Cut Your Cell Phone Cancer Risk

Does the World Health Organization’s statement that cell phones may cause cancer have you thinking twice about making that phone call?

Of course it’s alarming to think that something that’s become such a can’t-live-without can be linked to brain cancer, but there’s a lot even the most cell phone-addicted people can do to minimize health risks.

Any potential links to cancer stem from the low levels of radiation cell phones emit. Lower your exposure to the radiation, and you’ll reduce the potential links to cancer or other health problems:

– Use a headset. Sounds obvious, but headsets emit much less radiation than cell phones do, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and they keep your cell phone away from your head. The farther away you are from a source of radiation, the less damage it can do.
– Text when you can. Your constantly texting teens are onto something: Cell phones use less energy (and emit less radiation) when you text than when you talk, says the EWG. Texting also keeps the radiation source farther away from your brain.
– Use cell phones for FYI-only calls. Don’t use your cell phone for that long overdue, hour-long catch-up with your sister. Keep calls as short as possible — Do you need me to get the dry cleaning, honey? — and switch to a landline if they’re veering off into chitchat territory.
– Watch the bars. Can you hear me now? If you’re struggling to maintain a connection, ditch the call and wait until you have better service. When your phone has fewer signal bars, it has to work harder (and, therefore, emit more radiation) to connect.
– Keep the phone away from your ear when you can. EMF-Health.com recommends waiting for the call to connect before you bring the phone to your ear, which minimizes radiation exposure. And when you talk, tilt the phone away from your ear and bring it in close when you’re listening. That’s because the radiation levels are “significantly less when a cell phone is receiving signals than when it is transmitting,” Lin Zhong, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University in Houston, told The New York Times.
– Don’t make calls in elevators or cars. You already it’s dangerous to talk and drive; EMF-Health.com says that cell phones use more power to establish a connection in enclosed metal spaces like cars and elevators.
– Make sure your kids use the landline. It seems like even toddlers are using cell phones today, but experts say kids are the most vulnerable to potential radiation dangers. The EWG says children’s brains absorb twice as much cell phone radiation as adults. According to The New York Times, health authorities in Britain, France, Germany, and Russia all have warnings against letting children use cell phones.
– Buy a low-radiation phone. Some cell phones emit more radiation than others; if you’re in the market for a new phone, EMF-Health.com recommends that you consider the phone’s SAR (specific absorption rate), a way of measuring the radiation absorbed by the body. It’s usually listed in the phone’s instruction manual. You can also look at the EWG’s report of cell phone SARs here — from the LG Quantum’s 0.35 W/kg on the low end to the Motorala Bravo’s 1.59 W/kg on the high end

Foam Cups With Chemical is a Possible Carcinogen

The chemical styrene, ubiquitous in foam coffee cups and take-out containers, has been added to the list of chemicals considered possible human carcinogens, according to a new U.S. government report.

On Friday, experts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services added styrene, along with five other chemicals — captafol, cobalt-tungsten carbide (in powder or hard metal form), certain inhalable glass wool fibers, o-nitrotoluene and riddelliine — to its list of 240 substances that are “reasonably anticipated” to be carcinogenic.

But before you toss those white plastic take-out containers, keep this in mind: the government report says that by far the greatest exposure to styrene comes from cigarette smoke. In fact, one study cited in the report estimates that exposure from smoking cigarettes was roughly 10 times that from all other sources, including indoor and outdoor air, drinking water, soil and food combined.

Styrene is a widely used chemical. Products that contain it include insulation, fiberglass, plastic pipes, automobile parts, drinking cups and other food containers and carpet backing, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.

Studies in the lab, animals and humans — particularly workers in industries such as reinforced plastic that expose them to higher than normal levels of the chemical — suggest that exposure to styrene causes damage in white blood cells, or lymphocytes and may raise the risk of lymphohematopoietic cancer, such as leukemia and lymphoma.

There is also evidence exposure may raise the risk of esophageal and pancreatic cancer among styrene-exposed workers, according to the Report on Carcinogens, prepared by the National Toxicology Program, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The report also issued its strongest warning about two other chemicals, formaldehyde (widely used as a preservative) and a botanical known as aristolochic acids, adding both to the list of “known” carcinogens.

“The strength of this report lies in the rigorous scientific review process,” said Ruth Lunn, director of the National Toxicology Program Office of the Report on Carcinogens, in a news release.

Aristolochic acids have been shown to cause high rates of bladder or upper urinary tract cancer in people with kidney or renal disease who consumed botanical products containing aristolochic acids, according to the report. Despite a U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning against the use of products containing aristolochic acids, it can still be purchased on the Internet and abroad, particularly in herbal products used to treat arthritis, gout and inflammation.

Formaldehyde has long been listed as a substance “reasonable anticipated” to cause cancer after animal studies showed it increased the risk of nasal cancer. Since then, additional studies in humans have shown exposure increases the risk for certain types of rare cancers, including nasopharyngeal (the nasopharnyx is the upper part of the throat behind the nose), sinonasal and myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells, prompting federal officials to strengthen its warning.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is widely used to make resins for household items, such as composite wood products, paper product coatings, plastics, synthetic fibers, and textile finishes. Formaldehyde is also used as a preservative in medical laboratories, mortuaries, and in some hair straightening products.

Representatives of industry took issue with the addition of both formadelhyde and styrene to the NTP’s list.

“It will unfairly scare workers, plant neighbors and could have a chilling effect on the development of new products,” Tom Dobbins, a spokesman for the American Composites Manufacturers Association, told The New York Times. “Our companies are primarily small businesses, and this could hurt jobs and local economies.”

The federal panelists were quick to stress that the public shouldn’t panic over the inclusion of any one substance in the Report on Carcinogens.

“A listing in the report does not by itself mean that a substance will cause cancer,” John Bucher, associate director of the NTP, told Bloomberg News in a conference call with reporters. Many factors, including the amount and duration of exposure, as well as an individual’s susceptibility can affect whether a person will develop cancer.

Googling Your Memory

Before the advent of home computers and cell phones, you probably memorized a lot more information — such as phone numbers and birthdays — than you do now.

Not surprisingly, a new study has found that the brain just doesn’t remember information as well if the person knows that the information has been saved on a computer. What people may remember, however, is where they need to look on the computer to access that information.

What isn’t yet clear is how these changing memory patterns may change the brain in the long run.

“I think [technology] might hurt the type of memorization that we usually think about, like remembering the name of an actress, but I think there might be some benefits, too,” said study author Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Columbia University in New York City.

“If you take away the mindset of memorization, it might be that people get more information out of what they are reading, and they might better remember the concept,” she explained.

Sparrow and her co-authors point out that the ways people rely on computers for information is myriad. From the score of a ballgame to learning how to compute a statistical formula to figuring out just who that actor was in the movie you recently saw, a few keystrokes can reveal what you’re looking for.

“People automatically think of using a search engine and computers and smart phones to find information they don’t know. It’s as if we’re using those devices as external memory sources, and we wondered if by doing things this way people wouldn’t remember as well,” said Sparrow.

To test whether or not relying on technology affects the memory, the researchers designed four experiments. All of the study volunteers were college students.

The first experiment had 46 volunteers, and the researchers asked the volunteers two different blocks of trivia questions. Some were easy questions, such as “Does 2 plus 3 equal 5?” while others were such difficult questions that it would be almost impossible for the volunteers to know the answer without using the computer. For example, a possible question was, “Does Denmark contain more square miles than Costa Rica?”

The volunteers were then shown a group of general words, such as table or telephone, or computer words, such as “modem,” “screen,” “Google” or “Yahoo.” Then, they were asked to identify the color of each word (either red or blue). Participants who had just attempted to answer the difficult questions responded to the color questions slower (by about 120 milliseconds) than those who hadn’t. Sparrow said this is because they had been primed to think about using the computer to find out the answers, which slowed their reaction time. She added that the longest response time was to the word “Google.”

The second, third and fourth experiments had 60, 28 and 34 volunteers, respectively, and each experiment built off the previous one.

In the second experiment, the volunteers answered trivia questions and typed in their answers. Half thought the information would be saved, while the other half thought it would be erased. Those who thought they wouldn’t have access to that information later remembered the information better than those who thought it had been saved.

For the third experiment, volunteers again typed in their answers to trivia questions. They were then told the information had been saved, erased or saved to a specific folder. Again, those who thought the information was erased had the best recall, according to Sparrow.

In the final experiment, the researchers told the volunteers that all of the information would be saved, and gave them generic file names, such as “FACTS,” “DATA,” “NAMES” or “INFO.” They were then asked to write down on a sheet of paper as many of the answers as they could remember, and where the information was stored. The researchers found that people remembered where they had stored the information more than what the information was.

Sparrow pointed out that this isn’t so different from how people rely on each other for external memory. For example, you may know someone who retains a lot of sports info, and you may have another friend that’s a movie buff. In the past, if you needed this info, you would ask friends or family. Now, she said, the Internet is providing many people with lots of knowledge.

Results of the study were published online in Science on July 14.

Dr. Boris Leheta, a neurologist at St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit, said that while there may be unknown ramifications to using computers as external memory, he doesn’t see this as a “doomsday study.”

“If we’re not using the capacity we have for memory, there is definitely a concern because we do still need to perform some memorization tasks,” he said, but added that on the other hand, “Maybe we can spin the technology to our benefit. Maybe technology can alleviate us from excessive information overload.”

“An analogy might be the abacus. Would you say that someone who used an abacus in the past wasn’t challenged mathematically? Maybe the technology we think could be detrimental might turn out to be positive,” said Leheta.

But, he noted that this is an initial study, and more studies need to be done to confirm the findings and figure out exactly what the potential consequences might be.

Information ABout New Bacteria Linked to Tattoo Infections

An investigation into skin lesions that two people developed after getting tattoos has concluded that both were infected with a bacteria not previously linked to the practice.

The infections involved Mycobacterium haemophilum, which usually only strikes individuals whose immune system are compromised. In this instance, however, the patients, both from Seattle, developed rashing despite the fact that both had normal immune systems, a report on the investigation found.

“Two people developed chronic skin infections after receiving tattoos at the same parlor,” explained study lead author Dr. Meagan K. Kay from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The patrons were thought to have been exposed through use of tap water during rinsing and diluting of inks.”

Kay, an epidemic intelligence service officer with the CDC, and her team report their findings in the September issue of the CDC’s journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The authors pointed out that tattooing is not considered a sterile procedure, is not regulated at the federal level and can be risky. And while the specific inks and colorings (pigments) commonly used to apply tattoos are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the rules usually apply only when cosmetics or color additives are involved.

The latest concern about associated infection risk arose in 2009 when a 44-year-old man and a 35-year-old man sought care for skin infections that had developed at the site of tattoos acquired at a facility in the Seattle region.

Lesion cultures and lab testing revealed that M. haemophilum was the culprit in the case of the first patient. Skin evaluations and patient interviews led the researchers to conclude that the second man most probably also suffered from the same sort of bacterial infection, although they technically classified his situation as a “suspected case.”

A follow-up investigation of the tattoo parlor revealed that municipal water had been used to dilute the ink during the tattooing process.

Water is considered to be a source for M. haemophilum. And though the facility was cleared of any safety violations, and no M. haemophilum bacteria was found in analyzed water samples, the tattoo operators were told to use sterile water for all future tattoo applications.

“It is important to remember that tattooing is not a sterile procedure and infections can occur after tattoo receipt,” Kay said. “Measures should be taken by tattoo artists to prevent infections, including proper training, use of sterile equipment, and maintaining a clean facility. Use of tap water during any part of the tattoo procedure should be avoided,” she explained.

“Those who suspect an infection in their tattoo should consult with their doctors,” she added. “Common infections can present as increased redness, warmth, swelling, pain and discharge.”

Myrna L. Armstrong, professor emeritus at the school of nursing at Texas Tech University’s Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, said the investigation serves to highlight the general risks of getting a tattoo.

“This is an invasive procedure. And there’s basically no regulation in force. Or very sporadic regulation. So as someone who’s been looking into tattoos and body piercing for more than 20 years, I would say that it’s really not very surprising that this can happen,” Armstrong said.

“So while I’m not being negative to the industry, I do think that the customer does need to be aware of the situation he or she is getting into,” she added. “Shop around, review people’s techniques, and make sure [you] really want to have this done.

All About Vaccinations

Public health experts often focus immunization awareness efforts toward protecting children, and with good reason: Facing a potentially bewildering schedule of vaccinations for their young ones, parents usually need all the help they can get.

But vaccinations aren’t just kid stuff.

Medical science is creating an increasing number of immunizations targeted at adults, to help them avoid life-threatening diseases in middle-age and opportunistic infections when they’re older.

“Immunization is a life-long issue that we need to pay a lot of attention to,” said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Some adult vaccinations are very well-known, like the annual shot that aims to prevent the spread of influenza.

“You need an influenza shot every year,” Benjamin said. “Part of that is because the virus changes every year, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot.”

The flu vaccine is the least challenging of adult vaccines to promote because just about everyone can and should get one, with very few exceptions, said Dr. Carolyn B. Bridges, associate director for adult immunizations at the Immunization Services Division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“People don’t have to go through a process to figure out if they are indicated or not for the vaccine,” said Bridges, noting that, as of last year, everyone 6 years and older is recommended to receive an annual flu shot.

Newer vaccines, however, are targeted toward specific age groups, which can make it more difficult to figure out which shots are needed.

For example, the relatively new human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine prevents infection by a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer in women.

“The vaccine is recommended for younger girls, but young adults who didn’t receive it as preteens or teens can get it,” Bridges said. It’s still being debated whether boys and young men also should receive the vaccine, to keep them from spreading HPV to vulnerable women.

An increasing number of vaccines either target senior citizens specifically or are highly recommended for them. That’s because these immunizations give the immune system an extra boost when most needed, Benjamin and Bridges said.

“As we age, our ability to fight off disease wanes,” Benjamin said. “Vaccines can help offset the waning of your body’s normal immune responses.”

One example is the herpes zoster vaccination, which is recommended for everyone 60 or older, according to the CDC. The herpes zoster shot prevents the occurrence of shingles, a painful skin disorder linked to childhood infection with chicken pox, Bridges said.

Other vaccinations recommended for seniors include:

A pneumococcal vaccination at age 65, if you’ve never had the shot before. “We try to tag that to when you become Medicare eligible,” Benjamin said.
A second dose of the measles/mumps/rubella vaccination. “We encourage people to get a second dose of MMR at the age of 50 and older,” he said.
A tetanus/diphtheria booster every 10 years after age 65.
The influenza vaccine, every year. “Flu is still a major problem in terms of mortality for seniors,” Benjamin said.
People at increased risk for certain diseases, either because of work, illness or lifestyle, also might require vaccination as an adult.

For instance, those planning to travel abroad should talk with their family physician about shots they might need to provide additional protection against infectious disease. “If you’re going to travel to other places where you might have some risk for some diseases, you might need to get a travel vaccine,” Benjamin said.

Health-care workers also need to receive a wide variety of vaccinations, including hepatitis A and B shots, tetanus/diphtheria and measles/mumps/rubella, according to the CDC.

However, pregnant women are not recommended to get most vaccinations, Benjamin said. A notable exception, though, is the influenza vaccine, which pregnant women are encouraged to get, Bridges said.

“There are now numerous studies that have shown that influenza vaccine provides protection in an infant’s first six months of life,” she said. “The mother transfers antibody to the unborn child so when they are born they have some protection against influenza.”

Yet despite health-care workers’ efforts, some adults remain reluctant to get vaccinated because of various health concerns. A common one is that, by getting the flu shot, they will actually contract the flu.

Bridges said that public health officials need to help people overcome such fears so that they will protect themselves against deadly but easily avoidable illnesses.

“These vaccines are all licensed because they’ve been deemed safe and effective,” she said. “The risk of adverse events is much lower than the risk of severe illness.”

Onions Make Us Cry

For some people, slicing a raw onion is no big deal, but for others, it causes a stinging reaction that results in tears and mild discomfort.

What’s to blame for this teary reaction? Enzymes in the onion that release a pungent gas when you slice into it, and when the gas comes into contact with your eyes, it forms sulfuric acid, which is responsible for that telltale stinging sensation. “The more pungent the onion is, the more likely it will make you tear up,” says Irwin Goldman, PhD, department chair and professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

That means that yellow onions popular in cooking are the biggest culprits, and sweet, mild Vidalia onions are the least likely to trigger tears. Luckily, onions are the only type of vegetable that cause this crying reaction, because of their unique sulfur compounds.

So why do onions make you well up, but don’t seem to make your partner weepy at all? Dr. Goldman says it’s probably due to the individual chemistry of your eyes: Some people have little or no reaction to sulfuric acid, while others have a stronger sensitivity. And while some people find that wearing contact lenses reduces their onion-related tears, others may find it makes no difference.

Dry Up Those Onion Tears

To minimize onion-triggered weepiness, Goldman recommends freezing or chilling onions before cutting them up. The cold temperature causes a slower release of the enzymes, which helps reduce your reaction. “You can also start chopping an onion from the top end — where the skin comes together — instead of from the bottom end, where the stem is,” he adds. Enzymes are more conentrated in the bottom of the onion.

If onions cause you to tear up excessively, consider wearing eye protection when you slice them. “Swimming goggles really do work,” says Goldman. Or just delegate the chore to another cook in the kitchen.