Beware of your cell phone?

The modern world often seems a dangerous place in which to live. With good reason, we fear the long-term health effects of eating pesticide-laden foods or inhaling air filled with smog or second-hand tobacco smoke.

The modern world often seems a dangerous place in which to live. With good reason, we fear the long-term health effects of eating pesticide-laden foods or inhaling air filled with smog or second-hand tobacco smoke. And now highly reputable medical researchers are warning us that cellphones could possibly cause brain tumours.

To be sure, questions about possible health hazards caused by cellphones are not entirely new.

Researchers have wondered about cellphones since the 1970s. What is interesting about a recent report is the credibility of the organization that released it, the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is a branch of the World Health Organization.

The agency has carefully avoided releasing an alarmist report that would unduly scare cellphone users.

At an agency meeting in France last week, 31 scientists described the radio frequency electromagnetic fields that come from cellphones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Dr. Jonathan Samet of the University of Southern California, chair of the group that drafted the report, said, “We still have much to learn about how these fields interact with biological material. We have to leave open the possibility that there are things for us to learn.” He pointed out that the current studies have been conducted for less than a decade, which isn’t a long enough time in which to draw definitive conclusions.

Clearly this is a subject researchers must explore in the months and years ahead. The possible health risk posed by cellphones is of great concern because of their widespread use.

The agency says about five billion people now use cellphones. That’s a phenomenal number — about three-quarters of the world’s population. If cellphones are ever linked to real health problems, an awful lot of people could be affected.

A key question is to what extent potential health hazards are related to the length of time a person uses cellphones each day. If there is a risk, that risk may be higher for a person who uses cellphones for, say, half an hour a day compared to a person who uses cellphones only occasionally for emergency purposes.

While researchers and cellphone companies search for answers, there are many practical initiatives cellphone uses can take that are based on common sense as much as on science.

They can use their cellphone less often and for shorter calls; they can text-message instead of talking; they can hold their cellphone a little farther away from their head, or they can consider acquiring a hands-free cellphone. In addition, parents may want to be extra careful with their children because the radiation from cellphones might have more of an effect on developing brains.

It is important to put the latest concerns about cellphones in perspective. Health Canada, for instance, says there is no convincing evidence that cellphones are a serious health threat.

And for the millions of people who use them, cellphones are an amazing and essential part of life today. Caution should be our guide, not fear.

— An editorial from the Waterloo Region Record