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Are Cell Phones Safe? Questions & Answers

University of Pittsburgh Cancer Expert Urges Limited Use; Get Answers to Questions About Cell Phone Safety
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WebMD Health News

July 24, 2008 -- Confused about cell phone safety? Many people were after seeing headlines about a controversial memo issued by a prominent cancer expert to his staff recommending limiting cell phone use, especially in kids, because of possible cancer risk.

The memo was reportedly sent yesterday by Ronald B. Herberman, MD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, to his staff. Media reports about the memo sparked concern among cell phone users and criticism from the wireless industry.

Here are answers to questions about Herberman's memo, the science on cell phone safety, and whether you should set limits for your kids -- and yourself -- to minimize risk.

What was in the cell phone memo?

A University of Pittsburgh Medical Center spokeswoman tells WebMD that Herberman was not available to comment on the memo and that the memo wasn't available for her to forward.

According to the Associated Press, Herberman's memo recommends that children use cell phones only in emergencies because their brains are still developing, and that adults should keep cell phones away from their head, using the speakerphone or a wireless headset. Similar advice is also posted in an article on the web site of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute's Center for Environmental Oncology.

What was the memo based on?

Herberman's memo reportedly acknowledges that his concern is based on early, unpublished data -- not published studies -- and on caution that science moves slowly and that it's better to be "safe rather than sorry later," the Associated Press quotes Herberman as saying.

What does the FDA say?

The FDA hasn't posted a specific reply to Herberman's memo, but the FDA's web site has lots of information on cell phones and health.

"The available evidence does not show that any health problems are associated with using wireless phones. There is no proof, however, that wireless phones are absolutely safe," states background information on the FDA's web site.

The FDA explains that wireless phones emit low levels of radiofrequency (RF) while being used and very low levels of RF in standby mode.

"Whereas high levels of RF can produce health effects (by heating tissues), exposure to low-level RF that does not produce heating effects causes no known adverse health effects," the FDA states. "Many studies of low-level RF exposures have not found any biological effects. Some studies have suggested that some biological effects may occur, but such findings have not been confirmed by additional research. In some cases, other researchers have had difficulty in reproducing these studies, or in determining the reasons for inconsistent results."

What does the American Cancer Society say?

Michael Thun, MD, is the American Cancer Society's vice president for epidemiology and surveillance research.

"The first thing we say is that if someone is concerned about the risk of cell phones, you can virtually eliminate your exposure by using a headset or a speaker phone or having the phone farther from your ear," Thun tells WebMD.

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