Monday 25 September 2017

Mobile phones pose no clear health risks, but moderate use is advisable

Drivers have been warned against using phones while at the wheel
Drivers have been warned against using phones while at the wheel

Dr Nina Byrnes

I USE my mobile phone all the time. I think I would be lost without it.

It's like my personal assistant and it goes everywhere with me.

My Mom keeps telling me that using my mobile phone so much is bad for my health. Is this really true?

THE potential health risks of mobile phone use have gained much attention in recent years. It's not surprising, as it's estimated over 5 billion people worldwide use them.

Phones are no longer just used for making calls; they are our portable computers, music devices and cameras. With so many using mobile phones daily, even the smallest increased risk to health could have potentially widespread implications.

Research has focused on five main areas: cancer, electromagnetic interference, traffic accidents, germs and other health effects.

Mobile phones connect through radio waves, low doses of electromagnetic radiation that transmit from a phone to a mast and back. Mast base stations are surrounded by electromagnetic fields. Mobile phones emit radio waves. These can be absorbed by the body tissues nearest to where the phone is being held.

There have been several studies looking at the risk of brain cancer and mobile phone use. Radio waves from phones are non-ionizing radiation. Studies into these have shown mixed results. One of the biggest studies was the Interphone study, based on statistics from 13 countries. It showed no increased risk of cancer associated with mobile phone use.

Another large UK study, called the Million Women Study, also showed no increased risk. A smaller study in Sweden did show a slight increased risk of brain cancer in those who used mobile phones before the age of 20, but other Scandinavian studies have not backed this up.

Looking overall at brain cancer statistics, it has been noted that, although mobile phone use has increased exponentially in the last two decades, the overall incidence of brain cancer has not followed suit, so a causal relationship is unlikely.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has recently classified radiofrequency fields as possibly carcinogenic. The American Cancer society says this means there may be some associated risk of cancer, but the evidence is not strong and requires further investigation.

Mobile phones may interfere with electromagnetic fields in devices such as pacemakers or implantable defibrillators. This is more likely when they are very close to each other, and is less likely with newer 3G or 4G technology. They can also interfere with certain aircraft electronics.

Mobile phone use while driving increases accident risk three to four times. This risk is the same whether hand held or hands free devices are used. Texting while driving also increases accident risk. Pedestrians too are at risk. A study in a US journal showed that one in three people had been distracted by their mobile while crossing a road.

Another health hazard associated with mobiles may be the germs they carry. A study of young people aged 18 to 29 showed 50% of those questioned use their mobile phone regularly while on the toilet. It's not surprising then that a 2011 London study showed that one in six mobile phones checked had some kind of faecal contaminant. Other bugs have included E Coli and MRSA.

Smart phones may pose an extra risk to our vision as using these increases our daily screen time and, therefore, the risk of eye strain. Experts advise the 20/20/20 rule: take a 20 second break every 20 minutes and look at something 20 feet away. Phones may also increase the risk of muscular problems. Text claw is a cramp in the wrist and hands due to repetitive fine movements. Text Neck is a term created by CNN, describing pain in the neck and shoulders from constantly leaning forward looking at a phone screen and typing.

Hearing is at risk if we listen to our mobile devices for prolonged periods at high volumes. Apply the 60/60 rule: listen to your device at no more than 60db for no more than 60 minutes at a time.

Lastly, the potential effects to mental health shouldn't be ignored. One study showed 66% of people are afraid to be without their mobile. Use of these is potentially addictive. Withdrawal symptoms, including fidgeting, anxiety and isolation, have been described in those without a phone for over 24hours.

Radio waves may also disturb sleep; one Stanford study showed 75% of Iphone-using students sleep with their phones; the potential effects of the LED screen on melatonin production and sleep quality needs to be considered.

Mobile phones are a part of everyday life. The message is simple: there are no clear, major risks to health associated with their use but, as in all things, moderation of use is best. If you are genuinely concerned about the risk to your health, limit your use, use a headpiece, don't sleep with the phone near your head and don't use a phone while driving.

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