HomeOpinion & AnalysisCellphones and the risk of cancer

Cellphones and the risk of cancer


Michelle C Madzudzo

CELLPHONES have transformed the way we communicate, work and live, but even though they have made so many things so much easier, they are also associated with health worries. The supposed health risk from mobile phones is a story that never dies. Cellphones are alleged to cause brain cancer.

What type of radiation do cellphones use?

Phones emit radiation to communicate with mobile phone masts and radiation has always had a bad reputation, cancer mutations occur when ionising radiation  such as X-rays and gamma rays are used, but cellphones emit a form of non-ionising radiation called radiofrequency which does not have enough energy to break DNA and cause mutations which result in cancer.

When using a cellphone, tissues of the user absorb a part of this radiation, that is the caller’s hands, ears, scalp and brain. The closer the tissue is to the cellphone antenna, the more radiation is absorbed but this only results in tissue heating and the levels of energy given off by cellphones are much lower and are not enough to raise temperature in the body.

What does research say?

Because cellphones are usually held near the head when being used, the main concern has been whether they might cause or contribute to tumours in this area including brain, head and neck and in some cases skin and testicular cancer.

More importantly, there has been no evidence that cancers associated with cellphones are on the increase, the rates have stayed pretty stable over the last decade. If cellphones caused  tumours, you would have seen a lot of cancers of these specific  cases since mobile devices were invented.

In summary most studies published so far have not found a link between cellphone use and the development of tumours. Several international agencies based on available evidence have evaluated the cancer-causing potential of cellphones. These include:

  • the International Agency for Research on Cancer
  • Federal Communications Commission
  • Centres for Disease Control and Prevention
  • National Cancer Institute
  • Food and Drug Administration USA
  •  American Cancer Society.

In general, they agree that the evidence of a possible link is limited and more research is needed to look at possible long-term effects.

What can cellphone users do to reduce exposure to radiofrequency energy ?

Research is still underway, so in the meantime it is better to be safe than sorry. Why risk good health by using our smartphones in not so smart ways?

Since most Zimbabweans have nomophobia (the fear of being without one’s phone) we need to adopt the following ways to reduce exposure to cellphone radiation:

  • Text or use a bluetooth/headset/speaker phone instead of calling
  • Turn your phone off at night
  •  Never put your phone in the pocket or bra
  •  Use a defender shield case to cover your phone
  • Use your phone in conditions of optimum reception, not in confined spaces eg elevator, basement, caravan, underground station
  • Equip yourself with a mobile phone with the lowest specific absorption rate (SAR), the upper limit of SAR allowed is 1,6 watts per kilogramme of body weight
  •  Use landlines to make phone calls
  • Try to use your phone when you have the maximum number of bars indicating the best reception. When the signal is poor, your phone emits more radiation.

Risk remains

Still the lack of increased rates of cancers that are related to cellphone radiation suggests that if cellphones contribute to the risk of developing cancer, it seems to be minuscule compared to everyday risks we are happy to take.

My personal advice is that while research is ongoing to determine whether cellphones really cause cancer or not, limiting alcohol, doing away with smoking, maintaining a healthy diet and keeping active are the most effective ways to reduce cancer risk!

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