's little need to keep your phone turned on 24/7. (The science may be fuzzy on mobile phone radiation, but it's clear that stress and sleep deprivation harm your health.) Instead of keeping the handset by your pillow for a wake up call, use a dedicated alarm clock.

5. Keep That Charger Handy

When the battery is running low or you're in a low-signal area, the phone works overtime and may expose you to more radiation.

6. Look for Phones with Low SAR Levels

I have mixed feelings about offering this advice. Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) levels are supposed to tell how much radiofrequency energy a body absorbs from a device. Yet these labels are not like calorie counts on a TV dinner. The level isn't necessarily what you get when chatting, texting, or playing an app on a given phone. Each of those activities involves constantly varying levels of power and signal strength. The FCC explains more about what SAR levels mean. That said, CNET frequently updates its list of the highest and lowest-radiation phones.

6. Keep Cell Phones out of the Hands of Children

If non-ionizing radiation affects adult brains in ways we still don't fully understand, it's likely to affect children even more. Their skulls and brains are still developing, so don't treat a cell phone as a toy. If you're letting your toddler play with it anyway, at least turn it off or shut off the signal.

7. Don't Believe the Hype About Radiation-blocking Products

Countless ads hawk devices meant to protect your body from electromagnetic frequencies (EMF). However, there's no conclusive evidence that an EMF medallion or sticker will work as advertised or even work at all. In fact, some of these products can force a phone to do more work and emit more radiation to make up for a blocked signal.


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