6 Hidden Ways Your Cell Phone May Be Harming Your Health
From icky germs to relationship trouble to bike crashes, your cell phone could be dangerous in surprising ways
The debate may continue for years over whether cell phones cause cancer, but meanwhile, a growing stack of research has uncovered other, more immediate ways your mobile could be a health menace. Read up on these six hazards — then hang up when the time is right.
1. Talking (even hands-free) or texting behind the wheel
At least 2,600 traffic deaths and over a half-million accident-related injuries are caused by drivers using their cell phones, according to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. If you think your hands-free device makes talking or sending voice-recognition texts safer, think again. A University of Utah study found that drivers performed equally poorly with hand-held and hands-free phones. The mental effort it takes to hold a conversation with someone who’s not in the car and doesn’t know when to stop talking so you can merge or avoid an unsafe situation is too distracting, the researchers note.
Texting is even worse. When they text, drivers take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds — long enough for the car to travel the length of a football field, federal safety officials warn. When editors at Car and Driver magazine did their own informal study in 2009, they found that reaction time tripled from a half-second to nearly 1½ seconds while reading or receiving a text. At 35 miles an hour, that’s equal to traveling an extra 45 feet before slamming on the brakes. Their performance while texting was worse while texting than drunk, they discovered after downing vodka and orange juice before getting behind the wheel of a Honda on a closed roadway.
Making a habit of calling from the road can even wear family members thin, a University of Minnesota researcher reports in a 2010 study in the journal Family Science Review. Cutting calls short, road noise or a bad connection that leaves you shouting or just sounding distracted can all send the wrong message.
2. Distracted walking and biking
A recent Ohio State University study finds that cell phone-related accidents involving pedestrians tripled between 2005 and 2010. Mishaps ranged from falling off walkways and bridges to strolling into moving traffic, according to data from 100 emergency rooms across the United States. "If the message gets out eventually to enough people that this is unsafe … it's possible that things can change," wrote study co-author Jack Nasar, PhD, professor of city and regional planning in a university press release.
Texting or talking while pedaling is causing trouble, too. In 2014, the New York City Council considered adding bicycling to its “no texting or talking and driving” ban. The bill’s sponsor urged for a ban after watching a distracted cyclist veer into traffic. A handful of other U.S. cities, including Chicago and Flagstaff, AZ, have texting bans for cyclists on the books already.
3. Distracted parenting
Could parents’ absorption in emails, texts, calls and surfing explain the 10 percent upswing in childhood injuries between 2005 and 2012? A Yale University economist suspects the answer is yes. He documented a rise in injuries among kids under 5 in areas of the country where high-speed data service became available. Kids do need time for free play, but they also need undistracted supervision to avoid serious accidents at parks, playgrounds and pools.
4. Icky germs
Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, E. coli…of the 7,000 types of bacteria that University of Oregon researchers found on the fingers of 17 study volunteers, 82 percent were also present on their cell phones in one 2014 study. One icky detail: One in six cell phones tested in a 2011 study had microscopic bits of fecal material clinging to them, report researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
To clean up your act, be sure to wash up after using the bathroom. And consider not gabbing while you’re in there. For a cleaner phone, you could invest in a phone sanitizer that kills germs with UV light (models cost about $90) or give it a once-over with quick-drying clean-up wipes intended for mobile devices.
Like tablets and computers, your cell phone’s screen emits blue light that research says can subtly reset your body clock.
Blue light inhibits the release of the sleep hormone melatonin from the pineal gland. Exposure before bed made it harder for volunteers to fall asleep in a recent study from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Compared to nights when they read old-fashioned books, when people read e-books on a tablet for two hours before sleeping they spent less time in restorative stages of sleep, had lower melatonin levels and felt less alert the next day. The researchers say the light from a cell phone could have the same effect.
“We found the body’s natural circadian rhythms were interrupted by the short-wavelength enriched light, otherwise known as blue light, from these electronic devices,” noted Anne-Marie Chang, PhD, one of the authors, in a press release. Avoiding bright screens for two to screen hours before bed could help.
6. Cancer worries
While some large, well-designed studies have found no extra cancer risk for cell phone users, a recent study from Sweden’sUniversity Hospital in Orebro found otherwise. People who had used a mobile phone for 25 years or more tripled their risk for a glioma, the most common type of brain cancer. This cancer usually affects about 5 in 100,000 people.
If you’re concerned, don’t fall for questionable products that claim to block the radiofrequency energy that cell phones emit, the Food and Drug Administration says. Instead, reduce your exposure by using headset or the speaker on your phone, texting instead of calling, stashing your phone in your bag instead of your pocket and making calls only when you have a strong signal. Phones emit more radiation when the signal is weak, according to the Environmental Working Group.