Dear Doctor: I always thought the worries about the safety of cellphones were a bit overblown, but now I'm reading about new guidelines concerning cellphone radiation. Just what's so dangerous? And is looking at the screen as risky as using the phone to make calls?

Dear Reader: The conversation regarding mobile phones and potential health hazards has been going on for decades. Ever since the first public cellular phone call was placed in 1973 (!) on a Motorola prototype the size of a meatloaf, it seemed inevitable that questions about the safety of the technology would follow.

The topic returned to the news cycle late last year after California's Department of Public Health published advice to consumers that advised them how to reduce their exposure to the radio frequency (RF) energy of the cellphone ecosystem. At no point does the document, which runs three pages, come right out and state that cellphones are harmful. However, it does discuss how cellphone technology works, and why questions about the short- and long-term safety of exposure to RF are important to pursue.

When your cellphone is turned on, it's using RF energy to communicate with nearby cellphone towers. When the phone chats with a cell tower, the RF energy "sprays" in all directions from the device's antenna, including into the head and body of the person using, or close to, the phone. While RF is not as powerful as other forms of electromagnetic radiation, such as X-rays, which can cause damage at a cellular level, when it comes to studies regarding the effects of RF energy, the jury is still out.

There's plenty of passion on both sides of the debate, with research to fit each point of view. According to the state of California's document, "some laboratory experiments and human health studies have suggested the possibility that long-term, high use of cellphones may be linked to certain types of cancer and other health effects."

These include brain cancer, tumors on the acoustic nerve, suppressed sperm counts, headaches, problems with learning and sleep issues. The document also points out that because of children's smaller size, RF reaches a larger portion of a child's brain. Add in the rapid growth taking place and the document points out that kids could be at higher risk of potential dangers than adults.

Here are some suggestions to reduce exposure:

  •  Use the speaker or a headset to talk, rather than holding the phone close to your head.
  •  Text rather than talk.
  •  When streaming a video, hold the phone away from the body.
  •  Carry the phone in a purse or a backpack, not in a pocket.
  •  Keep the phone away from your bed at night.
  •  A cellphone emits more RF energy when it's showing fewer bars on its display; this is because it's trying harder to connect.

California health officials stress that the document isn't a warning. Rather, it's meant to offer a range of practical options to reduce RF energy exposure.

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Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. 

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