Over the past few decades, the rapid influx of personal cell phones into our daily lives has prompted a debate over their safety which runs on and on. There is barely a single person in the developed world who does not carry a mobile phone; in fact, the number of mobile devices is set to exceed the world's population this year, according to a recent report from Silicon India. The report cites a recent study by International Telecommunications Union which predicts that, by the end of this year, the total of cell phone accounts worldwide will rise to 7.3 billion, greater than the global population of 7 billion.
No wonder that cell phone safety is such a hot topic when our environment is literally teeming with them, assaulting our bodies with a daily dose of their own particular brand of radiation. The specific type of radiation emanating from mobile devices is known as radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation, or RF-EMR for short. Various peer-reviewed scientific studies have been conducted into the physical effects of RF-EMR, suggesting that it can produce mental disturbances, fertility issues and a risk of brain tumors.
A 2009 study conducted by Australian scientists measured the effects of RF-EMR on human sperm. The sperm samples were subjected to cell phone radiation overnight, and the next morning it was apparent that they had been significantly affected. The sperm were weak and barely able to move, and researchers discovered that their DNA had also been damaged.
"These findings have clear implications for the safety of extensive mobile phone use by males of reproductive age," the authors wrote.
A review of a series of 2003 experiments conducted by researchers in Spain concluded that there was considerable evidence to suggest that cell phone radiation had a host of harmful effects. The report, published in BMJ Open, stated that:
"The [RF-EMR] exposure variable remained statistically significant" for a host of symptoms, from lack of appetite to irritability."
These and similar studies have been contested by critics, who claim that the findings have been misinterpreted.
"Studies on the health effects of mobile phones are very complex, and interpretation of the results necessitates understanding and careful consideration of various aspects including the timing of the study, the exposure variables of relevance, and the influence of methodological limitations," wrote Elisabeth Cardis, of Spain's Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Cardis proposed that she had found 15 instances where the same study had been interpreted to support totally opposing theories.
"Some have taken them to suggest that mobile phones are safe, others that they cause tumors," she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remains skeptical of any suggestions that RF-EMR causes cancer, stating that studies which link cell phones to tumor development "do not establish this link definitively."
A similar view was expressed by physicist Bernard Leikind, who, in a recent issue of Skeptic, wrote a blistering put-down of those scaremongers who claim that RF-EMR can cause brain cancer.
Leikind accuses most researchers of trying to get the cause to fit the effect, and even when the results were inconclusive, extending the studies in an attempt to achieve the results they were looking for. He even goes as far as to suggest that the slight increase in inflammation detected in some studies was actually beneficial, stimulating our natural immune function, and that therefore cell phones could actually help to prevent cancer!
It is not clear how Leikind's theories correlate with an article published by Cancer Research UK, which clearly states the link between increased inflammation and cancer development. The article states:
"Our body’s immune system forms a defensive shield that any fighting force would be proud of. One of its most powerful weapons is inflammation, a carefully orchestrated manoeuvre designed to eliminate enemies such as bacteria, injured cells and chemical irritants. But inflammation has a split personality – one that can wreak havoc for those unfortunate enough to experience it. And we now know that inflammation’s dark side is a powerful force in cancer development, where it aids and abets tumour growth and spread around the body."
It goes on to suggest that chronic inflammation is not only at the root of many diseases such as pancreatitis and Chrohns' Disease, but could also increase an individual's risk of cancer. So, it is not a huge mental leap to assume that a daily dose of inflammation from your cell phone could work in the same way, although studies have so far failed to prove this conclusively.
Cancer Research still consider that there may be a risk, and report that, in 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified mobile phones for the first time in their 'gold-standard' rating system, rating them as 'group 2B' - indicating that they could 'possibly' cause cancer in humans.Their website cites one study that did discover a raised risk of one rare type of brain tumour (acoustic neuroma) in women who had used mobile phones for over five years, though the researchers conducting this study think this result could be down to chance, because they investigated many different types of cancer.
Of course, it would be extremely bad for a mega-business - remember that there are 7.3 billion devices worldwide - if it was established beyond any doubt that cell phones were harmful. One could imagine then that there are a lot of companies with a vested interest in promoting the safety of cell phone usage. It must also be remembered that these forms of communication devices have been with us for a relatively short space of time, and it may need further time and research before their negative - or positive - effects can be convincingly established.
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