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What’s the real truth about cell phones and brain damage?

By Ajay Bhatnagar, M.D., MBA

Did you know the average age for a child getting a first cell phone is 10 years? This, of course, disrupted my plan. I have a 7-year-old daughter and my intention was to get her a cell phone … never. With Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and all of the other emerging social media platforms, we as parents have enough to worry about. Oh yes, I forgot to mention radiation.

Cellphones emit radiation and children absorb radiation greater than adults. As a radiation oncologist, I use radiation daily to kill cancer. I also treat cancer that was caused by radiation. So, in many ways, I am an expert in the science of radiation.

For the first time in human history, there are more mobile devices in the world than there are people, crossing over at the 7.2 billion mark. Did you know that your iPhone has warnings about the radiation that it emits? If you go into your mobile device’s settings, find the tab for the “legal” section. Read about “RF Exposure” and you will get the general understanding that cell phones should not be placed in our pocket.

For those that watch Larry David’s show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” you may appreciate when I say that radiation has a “spectrum.” It’s not all harmful. In fact, radiation surrounds us constantly from sunlight as well as radon underground. In general, we worry when radiation is ionizing because it can disrupt cell DNA at this energy. Microwaves, a form of non-ionizing radiation, is where cellphones and Wi-Fi exist. We know that microwaves are safe, so why would cellphones be any different? The power of a microwave oven is 1000 watts, which can create heat strong enough to boil water within 1 minute.

The power of a cell phone is much less than 1 watt, and the scientific community is mixed on whether this has any biological impact. But the devil is in the detail. “The biological impact of cell phone radiation is not related to its power. It is related to its erratic nature of the signal and its ability to disrupt resonance and interfere with DNA repair,” said Dr. Devra Davis, environmental expert and author of “The Secret History of the War on Cancer.” The concern emerges from studies that have hinted at a slightly increased risk for brain cancer and tumors of the acoustic nerve and salivary gland. Others have suggested lower sperm count and sperm quality in men, and various effects on learning and memory, headaches and sleep for both sexes. There have also been numerous large studies that have not found any correlation with cell phone use and health concerns. The truth is still unclear.

I don’t envision cell phones to go anywhere. They will continue to evolve into our primary mode of communication and entertainment. In fact, I think we are just beginning on this incredible explosion of social media. It is an incredibly exciting time as human beings to be alive with such magnificent technology at our fingertips. But we need to use our technology thoughtfully or it may one day be our demise. As parents, we must protect our children. At a minimum, we must stay informed.

The FDA has suggested some steps to reduce exposure to cell phone radiofrequency energy:

  • Reserve the use of cell phones for shorter conversations or for times when a landline phone is not available.
  • Use a device with hands-free technology, such as wired headsets, which place more distance between the phone and the head of the user. Exposures decline dramatically when cell phones are used hands-free.

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