Cell phone technology is relatively new, and there haven’t been any long-term studies of its effects on humans. But some researchers worry that our increasing reliance on the devices could cause health problems down the road.
Some people think cell phones may cause health problems such as brain tumors and disrupted sleep patterns. A new study suggests that some of these fears may be valid: Researchers at the National Institutes of Health found some evidence that using a cell phone for 50 minutes can affect brain activity.
The findings, presented this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, are based on one patient who agreed to undergo MRI brain scans before, during, and after a 50-minute cell phone call. (MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging; it’s also used in computed tomography or CT scans.)
Before the phone call, the woman’s brain showed no abnormal activity. But during the call, the researchers noticed increased activity in the parts of her brain closest to where she held her cell phone. The changes were particularly noticeable when she spoke—in those moments, the part of the woman’s brain responsible for hearing showed little activity, but the area controlling speech and hand movements lit up like a Christmas tree.
After the call, brain activity returned to normal.
Increased cell phone use has caused some countries’ health officials to issue warnings about possible health risks. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement in May 2011 that warned of possible links between cell phones and two types of cancer: glioma and acoustic neuroma. Both are rare tumors that are typically located close to where people hold their cell phones.
The WHO’s report also noted that some studies have found no increased cancer risk—but nothing is conclusive yet. And it advised that “until better research and data are available, it is prudent for international agencies to recommend taking practical measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices or texting.”
Many health and government officials have urged caution when using cell phones. In May 2011, the Federal Communications Commission announced a voluntary program to encourage cell phone makers to adopt new technology that “can greatly reduce exposure to radiofrequency energy (RF E) from cell phones.”
The key word is “voluntary” as it is up to the cell phone companies to implement the technology and it is up to you and me as consumers to demand that they do.