Message sent: Cell phone distractions can kill

While scientists are currently split on the level of danger that the biological effects of the magnetic field emitted by cellular telephones pose to humans, there is near unanimity on the dangers of distracted driving.

Studies show that drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers, and the likelihood that they will crash is equal to that of someone with a 0.8 percent blood alcohol level, the point at which drivers are generally considered intoxicated. Research also shows that hands-free devices do not eliminate the risks, and may worsen them by suggesting the behavior is safe.

A 2003 Harvard study estimated that cell phone distractions cause 2,600 traffic deaths and 330,000 accidents that result in moderate or severe injuries, every year, in the United States. In the Philippines, records from the National Statistics Coordination Board (NSCB) show that in 2006, cell phone use while driving ranked as the 12th most common cause of traffic accidents. From 2001 to 2006, traffic accidents caused by cell phone use while driving increased more than five times in the Philippines, the highest increase among causes of traffic accidents.

The theory that hands-free sets are safer has been challenged by the findings of several studies. A study by researchers at the University of Utah published in 2006 concluded that talking on a cell phone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk, even if the phone is a hands-free model. In March 2008, research conducted by the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that drivers listening to cell phones equipped with hands-free devices had 37 percent less amount of brain activity associated with driving. The brain’s parietal lobe, which assimilates sensory information and is critical for spatial sense and navigation, and the occipital lobe, which processes visual information, showed less activity.

Driving while texting appears to be even worse. In a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study published only in July this year, the results showed that texting while driving is 23 times more likely to result in a crash than driving undistracted. During the study, some drivers were noted to have traveled as much as the length of a football field without their eyes on the road!

There are now 40 countries worldwide restricting or banning the use of cell phones while driving. Sadly, the Philippines is not one of them. The Automobile Association of the Philippines (AAP) has already issued a statement strongly supporting the ban on the use of cell phones while driving a motor vehicle, whether the phones are hand-held or hands-free. Many appear unaware, however, that the MMDA has an existing ban, issued since 2007, on the use of cell phones and hand-held radios while operating or driving motor vehicles in Metro Manila. The cities of Makati and Cebu have also imposed the same ban. Hopefully, our congressmen and senators will find time to finally enact a law that will effectively make the ban nationwide.

Q. Are there scientific studies that looked into the possible effects of cell phone use on other organ systems of the body? How reliable are these results?                     P.G., Bacolod City

A. Yes, there are numerous published studies that investigated the effects of cell phones on other health issues. The problem is that many of these studies are flawed — either because of the use of a small number of subjects, poor research methodology, and publication in non-peer reviewed medical journals, so the results are not quite conclusive. There are, for example, three studies that purportedly show that you can have an increased risk of infertility, develop hearing problems, and even suffer sleepless nights with too much use of your mobile phones.

Yes, using your mobile phone too much may harm your sperm cells, according to Cleveland Clinic scientists, who reported that men who talked on their mobiles for a total of two hours a day have 31 percent less sperm cells than those who use their cell phones less often or for a shorter duration. So, future dads, beware. Do not put your cell phones in your pants’ pockets!

Having trouble hearing the guy on the other side? Don’t be quick to blame your mobile service provider. It might be that your cell phone is harming your hearing, Indian researchers say. In a study of 100 mobile phone users, the scientists found that four years of heavy usage (defined by them as an hour a day) diminished the user’s ability to hear high frequencies, making it hard for them to distinguish between certain sounds. “The electromagnetic waves emitted by hand sets can affect your inner ear mechanics over time,” says Dr. Naresh Panda, the study’s lead author. Using a headset moves your mobile away from your ear.

And the longer you hold a mobile phone to your ear, the worse you’ll sleep, says scientists from Wayne State University in Michigan. They found that three hours of exposure to mobile signals significantly cuts the time you later spend in deep sleep. Their suggestion: Use a Bluetooth headset; it emits only a miniscule amount of electromagnetic energy.

Q. I was implanted with a cardiac pacemaker recently because of a slow heart rate. Is there a danger for me in using a cell phone? — B.F., Makati City

A. When cell phones first became popular, cardiologists worried that they might interfere with pacemakers and implantable cardioverter/defribillators (ICDs). A widely reported 1997 New England Journal of Medicine study then showed that interference did occur, mostly when the cell phone was held directly over the pacemaker.

Today’s pacemakers and ICDs, however, are built to ignore signals from mobile phones and other electronic devices. Two more recent studies published in the International Journal of Cardiology and Heart, reinforce the key message to cell phone users who have a pacemaker or ICD: Using a cell phone is safe as long as it isn’t right next to the pacemaker or ICD. That means don’t keep your cell phone in a pocket near your heart device and hold the phone to the ear on the side opposite it.

And lastly, good news for Filipinos — the text champions of the world. Texting is actually a safer way to communicate than by calling, says Dr. David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute of Health and the Environment at the University of Albany in New York. When you text, you hold your phone away from your body and this exposes yourself to less radiation than when you have the mobile to your ear.

Louis Bloomfield, PhD, professor of physics at the University of Virginia and author of How Everything Works: Making Physics Out of the Ordinary, explains, “Exposure to radiation from your mobile phone diminishes slowly for the first 6 cm. to 8 cm. from your body and then, it falls dramatically.”

So by texting rather than calling, you have a much reduced health risk while using your favorite modern gadget!

source: Philippine Star