Erin Ross Feb 2
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What you need to know about that big study on cell phones and cancer

A group of people use cell phones to take pictures of Prince William
The jury is still out, but cell phones probably won't cause cancer in humans. (Credit: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The kind of radiation emitted by cell phones increases the risk of heart cancer in mice, according to an NIH-funded report released today. But don't ditch your phones just yet: despite numerous studies, there's still no strong evidence cell phones cause cancer in humans.

Be smart: These rats were exposed to high levels of radiation over their entire bodies. This is not how humans are exposed to cell phone radiation. When asked in a press conference if he intends to change his cell phone use, or tell his children to do so, study author John Bucher said, unequivocally, "no."

The details: This is the most thorough animal study on cell phones and cancer to date.

  • Researchers exposed both mice and rats to varying amounts of radiation. They were exposed in 10-minute increments (10 on, 10 off) for 9 total hours of exposure each day.
  • Exposure started before they were born, and continued for two years.
  • The wavelengths were equivalent to 2g and 3g connections, which were common at the time the study was started. )Today, phones still use 2g and 3g wavelengths when making calls, but not when using data.)

The dosage: The highest levels of radiation the rats and mice were exposed to were equal to the highest levels cell phones are allowed to emit. Cell phones only produce that much radiation when they're struggling to connect to a tower.

  • The amount of radiation that people experience from using their phones is "very, very, very much lower," Bucher said.
  • It's common for studies like this to use improbable amounts of a potential toxin or carcinogen: If no effects are found under worst-case-scenarios, there's no need to keep testing lower doses. Future studies will figure out what the risk is for humans in real-world scenarios, but for now it seems minimal.

The definitive findings: 6% of male rats developed a rare type of heart cancer. The same types of cancer have been linked to cell phone usage in previous studies. No female rats and none of the mice had increased cancer rates. The authors suggest that there is "some evidence" radiation can cause this type of cancer in rats. That's the second-highest classification they use, after 'clear evidence'. Again, more research is needed to determine the effects on humans.

The Food and Drug Administration said in a statement it believes current levels of cell phone exposure are safe.

The context: A lot of things can increase your risk of cancer. Some — like smoking, sun exposure or drinking alcohol — can have a large effect. Others, like coffee consumption or eating gingko, have a less clear effect. Cancer rates have been dropping for the last several decades, in part because we’re smoking less and wearing sunscreen.

1 weird thing: The irradiated rats actually lived longer than the control rats, because they had lower rates of a common rat kidney disease. That's probably because similar types of radiation can decrease inflammation.

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Airlines may not be the "germ incubator" you thought

Inside of an airplane
Photo: via Getty Images

The chance of becoming infected with a common respiratory virus on an airplane may be smaller than originally thought — less than 3% unless you are sitting within one meter of an infected person, where your chances rise to 80%, according to a study published in PNAS Monday.

Why it matters: There are more than 3 billion airline passengers annually, and global health officials want to learn more how infectious diseases are transmitted, particularly after reported transmission of cases of flu pandemic and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) via planes.

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Early humans innovated tools earlier than thought

Archaeologist Rick Potts squats in the Olorgesailie Basin in Kenya with various surprisingly sophisticated tools found from 320,000 years ago.
Richard Potts surveys assortment of Early Stone Age handaxes discovered in the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya. Photo: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

Unpredictable climate and natural disasters like earthquakes may have spurred early humans to create innovative tools and ways to communicate earlier than previously thought, according to 3 studies published Thursday in Science.

What they found: Evidence that around 320,000 years ago — near the start of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and tens of thousands of years earlier than previous evidence has shown — early humans in East Africa may have created projectile hunting tools, developed ways to communicate using colors for mapping or identification purposes, and traveled longer distances to trade, hunt or obtain valuable materials.

"It's not just humans changing but really the entire ecosystem. It's a picture that's bigger than just the human ancestors themselves."
— Smithsonian's Richard Potts, who spearheaded the studies