Are Cell Phones Cooking Our Brains?

Quick, of all the electronic, radiation-producing devices invented in the past century, which one do we most keep pressed against or near our brain, ears, eyes and body for countless hours of each day, seven days a week, all year long? If you’re a cynic, you probably thought of hearing aids, right? But the answer is cell phones, smarty pants.

It would take volumes and years to examine and debate the profound effects cell phone technology have had on our culture, even well beyond the impact on human communication. Almost everyone you know has a cell phone, and most people today are using so-called “smart” phones, with Wi-Fi access to the Internet and thousands of useful and entertaining applications. But while we love our phones and the benefits we derive, it’s prudent to consider how safe they are, and how they might be affecting our health.

The good news is that countless studies around the world have failed to demonstrate a clear link between the radio waves used by cell phones and cancer in humans, especially with today’s more modern cell phone technology. The less-good news is that excessive cell phone use has caused other physical and emotional tolls, and that research into long-term health consequences from cell phone use is still in its infancy.

What we do know about cell phones and health

Electromagnetic fields in the radiofrequency range are used for telecommunications applications, including cell phones, televisions, and radio transmissions. The human body absorbs energy from devices that emit radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation.

There are many different types of radiation. Generally, they’re split into two categories: ionizing and non-ionizing. The first category includes x-rays, some high-energy UV rays, and cosmic rays. Cell phones give off radio waves, which are in the non-ionizing group. While ionizing radiation has been linked to cancer, non-ionizing radiation has not.

Over time, the number of cell phone calls per day, the length of each call, and the amount of time people use cell phones have increased. However, improvements in cell phone technology have resulted in devices that have lower power outputs than earlier models.

The only consistently recognized biological effect of radiofrequency energy is heating. The ability of microwave ovens to heat food is one example of this effect of radiofrequency energy. Radiofrequency exposure from cell phone use does cause heating to the area of the body where a cell phone or other device is held (ear, head, body, etc.). However, it is not sufficient to measurably increase body temperature, and there are no other clearly established effects on the body from radiofrequency energy.

When mobile phones are used very close to some medical devices (including pacemakers, implantable defibrillators, and certain hearing aids) there is the possibility of causing interference with their operation. The risk is much reduced for newer equipment. There is also the potential of interference between mobile phone signals and aircraft electronics. Some countries have licensed mobile phone use on aircraft during flight using systems that control the phone output power, but most airlines restrict cell phone and laptop use during takeoffs and landings.

Negative health consequences from cell phones

While the jury’s still out on non-ionizing radiation, heat and cell phones, what we DO know is that constant cell phone use typically requires bending one’s neck down to look at a small screen. This posture isn’t new – we look down when we write or read books, magazines and printed materials, as well – but texting adds another element that causes us to spend far more time than ever before bending our necks to look down, and spending way more time doing it.

Both of these elements are affecting posture and causing neck pain. This is especially troublesome when involving children because, over time, this constant bad posture can damage their cervical spine and result in neck injuries and chronic pain later in life.

Another less-often-mentioned consequence of cell phone use is bacterial exposure and infections. In studies, cell phones were shown to be germ magnets, especially for fecal bacteria, typically as a result of people going to the bathroom and not properly washing their hands. Cell phones with cases were the worst offenders for capturing and retaining germs, including viruses. Careful and regular cleaning of phones and phone cases with alcohol will help mitigate the potential for getting sick.

Interference with sleep is another consequence of constant cell phone use. Of course, it isn’t just cell phones – it’s the light emitted from “blue screens” such as television and computers, as well. Blue light shuts down melatonin production; melatonin is our body’s natural hormone which helps us fall asleep. Avoiding all types of blue-light emitters at least a full hour, and preferably, two or three hours before bedtime will result in improved sleep.

Studies also are underway regarding cell phones and repetitive use injuries to wrists and thumbs. While there haven’t been many conclusive results published, researchers have found that tablet and laptop users are at greater risk of developing musculoskeletal problems due to unnatural wrist postures.

And finally, the phenomena scientists are calling “digital distraction” is alive and, unfortunately, unwell. This is a wide range of distracted behaviors that result in vehicle, work and pedestrian accidents from people texting or phoning while they are driving, working or recreating.  Add GPS and music, and it’s a fine recipe for vehicular disaster. Countless examples of distracted driving have now been documented, resulting in thousands of deaths and many more injuries.

Here are a few “common-sense” tips for reducing potential injuries from cell phone use or exposure:

  • Use a hands-free device as often as possible. This does not include an “all-in-one” device like Bluetooth, which also emits radio frequencies, but a wireless or attached hands-free device. Use of these simple and inexpensive tools allows you to look ahead, not down, and moves the source of radiation away from your brain.
  • Keep the phone away from your head. Keep the phone in a handbag, holster or backpack, if possible, rather than holding it in your hands or keeping it pressed against your body in a pocket.
  • Avoid using your phone when you have bad reception. The fewer bars there are, the more powerfully the phone has to broadcast – some phones may increase output tenfold or more in areas with poor service.
  • Don’t text while your drive, walk or work. It seems obvious, but the alarming number of traffic, work and pedestrian accidents related to distracted phone users has mushroomed.
  • Place your phone or device on a counter or desk when possible. Phone and tablet users should attempt to place their devices in cases or on a stand that would allow for tilting the screen rather than holding and tilting the device in their hands. And whenever possible, place your cellphone in a mounting device in your car above the dashboard where it’s accessible without completely looking away from the road.

It’s not likely that we’re going to stop using cell phones. What is likely is that the technology will continue evolving, giving us access to faster, “smarter” and smaller phones and related communication devices. But as in other forms of modern technology, the practical uses and convenience evolves faster than researchers’ ability to assess long-term dangers and potential health consequences. The prescription for smart health, in all things, remains the use of common sense, and practicing cell phone use in moderation whenever possible.


 

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!