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Dr. Bob: The adverse effects of cellphones

April 23, 2018 GMT

Almost from the inception of the cellphone, there have been concerns of certain forms of cancer and other health problems from the use of these so-called mobile devices.

The three primary concerns center around the radio frequency energy (radio waves), a form of non-ionizing radiation, from their antennas passing through tissues of the human body. The number of cellphone users, as of June of 2016, is more than 352 million, and the amount of time users spend each day using these devices has increased.

Radio-frequency energy is a form of electromagnetic radiation classified as ionizing (X-rays, radon, and cosmic rays) and non-ionizing (e.g., extremely low frequency, or power frequency). Electromagnetic radiation is defined according to its wave length and frequency. These frequencies are called hertz.

The energy of electromagnetic radiation is determined by its frequency; ionizing radiation is high frequency and hence high energy, whereas non-ionizing radiation is low frequency, therefore low energy.

Boy, I am glad we got that all straight and figured out. Now for the rest of the story. Electromagnetic fields on the radio-frequency range are used for telecommunications applications, including cellphones, televisions and radio transmissions. The human body absorbs energy from these devices.

Exposure to ionizing radiation, such as X-rays, is known to increase the risk of cancer. However, exposure to non-ionizing radiation from radar, microwave ovens, cellphones and other sources have yet to show an association with increased cancer rates.

The only consistently recognized biological effect of radio-frequency energy is heating. The ability of microwave ovens to heat food is an example. Radio-frequency exposure from cellphones does cause heating to the area of the body where the phone is held (ear, head, etc.) However, it is not sufficient to measurably increase body temperature, and there have been no clearly established health effects on the body.

In a small study, the association of brain glucose metabolism was examined after the use of cellular devices. While one study showed a reduced level in the area of the antenna, the other showed just the opposite.

Radio-frequency energy, unlike ionizing radiation, does not cause DNA damage that can lead to cancer. The only consistent finding is that of tissue heating. In animal studies it has not been found to cause cancer or to enhance the cancer-causing effects of known cancer causing chemicals.

In February, an intensive technical report summarizing the use of cellular devices was made available to a peer review committee. Peer review is a critical part of the scientific process to ensure that research findings are meaningful, accurate and appropriately interpreted. The National Institutes of Health is awaiting this review.

Now to an unpleasant cellphone truth. Cellphones are killing thousands of people each year. Not from cancer, but from inappropriate use.

We have all been behind the car that wanders all over the road, can’t stay in the correct lane or is going too fast or slow for conditions. We all know it — cellphones and driving do not mix, however, many of us ignore this important message at our peril.

Several studies, including one by our own University of Utah, show that using a cellphone while driving is actually worse than driving drunk. Other studies document the use of cellular devices as a reason for school failure, divorces as well as other important social problems.

If you are having trouble realizing how addicted we are to our cellular devices, just think about the last time you left your house without your cellphone? I bet you went back to get it. How many miles did that involve? I rest my case.

I guess this technology is like so many other things. Used correctly, they are incredible devices. Incorrect use, however, represents a clear danger.