Are cell phones the cigarettes of our generation?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Elaine Kamilly, like four billion of our fellow earthlings,
spends a lot of time on the cell phone
By Lisa Russ

My first few years as a parent plunged me into a land of great mystery: yes, what is a boppy and how did I make my baby a spleen, but the more persistent, nagging mystery was how to know what is safe for my kids.  While plastic baby bottles and flame retardant-filled nursing pillows were available in great abundance, there was a growing  concern about the impacts the chemicals in these products had on children’s development.  I tried to wrap my head around what was real, what was safe enough, and what we could afford.

As I waded through those murky waters, I found myself in a land of molecules and endocrine disrupters, early onset of puberty and possible links to breast cancer.  And that was just trying to buy sunscreen.  I found myself saddened and alarmed that these negotiations were left to consumers.  My college science education consisted of one night-class in Astronomy, and I was ill-equipped to analyze various double-blind randomized trials to decide whether or not to buy organic milk.

And now, another threat to our health.  According to Dr. Devra Davis, those of us who have used a cell phone for more than 10 hours per week for 10 years have a significantly greater chance of getting a malignant brain tumor than those who didn't. Her book Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family came out in September, and she has done dozens of interviews since, explaining the science, politics and health risks behind our omnipresent devices.

Dr. Davis and those that support her findings say this is a slow-brewing public health crisis.  Slow, because it may take decades before the impacts of heavy use show up.  And huge because right now four billion people have cell phones, half of them under the age of 20.

Are cell phones the cigarettes of our generation? Dr. Davis draws a strong connection between industry-funded research and the idea that the harmful effects of cell phones are unproven. She says that the cell phone industry intentionally "followed big tobacco's playbook" and strategically supported research that would confuse the public and create the impression that there is no conclusive evidence about their harm.

The idea that the expensive, sexy, now indispensable objects in our pockets are lowering our sperm count (down 40% for men who carry a phone in their pocket) and shortening our lives is stunning and sad.  And the fact the regulatory agencies we think protect us have done little more than insist on illegible warnings no one reads is alarming.

And back to my frustration about organics and boppies.  How are we to know?  Isn’t it reasonable to imagine that our government could do a better job regulating the products that we use, and providing reasonable safety guidelines?  Dr. Davis says kids should never use cell phones, and that adults should always wear earpieces.  In some countries, there are laws that mandate that each phone is sold with an earpiece, and that cell phones can’t be marketed to kids.  Sounds like a fair start.

In addition to supporting better research, regulation and oversight, what can you do?  Dr. Davis offers some very simple solutions:
  • Don't use a phone or text while driving or doing something that requires your attention!
  • Use a landline when possible
  • Text for short messages instead of calling -- less exposure and less signal use
  • Use a headset (but not a wireless one, because those use similar radiation)
  • Don't carry your phone on your body -- leave it in your bag or at the far end of your desk when working
  • Only use where the signal is strong -- the cell phone will up its power to compensate for weak signal
  • Leave it far from you when you're sleeping, or better still, turn it off at night
  • Don't let your children use the cell phone, and keep it away from them -- they are by far the most vulnerable 

If we learned anything from our collective relationship with Big Tobacco, it was that we need to generate research free from industry funding, and err on the side of caution.  Especially in the face of enormous global industries like the cell phone companies, our families need good data and fair regulations to help keep us safe and strong.

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