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The 411 on Effects of High-Tech Devices

Focused on Health - July 2010

by Laura Nathan-Garner

boy textingFrom smartphones to cutting-edge medical devices, we’ve fallen hard for technology. But recent headlines suggest our high-tech world could be upping our cancer risks. Could radiation from our cell phones and CT scans be bad for our health?          

To separate the facts from the hype, we went straight to the experts. Read on to get the 411 on cancer risks from cell phones and CT scans, and learn to take precautions.

Cell phones

The claim: Radiation emitted from your cell phone could travel through your skull and into your brain, creating tumors.

The reality: Cell phones actually expose you to non-iodizing radiofrequency (RF), which means it doesn’t have enough energy to damage your DNA and form a pre-cancerous cell. So far, no evidence exists that radiofrequency exposure causes tumors, even in animals, says Melissa Bondy, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at MD Anderson and director of the Childhood Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Center.

Still, Bondy says, we should be more cautious with our cell phones. That’s especially true for kids, whose developing brains could be most vulnerable to radiofrequency exposure.

It could take decades for us to see stronger evidence on the relationship between tumors and cell phone use because widespread use of cell phones didn’t begin until the mid-1990s.

“We don’t know if cell phones could cause tumors,” Bondy says. “More research needs to be done.”
woman wearing headset

The advice: To be safe, try these simple tips:

  • Purchase a cell phone with a low absorption rate. You can find cell phones’ absorption rates on the Federal Communications Commission’s website.
  • Limit the conversations you have with your cell phone to your ear.
  • Limit children’s cell phone use.
  • Use a landline when possible.
  • Use a headset.
  • Use a speaker phone.
  • Send text messages (except while driving!).

CT Scans

The claim: The ionizing radiation emitted from CT scans could destroy DNA and cause tumors.

The reality: The use of CT scans has skyrocketed in the last 30 years, but the risk associated with these tests isn’t nearly as bad as recent headlines suggest.

doctor looking at CT scans“There’s a risk of developing a tumor if you have a lot of CT scans, but that doesn’t usually happen unless you have a very serious life-threatening medical condition,” says Dianna Cody, Ph.D., chief of MD Anderson’s Radiologic Physics Section. “In this case, the benefits of the exam definitely outweigh the potential risks.”

And, Cody says radiation is more dangerous if it takes place on the same part of the body several times and with very high doses. So, radiation doesn’t tend to accumulate if you have five CT scans on five different parts of your body.

“Pay attention to the benefits of CT scans rather than the gloom and doom of recent media reports,” Cody says. “CT scans have changed our lives for the better. They allow doctors to diagnose and treat patients much more quickly.”

Beware, though: Breast tissue and the thyroid tend to be more sensitive to radiation, and children’s rapidly dividing cells are vulnerable to radiation from any kind of X-ray. But there’s good news here: CT scan providers are beginning to use X-ray shields to protect sensitive areas and adjusting doses to minimize the risk for younger patients.

The advice: Play it safe by asking the following questions next time a doctor prescribes a CT scan for you or your child.doctor and patientThese questions will help you and your doctor decide if you really need the exam.

  • What do you expect to learn from this exam?
  • Is a CT scan the best way to learn more about my condition?
  • Is there a lower-risk option, such as an MRI or ultrasound?
  • Will you adjust the dose for my child?
  • Will x-ray shields be used to protect sensitive areas?
  • Have you or another doctor run a CT scan on the same area of my body before?
  • How many scans will be necessary? Should one or two be enough?
  • May I have a copy of the scan and information about the dose?

Keep track of all of your CT scans by starting a file folder with dose information, copies of your scans, and information on when you had each scan performed and what parts of the body were covered.

In the end, slowing down to read between the headlines and practicing a little moderation is the best way to stay healthy in this fast-paced, high-tech world.

Related Links:

Cell Phones and Cancer Risk (National Cancer Institute)
Your Environmental Safety Health Guide (MD Anderson)

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