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Nick Avgerinos
Nick Avgerinos
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Stay in Touch with the Cell Phone / Cancer Debate: 5 Tips to Limit Your Risk

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With cell phones pressed to our ears, clipped to our belts, and putting email at our fingertips, it’s becoming hard to imagine life without them. And with our busy schedules, we don’t often take the time to consider whether that’s necessarily a good thing. Cell phone usage has exploded in the last decade, and while numerous studies have been done regarding possible health risks associated with cell phone use, the jury is still out, searching for more conclusive evidence.

The good news: most studies haven’t found any relationship between cell phones and cancer. The bad news: a new warning issued by the head of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute suggests otherwise, based on unpublished data. The new warning emphasizes the danger of cell phone use among small children, explaining that it’s most dangerous for young ones because their brains are still developing. Many have called this new warning alarmist and premature, but it seems too soon to tell its merits.

Devra Lee Davis, the director of the university’s center for environmental oncology puts the point well: “The question is, do you want to play Russian roulette with your brain?” Of course, the answer is no. And we certainly don’t want to expose our children to undue health risks. (Unrelated note to parents: this new warning also offers a concrete reason for refusing to indulge your child’s premature desire to procure a cell phone.)

So, if we’re going to be safe, rather than sorry, here are 5 useful tips provided by CNN:

1. Use the speakerphone

This was, without question, the favorite alternative of the experts I talked to. Nothing is near your head. “Hold it away from a minimum of a few inches. A foot or two is ideal,” said Magda Havas, an associate professor with the Institute for Health Studies at Trent University in Ontario, Canada.

Havas gives me a little math lesson. Every inch you can get away from your body, the radiation reduces very quickly. “Hold it out two inches, and the radiation drops by a factor of four. Hold it out four inches, and it drops by a factor of 16,” she says.

In other words, said Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, “every millimeter counts.”

2. Use a wired headset with a ferrite bead

No, this is not a piece of jewelry. A ferrite bead is a clip you put on the wire of a headset. The concern is that the wire itself emits radiation into your ear. The bead is designed to absorb the radiation so you don’t. They’re inexpensive and available at stores or online.

These clips are a favorite of Slesin’s. “It’s the way to go,” he said.

Another fan: Lawrie Challis, physicist and former chair of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme, a government panel in Britain. “They did tests at the University of York and found that under even the worst conditions, if you use a ferrite bead, you can’t even measure the radiation coming off the wire. This common device kills the radiation.”

Of course, if the phone is in your pocket or clipped to your belt, all bets are off, because the phone itself will be radiating into your body. So if you’re worried about radiation, keep the phone as far away as possible, and Challis adds to do your best to make sure the wire isn’t touching your body.

3. Use a Bluetooth earpiece

A Bluetooth earpiece still has radiation, but it’s at least 100 times less than the radiation you get when you hold a cell phone to your head, Havas says.

Our experts were split on which was better: a Bluetooth headset or a wired one. Israeli government recommendations issued this week specifically suggest a wire; Havas likes the Bluetooth. But even she says not to wear it when you’re not talking; it still sends out a signal.

“Bluetooth is only whispering radiation into your ear. The problem is, some people wear it all the time,” she says. “At the very least, switch it from ear to ear so you don’t have too much exposure on one side.”

Michael Foley, Ph.D., executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, says Bluetooth earpieces radiate 200 times less energy than cell phones. “There is no evidence that a Bluetooth headset has any adverse effects on its users,” he said.

4. Use a “hollow tube” earpiece

It’s just like a regular wired earpiece, except the last six inches or so — the part next to your ear — is a hollow tube. There’s no wire under the plastic.

“You’re getting the sound through the air. You’re not dependent on radiofrequency waves,” said Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany.

Hollow tube earpieces can be purchased on several Web sites.

5. Get a phone with less radiation

Phone radiation is measured in specific absorption rate, or SAR. To look up the SAR for your phone, check this list on CNET.com.

You might think the experts mentioned above all use earpieces or a speakerphone. Not so. Several said they hold it right up to their heads because they use their cells so infrequently, they’re not worried about radiation.

“I use it maybe once or twice a week, no more than 10 minutes,” said Challis, the former head of the British committee that studied cell phones and radiation. “I use a land line whenever I can.”

It’s the exposure, day after day, year after year, that matters. As Challis, who’s retired, puts it, “If I were younger, I’d take this much more seriously.”

Only time will tell what research proves most accurate regarding the cell phone / cancer link. Until then, it’s a good idea to follow these tips: don’t put your safety on hold while we’re waiting for researchers to make the call.