University expert gives insight on warning labels for cell phones

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 - 10:16am

Due to various studies with conflicting results on the effects of constant radio-frequency wave exposure from cell phones on human health, there has been a national debate as to whether or not mobile devices should come with warning labels.

According to the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of cell phone users said their cellular devices would be very hard to give up. 

Cell phones can cause distractions that can lead to severe consequences: For instance, there are reports of people accidentally walking off piers or getting into car accidents as a result of texting while driving — which poses threats not only to texters but to those around them.  

In addition to simple distractions, some believe cell phones cause neurological damages. According to the Food and Drug Administration, cell phones emit low levels of radio-frequency energy, which has led to debates over the neurological safety of cell phones. The FDA states there is a common misconception since people confuse radio-frequency energy with the more harmful electromagnetic energy found in X-rays; whereas, the radio-frequency energy from cell phones is harmless, according to the FDA. 

Similarly, research from the National Toxicology Program released in May stated there is little potential for harm from cell phones. The study exposed rats and mice to frequencies similar to those used for mobile devices in the United States and found minimal instances of tumors in their subjects. 

On the other hand, the International Agency for Research on Cancer — a part of the World Health Organization — classified this cell phone radio-frequency energy as potentially carcinogenic after discovering an increased risk for glioma, a type of brain cancer, associated with cell phones.

Despite this contradictory evidence, Larry Junck, a University of Michigan professor of Neurology, does not think cell phones need warnings like other known harmful substances — such as cigarettes and alcohol — do. Junck additionally exhibited little concern for any health problems associated with cell phones.

“There’s not a lot of reason to think that the radio waves that are emitted by cell phones would be harmful to one’s body,” Junck said. “We all know that there’s radio waves all around us, and we don’t think of them as being harmful. One of the main ways that radio waves or micro waves could be harmful is by actually heating tissues, and that doesn’t occur to a significant extent with routine use of cell phones.”

Junck particularly focuses on brain tumors and glioma treatment in his work, and he was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article regarding his stance on cell phone warnings. He said there are not enough studies to accurately link brain tumors to an increase in cell phone use, as the phones' radio waves do not damage DNA and pass through tissues without harm. He added that the increase in brain tumors since the 1970s is due to an advance in detection technology, not cell phones. 

“If this (cell phones) was a major cause of brain tumors, you would expect to see brain tumors becoming more common," Junck said. "It’s widely believed the increase in brain tumors is due to better recognition of brain tumors by more widespread use of MRI scans and CT scans.”

The World Health Organization also reported after its 2010 study that, despite an increased use in cell phones, newer phones also have lower energy emissions, and the increased use in texting keeps the head distanced from phones, concluding that more studies are necessary to gauge how harmful cell phones are. 

Junck said many studies that report positive links between brain tumors and cell phone usage have underlying biases. For example, if researchers ask individuals who already have a brain tumor about their cell phone use patterns, they may assume their tumor was caused by their cell phone use and report higher rates of usage. 

Junck added that the trend in the number of brain tumor incidents is not explained by the increased cell phone use. 

“If using a cell phone was the cause of brain tumors and if it didn’t take much time for cell phone radiation to cause a brain tumor, then the incidents of brain tumors should have gone up in parallel with the increased prevalence of cell phones,” Junck said. “If it took a number of years of cell phone use to cause brain tumors, then you would expect the incidents of brain tumors to go up with the lag time several years later before the increase of brain tumors would be seen. Neither of those have taken place.”

Junck said, despite a lack of evidence, he sees merit in the claim that younger people would be more at risk than adults.  

“If there is going to be a concern, it would be especially important in kids — first of all, because they have more years of exposure, and secondly because their growing and developing tissues could be more susceptible to environmental harms,” Junck said.