IF cell phones can cause brain cancer, what can you do to prevent it?

A new alert about the safety of cell phones and the possibility that they might be associated with cancer (brain cancer in particular) has been reported by the World Health Organization (WHO). The statement comes from a panel of thirty-one scientists and has led to a flurry of reporters contacting me from around the country. So, what am I telling them … and more important, what will I be telling my patients tomorrow?

According to a report from the AP, the statement was “issued in Lyon, France … by the International Agency for Research on Cancer” (IARC) after a “weeklong meeting” during which experts reviewed “possible links between cancer and the type of electromagnetic radiation found in cellphones, microwaves and radar.”

The IARC classified cellphones in “category 2B, meaning they are possibly carcinogenic” to humans. The assessment now “goes to WHO and national health agencies for possible guidance on cellphone use.”

Now, before I get into the details of this new report, you may be asking (as are the reporters), “So, what’s the bottom line? What are you personally doing with this information? What are you recommending to your patients?” So, here are my recommendations:

  1. Recognize the risk is only a possibility. More research is needed. As Dr. Brawley of the American Cancer says (see below), “the evidence is enough to warrant concern, but it is not conclusive.”
  2. Realize that much of this research was done with older cell phones, which had much more radiation than more recent cell phones.
  3. Nevertheless, to be safe (as opposed to sorry), I continue to recommend, as I have in the past, using an ear piece or the cell phone’s speaker when talking on a cell phone as much as possible.
  4. When you cannot use an ear piece or speaker, hold the cell phone as far from your ear as you can. Even a quarter of an inch will dramatically reduce your brain’s exposure to the microwave energy.
  5. When you cannot use an ear piece or speaker, rotate the cell phone from ear to ear every 20 or 30 seconds, which will reduce each side of your brain’s exposure by 50 percent.
  6. And I recommend teaching your children to do the same!

Besides ear pieces, what about other devices, such as metal cellphone shields, that claim to protect users from cellphone radiation or reduce it?

I do NOT recommend them. Why? The FCC is skeptical of them.

“Studies have shown that these devices generally do not work as advertised,” an FCC official statement cautioned.

“In fact, they may actually increase radio frequency absorption in the head due to their potential to interfere with proper operation of the phone, thus forcing it to increase power to compensate,” the agency stated.

So, here are more details on this somewhat confusing new report:

The Wall Street Journal reported that the IARC working group did NOT conduct new research.

Instead, the panel reviewed existing literature that focused on the health effects of radio frequency magnetic fields. Its findings are slated to be published July 1 in Lancet Oncology.

The New York Times “Well” blog noted that the panel’s decision to “classify cellphones as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ was based largely on epidemiological data showing an increased risk among heavy cellphone users of a rare type of brain tumor called a glioma.”

Most “major medical groups,” including the National Cancer Institute, have “said the existing data on cellphones and health has been reassuring.”

However, earlier this year, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on research from the National Institutes of Health, which found “that less than an hour of cellphone use can speed up brain activity in the area closest to the phone antenna.”

The Los Angeles Times reported on a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology that found a “40% increase risk of gliomas for people who used a cellphone an average of 30 minutes a day over a 10-year period.”

The Orange County Register reported that the literature review also indicated “long-term or heavier use” of cell phones may increase risk for a “cancer type called acoustic neuroma.”

Bloomberg News reported that the most recent research “considered dated to 2004, and exposure levels from handsets have dropped over time,” said IARC Working Group Chair Dr. Jonathan Samet from the University of Southern California.

The age of the studies also means the participants “had used their phones for no more than 10 to 15 years, leaving open the question of the effect of longer-term exposure,” he noted.

On the CBS Evening News, Dr. Samet was shown saying, “The jury is not clear, it’s not an established carcinogen and for those who want to take steps to reduce their exposure, they can do it.”

WebMD reported that Kurt Straif, MD, PhD, MPH, head of the IARC Monographs Program, noted that the IARC currently lists “some 240 agents as ‘possibly carcinogenic,’ including dry cleaning fluid and some commonly used pesticides.”

Utah’s Deseret Morning News quoted IARC Director Christopher Wild as saying, pending the availability of long-term research, “it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices or texting.”

CNN noted that manufacturers of “many popular cell phones already warn consumers to keep their device away from their body and medical experts say there other ways to minimize” cell phone radiation.

Meanwhile, the National Journal reported that the American Cancer Society estimates that “gliomas account for about 1.3 percent of all cancers in the US.”

HealthDay noted that globally, an estimated “five billion cell phones are in use. ‘The number of users is large and growing, particularly among young adults and children,'” the IARC said in a news release.

Experts said children are especially vulnerable.

“Children’s skulls and scalps are thinner. So the radiation can penetrate deeper into the brain of children and young adults. Their cells are dividing at a faster rate, so the impact of radiation can be much larger,” Dr. Keith Black, chairman of neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told CNN.

Until this announcement, the WHO had said that cell phones were safe to use.

Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, said the WHO’s classification of cell phones “means that there could be some risk, but that the evidence is not strong enough to be considered causal, and needs to be investigated further. The bottom line is the evidence is enough to warrant concern, but it is not conclusive.”

Dr. Nagy Elsayyad, an assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Miami Sylvester Cancer Center, agreed, saying scientists don’t know much more about cell phone safety than they did before the WHO statement.

“They [WHO] indicate it is a possible, not a probable source,” he said. “But they still cannot come out with a positive conclusion.”

But, they are now concerned enough to call the cell phone a possible cause of brain cancer. So, my guess is that most folks are going to make some of the changes I’ve suggested above to reduce this possible risk … and to help their children do the same.

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