As cellular telephone usage has become widespread, so have concerns over the possible risks to health. Now the biggest study of mobile-phone usage yet, launched at the Imperial College London, aims to find a conclusive answer to the question once and for all: Could our cell phones be killing us?
Cell phones emit radio waves, a form of non-ionizing radiation, and because some types of radiation can cause cancer, some people are concerned. But this kind of radiation doesn't damage DNA, according to the American Cancer Society.
An estimated $100 million or more has been spent so far around the world on research into possible health risks from using mobile phones, which since the 1990s have become an integral part of many people's lives. Most studies to date haven't found a link between cell-phone use and tumor development.
Evidence So Far
For example, a study initiated in 1994 at the National Cancer Institute and published in 2001 found no evidence of higher brain tumor risk among people who use cell phones compared with those who don't. But use of cell phones wasn't as widespread in the 1990s as it is today.
Four years later, a Swedish study found that users of cell phones in rural areas may be at greater risk of brain cancer. While troubling, the data set was small so it wasn't the compelling proof sought. Another four years later, a very large, 30-year study of Scandinavians, published in December 2009, showed no link between cell-phone use and brain tumors. Earlier German and Danish studies reached the same conclusion. One study even suggested that electromagnetic waves emanating from cell phones may prevent or even reverse Alzheimer's disease.
Not satisfied, mainly because of questions regarding long-term use and research design, this new study, called Cosmos, will run for 20 to 30 years and will follow the health of at least 250,000 participants aged 18 to 69 in five European countries.
"We will be looking at a range of different health outcomes, including other forms of cancers such as skin cancers and other brain disease such as neurodegenerative diseases," such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, Dr. Mireille Toledano, co-principal investigator of the study, told the BBC. She added that the study will look also at other neurological symptoms such as headaches, depression and sleeping disorders.
The study doesn't include children, though, despite some evidence that suggests they are at higher risk. Research by British physicians and scientists from 2001 suggested that kids are at higher risk than adults when it comes to cell-phone use. Since then, several experts have called for caution when it comes to children's use of the ubiquitous devices.
Some governments have attempted to legislate various constraints on cell-phone use. The French wanted to restrict mobile-phone advertising directed at children, and other campaigners urged governments to at least issue safety advice on the use of cell phones. Children, they generally say, shouldn't be given mobile phones until they're at least 12 years old. According to Pew Research, 75% of American teenagers have cell phones.
An estimated 270 million people in the U.S. currently own cell phones, and the estimates range between 4 billion and 6 billion people worldwide. Whatever the true number is, it's growing rapidly. Global spending on wireless equipment and services surpassed $1 trillion for the first time in 2009, according to technology research firm iSuppli.
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