The truth behind the headlines

We're often bombarded with conflicting medical advice. Careful reading can help you sort the fact from the fiction.
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Don't believe the hype

Turn on the news or pick up a paper and you can't help but be hit with a barrage of conflicting health information: One minute cell phones are safe, the next they're giving you brain cancer. One study says a glass of wine is heart-healthy, another warns it causes breast cancer. Confused? Small wonder. "Unfortunately, the media often jumps on controversial studies or biased research before it's been substantiated by the medical community," says Ted Gansler, M.D., medical editor for patient information at the American Cancer Society. To sort it all out, Ladies' Home Journal went to the country's top medical experts.

The cell-phone controversy

The claim: Cell phones cause brain cancer. One Swedish study published last year found a link between long-term use of the older analog cell phones and brain cancer; research in rats has shown a link between cell-phone radiation and potentially cancer-causing DNA damage.

The counterclaim: Cell phones are safe. The largest study to date, published last February in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, surveyed 420,000 cell-phone users from 1982 and 1995 and concluded there was no evidence of a brain-cancer link. Two smaller studies, published last December in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine, came to similar conclusions.

Expert analysis: Cancer experts feel that cell phones are safe for short-term use--but note that more long-term research is needed. "Studies show that using cell phones for ten or fifteen years doesn't seem to increase brain-cancer risk, but we don't have any research that goes beyond that," says Gansler. He points out that the analog phones in the Swedish study emit much more radiation than today's digital ones. And as for laboratory studies, "Results are much different in a test tube or a rat than they are in humans," he adds.

But other experts are more cautious. "Brain tumors grow slowly and may not be detected for more than a decade," warns Henry Lai, Ph.D., professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

The bottom line: Until 20- or 30-year studies are available to demonstrate cell-phone safety, take some precautions. Start with a hands-free headset, which may minimize exposure to radiation. Keep your phone away from your body when you're not using it. Joshua Muscat, Ph.D., of the American Health Foundation in Valhalla, New York, also recommends using the newer digital phones, which have less radiation than analog. Don't use it when signal strength is poor, since that means the phone has to work harder, causing it to emit more radiation. And keep your kids off cell phones, since researchers don't know how radiation affects a developing brain. As for devices that claim to protect against radiation, "There's no evidence that they work," says Muscat.

Continued on page 2:  Carpal tunnel confusion


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