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July 24, 2008

UPCI head issues cell phone warning

The director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute this week issued a warning about a possible connection between long-term cell phone use and adverse health effects, including cancer.

In a July 22 memorandum to UPMC Cancer Centers faculty and staff, UPCI director Ronald Herberman stated: “An international expert panel of pathologists, oncologists and public health specialists recently declared that electromagnetic fields emitted by cell phones should be considered a potential human health risk.”

The memo included an analysis of recent studies on cell phone use by the panel and tips for limiting exposure to electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell phones.

“Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory [and] to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use,” stated Herberman, who also is associate vice chancellor for cancer research in the Health Sciences, Hillman professor of oncology and professor of medicine at the Pitt School of Medicine.

Herberman said that more definitive data covering the health effects from prolonged cell phone use are expected to be released soon in a report by the World Health Organization. He noted that a number of countries including France, Germany and India have issued recommendations to limit exposure to electromagnetic fields. According to the panel’s report, “The Case for Precaution in Cell Phone Use,” the most recent studies, which include human subjects with a 10-year or longer history of cell phone usage, show a possible association between certain benign tumors and some brain cancers on the side of the head the device is used.

“However,” the report cautions, “human epidemiological studies on cell phones conducted to date cannot be conclusive. Due to their recently increased use, we are not yet able to evaluate their long-term impact on health. Even where an association between exposure and cancer is well established and the risk very high, as with tobacco and lung cancer … it would be difficult, if not impossible, to identify an increased risk of cancer, as the risk appears mostly 15 to 35 years later.”

Children in particular are at risk because their developing organs are more sensitive to possible effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields, the report maintained.

“Do not allow children to use cell phones, except in an emergency,” Herberman recommended.

His other advice for cell phone users includes:

• Keep the cell phone away from the body as much as possible. That includes avoiding carrying a cell phone on your body or near the body overnight, such as on a beside table.

• When carrying a cell phone, make sure that the keypad is positioned toward the body, so that the transmitted electromagnetic fields move away from the body.

• Avoid using cell phones in crowded areas to limit passive exposure of others.

• Keep conversations short; the biological effects are related to the duration of exposure.

• Switch listening ears regularly while using a cell phone to spread out the exposure.

• Avoid using a cell phone when moving at high speed, such as in a car or train, because this automatically increases power to a maximum as the phone repeatedly attempts to connect to a new relay antenna.

• Communicate via text messaging rather than calling.

• Choose a cell phone with the lowest SAR (specific absorption rate), which is a measure of the strength of the magnetic field absorbed by the body. (Check “SAR ratings cell phones” on the Internet.)

—Peter Hart

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