Technobuddy: Dialing for danger

When I think of the dangers of cell phones, I picture my wife -- a real estate agent -- rooting around in her giant purse, trying to find her ringing phone as she drives along.

There's no doubt about the danger of that. But there is a murkier danger -- one that was being discussed years ago when I started writing this column. To this day, scientists are still divided on whether radiation from cell phones can increase the risk of cancer.

Radiation is a loaded word that conjures up unreasonable fear. So let's be clear about what we're talking about.

Your cell phone is a tiny transceiver -- a combination transmitter and receiver. Power is radiated when you use it. But it's not the same kind of radiation produced by nuclear reactions and X-rays. That's the far more dangerous type called ionizing radiation. Cell phones produce less harmful non-ionizing radiation. However, as exposure time and power level increases, non-ionizing radiation is a hazard too.

The real argument is over how much non-ionizing radiation is too much. But if a world of physicians and scientists can't agree, it would be vainglorious for me to serve as the tie breaker. I can't know.

To be clear, there is no proof that using your cell phone will increase your chances of getting cancer. But plenty of credible scientists believe there is a correlation between heavy cell phone use and cancer. Here's a link to a Swedish study that suggests that kind of a link: .

That's not the only study like that out there. If you Google, you'll find dozens of studies that suggest a correlation -- along with reports from credible scientists who disagree.

I can't tell you who is right. But I can give you ways to reduce the amount of radiation you get from cell phones. It's seems like common sense to be aware of the possible danger and then protect yourself and your family as best you can. Even if some final study says there is no danger, there's no risk in following my tips.

So let's start with the fact that not all cell phones are created equal. Some produce more radiation than others. I recommend that you use one of the low radiation phones. Several organizations including  CNET and the Environmental Working Group have produced charts that show the amount of radiation produced by popular phones.

Here's a chart showing radiation levels for phones on the market in 2010 by the Environmental Working Group: .

Next, consider spending less time using your cell phone. When you know the conversation will be a long one, use a wired phone.

That said, I realize cell phones are now part of life. Some people don't even have a regular wired phone. That means exposure to cell phone radiation is a bigger deal than when cell phones weren't as common. So let's talk about ways regular cell phone users can reduce the risk a bit.

The closer your cell phone is to your body, the more radiation you get. Even holding a phone two inches from your ear dramatically reduces the amount of radiation zapping your brain.

You'd think clipping your phone to your belt and using a hands free earpiece and microphone would be a no-brainer next step. But it isn't. Wired earpieces can serve as an antenna that actually concentrates the radiation that your brain receives. And many wireless earpieces are just tiny transmitter/receivers that produce their own radiation.

The safest way to use a cell phone is to hold it away from your body and use the speakerphone setting. Almost everyone agrees that radiation exposure in that mode is minimal.

I doubt many of you are going to routinely use the speakerphone setting. It eliminates privacy and isn't practical in many situations. But there is still a way to reduce radiation, even when you must hold the cell next to your ear. Simply shift the phone from one ear to the other at regular intervals. That means you aren't concentrating all that radiation on one side of your head.

My last tip involves those bars displayed on the cell phone screen. The bars indicate the strength of the signal.

Cell phones are most dangerous when the signal is very weak. Here's why: In weak signal areas the cell phone cranks up its power automatically in an attempt to compensate. So you are exposed to more radiation during times like that.

Adopt as many of my tips as you can. Even if the radiation fears prove groundless, your stress levels and mental health are bound to improve by spending less time on the cell phone.