Author Dispels, Addresses Common Myths

A new book addresses myths about modern life.

June 6, 2007 — -- In "Never Shower in a Thunderstorm: Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths About Our Health and the World We Live In" author Anahad O'Connor investigates and rebuffs some facts, urban legends and old wives' tales. The New York Times columnist spent more than two years working on the book. Now he opens it up to reveal answers on a variety of subjects, including dieting (yo-yo dieting does not mess up your metabolism) and fiction (sitting too close to the television does not hurt your eyes). Here is an excerpt.

Chapter Nine

Modern Times

How Safe Is Your Cell?

There is no question about it: technology sets the pace today.

We have BlackBerries to tether us to the office, computers to connect us to the whole wide world, microwaves to zap our food in an instant, cars to keep us moving, cell phones to keep us talking, iPods to keep us humming, and televisions to keep us busy. Everywhere around us, there are gadgets large and small designed to make our lives easier, quicker, and more efficient.

And we're all affected. Take a walk around the streets of Manhattan and you'll be startled to discover that the average person -- with all his digital devices -- seems like a one-man mobile office. To the extent that living like this allows us to accomplish more with our lives, that can be a good thing.

But it is also inherently human to wonder whether all this technological progress poses some perils. And not just in the Hollywood-inspired, science-fiction sense that one day all these machines will rise up and turn against us. Most of us worry about the more subtle cost of living in a world where -- when it comes down to it -- almost everything we're exposed to is unnatural. We spend most of our lives in air-conditioned, artificially lit homes and offices that are noisy, dusty, and far removed from the plains where our ancestors once roamed.

Technology may have some obvious benefits, but it also forces us to put up with some strange side effects. Our food, for example, is genetically altered. Our phones leak radiation. Our televisions strain our eyes. Our airplanes expose us to X-rays. Our microwaves literally irradiate our food. And our indoor plumbing -- well, even that's not the straightforward convenience it seems.

What's more, much of modern technology (except your master bathroom) is so relatively new that, in a way, we are all part of an experiment. We almost always obsess over the risks of things before we have the time to study and fully understand their long-term safety. Cell phones have been around long enough for scientists to know the hazards they pose only in the short term, say, using one every day for four or five years. But is the risk any greater when a person uses one virtually every day for more than a decade, or, as the preteens with their splashy ring tones will eventually find out, over the course of a lifetime?

It's natural to wonder how all our artificial devices are affecting our bodies and our health.

Do you risk electrocution if you shower during a thunderstorm? How about when talking on the phone?

It sounds too bizarre to be true (and makes a great book title). But the answer to this question illustrates that sometimes the medical absurdities we shrug off as myth are not so bogus after all.

When I first heard this warning years ago, I took it as a sign that my parents were losing their marbles. Get out of the tub because there's thunder outside? You have got to be kidding me, I thought. Sure, everyone knows from summers at the swimming pool that water attracts lightning, but your bathroom is a tad more protected. And if ever there was a good time to take a nice long, hot, relaxing shower, it's when I'm stuck inside because the weather is nasty. My dad had to be making it up -- likely just wanting me to speed up my luxuriating and save some money on the water bill. So I was eager to see this myth finally crumble under my reportorial scrutiny, like so many that had come before it.

Instead I found myself eating a heaping plate of crow.

The basis of the claim that people can be electrocuted in their homes during a thunderstorm is that a bolt of lightning that hits a building -- even one that is protected against severe weather -- can travel through plumbing, into metal pipes and wiring, and shock anyone who comes into contact with a faucet or appliance. Metal pipes are not only excellent conductors of electricity, but they also carry tap water laden with impurities that help conduct electrical current.

Lightning may look spectacular and ferocious, but it's inherently lazy. When a bolt of lightning strikes, the current follows the path of least resistance to the ground, meaning it will gladly jump from a good conductor (a metal pipe) to a much better one (you). If the current from a strike is loosed in your water pipes and you happen to be standing in your bathtub twisting the hot water knob, your morning wake-up shower just might pack a little extra punch.

To be sure, in the real world, the odds of this happening are minute. But it happens, and sometimes with amusing results.

In October 2006, a twenty-seven-year-old woman in Croatia was brushing her teeth at home when lightning struck her building and made its way to her faucet. As the woman was rinsing her teeth in the sink, the current entered her mouth and exited -- no lie -- through her rear end.

"I felt it pass through my torso and then I don't remember much at all," the woman, Natasha Timarovic, was quoted as saying in the Times of London and other news outlets.

Putting aside the crude and nearly irresistible jokes, it turns out that the lightning may have failed to ground through the woman's feet because she was wearing cheap rubber-soled shoes. According to her doctors, those rubber shoes -- or, as a scientist might say, "those poor electrical conductors" -- probably saved her life.

Perhaps I should invest in some bathroom flip-flops.

One scientist who can rattle off so many absurd tales like this that he could easily make a living charging fees as a dinner guest, is Ron Holle, a former meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Holle, who spends much of his time tracking lightning injuries, estimated that ten to twenty people are shocked every year in the United States while bathing, using faucets, or handling appliances during thunderstorms. Roughly one of those poor souls is actually killed.

"There are a ton of myths about lightning," he told me, "but this is not one of them."

In a storm, a protected building acts somewhat like a metal cage. Electricity from a lightning strike is conducted around you and eventually dissipates into the ground. That is why those lightning rods stationed on top of your building are so important: they can safely direct the current to the ground.

There is no real risk other than your plumbing unless you happen to be touching something connected to a conducting path and your building does not have a lightning rod or is not properly grounded. Nowadays, in urban settings at least, most buildings and utilities are well grounded. Freak accidents do occur, but they're rare.

Mary Ann Cooper, a doctor who runs the Lightning Injury Research Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said people have been shocked and even killed while chatting on the phone during thunderstorms -- another long-standing fear. In 1985, for example, a high school student in New Jersey was killed when a bolt of lightning caused an electrical surge to flow through his telephone wire, enter his ear, and stop his heart. Investigators later found that the telephone lines in his home were not grounded because the wiring had not been installed properly.

Can watching too much television shorten a kid's attention span?

We live in the age of TV. And we're not just TV lovers, we're TV junkies. The average American child watches about four hours of television a day and each year sees thousands of movies, shows, and television commercials. By the time the average teenager graduates from high school, she's spent half as much time sitting in a classroom as sitting on a couch with her eyes fixed on the tube.

Considering all the quality time kids are spending with their television sets these days, it's worth addressing that age-old question: Are televisions turning children into morons?

There's no doubt that watching television is strongly associated with low intelligence. Plenty of studies show that children who watch a dozen or more hours of television each week have lower reading scores and generally do less well academically than their peers whose parents have no problem flicking the "off" switch. But that doesn't prove that television directly harms the brain, more that it simply deprives a kid of study time.

So to answer the question more directly, scientists have been trying to find a link between watching television and decreased attention span, particularly in infants and toddlers. That's because in the first few years of life, the brain develops swiftly. It's commonly thought that stimulating environments -- like the rapid-fire stimulation of television -- can set off changes in the brain.

But permanent damage?

Apparently, yes. A study of twenty-five hundred children published in the journal Pediatrics found that the more television children between the ages of one and three watch, the greater their risk of having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at age seven. In some cases, all it took was an extra hour of television a day to heighten the odds of developing the disorder by a staggering 10 percent. And previous studies of television and its link to ADHD had similar findings.

But parents who cringe at the sound of that can breathe a little easier. Two other large, careful studies that followed failed to find any link between television exposure and symptoms of ADHD at all, including one study that looked at five thousand kindergarteners across the country. What most scientists suspect is that there is some small effect, but that it's probably minor. In a country where half of all households have three or more televisions and nearly 60 percent of children have a television in their bedroom, let's hope they're right.

But even then, concerns remain. Too much television has been linked to poor sleep, a greater likelihood of taking up smoking, and obesity. It takes about five or more hours of TV viewing a day to see such effects in your life. Let me repeat: five hours -- that's from Wheel of Fortune all the way through prime time till the end credits of The Late Show with David Letterman. Reason to worry? In 2005, the average person watched four and a half hours of television a day.

does sitting too close to the tv damage your eyes?

It was more than seventy years ago that television sets first went on sale, and something tells me it was just as long ago that a cautious mother, noticing a son or daughter propped in front of that mesmerizing new invention, snapped and barked the words that children have grown up hearing ever since: "Get away from the screen; you'll ruin your eyes!"

One small difference between then and now? Today, scientists can say with certainty that the warning is a sham.

Before the 1950s, television sets emitted levels of radiation that after repeated and extended exposure could have heightened the risk of eye problems in some people. Several studies that were conducted before 1970 showed that the levels of radiation emitted by televisions were precariously high. Some even gave off X-rays. A small percentage were above the recommended cutoff of about 0.5 millirems per hour.

But modern televisions are far different machines. Not only are they made with better shielding, they also use lower voltage, so radiation is no longer an issue. According to some studies, the average dose of radiation experienced by a person who watches television regularly and sits within a few feet of the set is about 1 millirem over the course of a year -- about a tenth of the amount of radiation you'd get from a single chest X-ray.

"This is not an old wives' tale; it's an old technology tale," observed Dr. Norman Saffra, the chairman of ophthalmology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. "Based on the world our grandmothers lived and grew up in, it was an appropriate recommendation."

But those days are gone. Feel free to sit as close to the television as you want -- whether it's to get a better look at those gorgeous doctors on Grey's Anatomy or to test the theory that, if you sit close enough, you'll be transported inside.

Keep in mind, though, that while concentrating on a screen for hours on end may not cause blindness, it can lead to eyestrain. Keeping the room fairly well lighted while the television is on and peeling your eyes from the screen every now and then can help prevent this.

Parents should also be alert for the child who keeps creeping closer to the screen. Not because of radiation, of course, but because it's a sign that your child may need glasses.

Can loud music cause permanent hearing loss?

The amplified din of a rock concert or a few hours at a noisy bar can numb your ears for a day or two. But will it make you go deaf?

Studies show that most people regularly experience levels of noise and music that, over time, can leave them hard of hearing for life. No surprise then that a third of all cases of permanent hearing loss are caused by noise from recreational and work-related activities.

In most cases, the damage is often accompanied by a nonstop buzzing called tinnitus, which is a lot worse than it sounds. Imagine a fly circling your ear that, no matter how many times you swat at it, just won't go away -- for life.

There are two types of noise that can cause this type of hearing loss: loud impulse noise, like an explosion, or loud continuous noise, like the kind that pours through your window at 6 a.m. when a construction crew decides to repave the street in front of your house for the next eight months. Both types can harm extremely sensitive hair cells in the inner ear as well as the hearing nerve.

All it takes to get to this point are repeated doses of noise at levels between 90 and 140 decibels. Those levels are fairly common. The clamor at most bars and clubs registers 110-120 decibels. Amplified music at a concert can reach 120 decibels and climb to an ear-throbbing 130 decibels, rivaling the sound of a jet taking off. Heavy traffic can reach 85 decibels.

But the most pervasive -- and yet widely unknown -- threat to our eardrums are those sleek MP3 players we all carry around these days. The sound they produce can soar to 100 decibels -- louder than a lawn mower.

While most people covet the hours of nonstop music and the small, snug earpieces that come with their MP3 players, those features make them a hazard.

In a study published in 2004 in the journal Ear and Hearing, Dr. Brian Fligor of Harvard Medical School looked at a variety of headphones and found that the smaller they were, the higher their output levels at any given volume control setting.

Compared with larger headphones that cover the entire ear, some insertable headphones, like the ones sold with iPods, increased sound levels by up to 9 decibels. That may not seem like much, but because decibels are measured in logarithmic units, it can mean the difference between the noise output of an alarm clock and a chain saw.

The other problem is that the insertable headphones that come with MP3 players are not as efficient at blocking background noise as the larger ones that cover the ear, so there is more incentive to turn up the volume, and many of us do just that.

Can you hear me now?

Does too much noise increase your risk of a heart attack?

Researchers have long suspected that too much exposure to everyday noise -- sirens, chaos at the office, the jingle of a Mister Softee truck -- can increase blood pressure and take a toll on your health. You know that irritation you feel every time a garbage truck rumbles past your house or the sound of a jackhammer hits your ears? Think of what all that frustration can do over the course of a lifetime.

The physiological chain reaction that occurs when you're jarred by a loud and oppressive noise goes something like this: the noise causes a psychological reaction first -- anger, stress, or fear, for instance -- which then causes levels of adrenaline and other sweat-inducing hormones to soar. Ultimately that increases your blood pressure, your plasma lipid levels, and, bottom line, your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Like all things in life, women and men seem to react differently when it comes to the toll of loud noises on their bodies, and it also varies enormously from one person to the next. No one is completely sure why. Genetics and personality certainly play a role, and it may have something to do with ingrained evolutionary differences in the way men and women generally cope with emotional hardships. Men, for example, are more likely to suffer heart attacks when stressed because they release hormones such as testosterone, which amplifies that dangerous chain reaction of increasing blood pressure and plasma lipid levels. Women, on the other hand, tend to respond to stress by releasing hormones like oxytocin, which has a calming, soothing effect.

On a more basic scientific level, a few studies over the years have found that there is indeed a link between constant exposure to noise of all kinds and a higher risk of heart disease.

One of the more interesting studies was published in the European Heart Journal. It looked at the levels of work and environmental noise that four thousand people -- half of them heart attack survivors -- were experiencing daily and found that chronic noise exposure, after adjusting for factors like smoking and age, was responsible for a "mild to moderate" increase in the risk of heart disease. (Other studies have gone further, and found that people who wear earplugs at work have a lower risk than their colleagues who don't.)

When it came to the rumble and commotion of traffic and other environmental noises, women showed nearly a threefold increase in their risk and men nearly a 50 percent increase. Women, though, didn't seem to be affected by high levels of noise in the office, even though for men it increased the risk by nearly a third.

It's not clear why, but some scientists think women may have an easier time adjusting to the types of noise that are more common in the office settings: talking, chitchat, and the occasional verbal spat. Then again, there's no real way to confirm that this is the case. It's technically a hypothesis, which amounts to the scientific equivalent of an assumption. Translation: your guess is as good as mine.

Do microwave ovens kill the nutrients in your food?

They're a staple in kitchens, dorm rooms, and eating establishments everywhere, but people still suspect that the radiation put out by microwave ovens can ruin the healthfulness of their food, destroying all sorts of vitamins and nutrients.

Chalk it up to our good old mistrust of anything that brings to mind the words nuke and radiation. We associate power lines with cancer, cell phones with brain tumors, and nuclear reactors with grave danger. So of course it follows that microwaves would be given the same treatment. I've even been asked by some people whether just standing in front of a microwave is enough to give you cancer (no).

Anti-microwave rants and diatribes flood the Internet. They all say the same thing: microwaves suck the vitamins right out of your food. One popular Web site says that eating food cooked à la microwave will raise your cholesterol, cause a drop in hemoglobin, "destabilize" your cells -- essentially everything but cause you to grow horns.

That sounds like a bit much considering that microwaves warm up food by causing the molecules in them to vibrate, basically an accelerated version of what happens in the oven. And a quick look at the science shows that microwaves have little or no effect on nutritional value.

To be sure, every cooking method can destroy vitamins and other nutrients in food. The factors that determine the extent of the damage are how long the food is cooked, how much liquid is used, and the cooking temperature. Since microwave ovens often use less heat than conventional methods and involve shorter cooking times, they generally have the least destructive effects.

The most heat-sensitive nutrients are water-soluble vitamins, like folic acid and vitamins B and C, which are common in vegetables.

In studies at Cornell University, scientists examined the effects of cooking on water-soluble vitamins in vegetables and found that spinach retained nearly all of its folate when cooked in a microwave, but lost about 77 percent when cooked on a stove. They also found, surprisingly, that bacon cooked by microwave has significantly lower levels of cancer-causing nitrosamines than conventionally cooked bacon.

When it comes to vegetables, cooking them by microwaving is problematic only if you add water, which greatly accelerates the loss of nutrients. A 2003 study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that broccoli cooked by microwave -- and immersed in water -- loses 74?97 percent of its antioxidants. When steamed or cooked without water, the broccoli retained most of its nutrients.

Can flying increase the risk of a miscarriage?

Hopping on a plane and flying for hours at a time is generally considered more of a nuisance than a health concern. But when it comes to a woman who is traveling for two, are the stakes a little higher?

Scientists have speculated for decades that frequent flying can heighten the risk of complications during pregnancy, arguing that low levels of oxygen, increased exposure to radiation, and other conditions aboard aircraft can harm a developing fetus. Some suspect it can even cause birth defects. (For every three or four hours of flight, you're exposed to the radiation equivalent of a chest X-ray.)

In centuries past, this would have never been an issue. For safety reasons, the nine months of pregnancy used to be known widely as a woman's "time of confinement," a time when a pregnant woman quit work, stayed home, and cut off all social ties. Back then, allowing an expectant mother to take long trips by horse buggy (much less by air!) would have been unheard of.

Today that would never happen. Having a baby for many women simply means factoring morning sickness, some extra trips to the doctor, and a couple of weeks of maternity leave into an already busy schedule. Surveys show that while many pregnant women fear the potential effects of flying on their babies, many feel they have no choice but to continue flying if it means risking their careers.

Fortunately, women who rack up their frequent flier miles while pregnant can do so without regret. A handful of studies have looked closely at air travel and the risk of complications, and so far none have uncovered any solid link. One of the more extensive studies was published in 1999 and focused on women who fly more than anyone: flight attendants.

From 1973 to 1994, the study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, examined the medical records and work activity of 1,751 pregnant flight attendants. Although it did not find high rates of complications, it did find that the flight attendants who worked during the early stages of pregnancy had a slightly higher risk of miscarriage than their peers who took time off.

But it was unclear whether undue stress or various other factors were to blame. Another study published a year earlier, for example, showed that while pregnant flight attendants who logged a lot of hours had a higher risk of miscarriage than their colleagues who took time off, they had the same risk of miscarriage as other working women (about 10-20 percent).

After reviewing years of research, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a report in 2001 saying that radiation exposure for the typical pregnant air traveler was minimal, and that the low pressures in the cabin were unlikely to affect oxygen supply to a fetus. The group recommended that women fly only up until their thirty-sixth week of pregnancy?not because there is any risk to the baby after that, but because you risk going into labor during a flight.

Is the back of an airplane the safest place to sit?

Okay. So you have to put up with the engine noise, the bathroom traffic, and of course the ugly prospect of being the last person off the plane. But I've always been told that flying coach is a blessing in disguise.

Irritating as it may be, sitting in the back of a plane is supposedly a good way to lower your odds of getting hurt in a crash. Put aside for a second the fact that the odds of surviving a major crash are minuscule no matter where you sit. Some people argue that, theoretically, the rear section of a plane is safer than the front because airplanes always seem to crash nose first (have you ever seen a plane hit the ground at top speed tail first?). Others argue that the wing portion is the safest section, saying that it makes sense from an engineering standpoint, since the wing is more structurally stable.

Or maybe it's something else. Maybe those of us who find ourselves relegated to economy class need some consolation to get us past those cold, snooty, privileged stares in first class. I know I sometimes do. ("Enjoy that extra leg room and your glass of merlot, buddy. If this plane goes down, you're out of luck.")

Whatever the reason, the notion that one section of a plane is any safer than another is not supported by the facts. Take it from Todd Curtis, an aviation safety expert who literally wrote the book on aviation safety data, Understanding Aviation Safety Data. Brainy and bespectacled, Curtis has the appearance of a friendly morning TV weatherman, but he keeps a detailed, no-nonsense, almost disturbing database of airline accidents and crashes at http://www.airsafe.com that can answer all sorts of grim (and not so grim) questions about flying.

Sometimes there is no simple yes or no answer. Poring over the details of countless airline mishaps going back decades, it's easy to see that every crash is so unique, with so many variables -- did the plane break apart, did it catch fire, did it collide in midair, did it go down over water -- that it's impossible to say that one seat is always safer than another.

Unlike the United States, most countries do not have agencies that conduct thorough accident investigations after every crash. And even with detailed information, like seating maps, it is difficult to determine where people were sitting or standing at the precise time of impact.

There are plenty of accidents where only passengers in the front of the plane survived, like the one in which a commuter plane crashed in Kentucky in August 2006, killing every person aboard but a single copilot in the cockpit. Conversely, there are plenty of crashes where only people in the rear survived. A good example is the 737 that crashed headfirst into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., in 1982, killing seventy-four of the seventy-nine people aboard. The survivors made it because the back of the plane was the only part that stayed above water for a few minutes after impact.

"If I knew a plane was crashing, the safest seat would be outside of the airplane," Curtis told me, only half jokingly. "Because the only way I can tell you which seat is technically the safest is to know what kind of crash dynamics we're looking at."

So what can you do to improve your odds? Most accidents occur while planes are descending, approaching the runway, or landing (about 60 percent) or during the takeoff and climbing phases (35 percent), so Curtis said it's best to fly nonstop, which reduces your exposure to these accident-prone stages of flight. A single, nonstop flight is safer than multiple short flights, even if that flight is six hours long.

As a rule, larger planes are safer than smaller ones, partly because they are subject to stricter safety regulations, but also because they have more structure that can absorb energy during an impact. Smaller aircraft have a larger percentage of crashes with 100 percent fatality rates than planes that can carry more than thirty passengers.

Do cell phones really cause brain cancer?

If you're like most people, you've wondered whether the countless hours you've spent yakking on your cell phone will come back to haunt you. Or maybe you're one of the four or five holdouts who still hasn't gotten a cell phone. In that case, you might not be completely opposed to all those loudmouths you've put up with over the years getting a good kick of karma.

Either way, the theory behind the assertion that cell phones cause brain cancer meets the gut test. Cell phones throw off a type of low-energy radiation known as radio frequency energy, and nothing in this world is more closely associated with cancer risk than exposure to radiation. Then there's this: at the same time that cell phones began popping up around this country like ants at a picnic, there also seemed to be a slight increase in the rates of brain cancer nationwide.

So what gives? In reality, the type of radiation emitted by cell phones is far different and less harmful than the powerful ionizing radiation you're exposed to through more traditional sources, like medical X-rays. Cell phone radiation is similar to the energy microwave ovens (which are considered safe) use to cook food, and it's released in smaller amounts and for longer periods of time.

So the basic question is whether minute levels of radiation, focused on your head for long periods of time, can do any damage.

There are plenty of people who insist that it can. David Reynard, a Florida businessman who worked in the telecommunications industry for years pioneering mobile phones, was one of the first people to file a lawsuit against the cell phone industry, alleging in the early 1990s that his wife developed a brain tumor from constantly chatting on her cell phone. Then a few years later, Chris Newman, a doctor in Baltimore -- and a neurologist no less -- diagnosed the cause of his own brain cancer. In an $800 million lawsuit filed against Motorola, he argued that a brain tumor developed in the exact anatomical spot where radiation from his cell phone would have permeated his skull.

It's important to note that both of those lawsuits were eventually dismissed for lack of evidence. And it's increasingly looking as though the larger scare they helped ignite will meet a similar fate, because scientific data suggest there's not much to it.

There are two different lines of evidence: epidemiological studies on humans and more direct studies on animals. In the lab, scientists have found that radio frequencies greater than 2,000 megahertz can harm strands of DNA in animals, resulting in cancerous mutations. But most mobile phones operate in a far lower frequency, generally between 800 and 1,900 megahertz (and usually on the lower end of the spectrum).

And while a few epidemiological studies have found a link between cell phone use and cancer, many more have not.

In 2000, a study by the National Cancer Institute looked at nearly eight hundred patients with brain tumors and found that they were no more likely to have used cell phones than a group of healthy subjects. Those who used their phones the most did not have higher rates of cancer, and tumors were no more likely to develop on the side of the head where the device was held than on the other. Another large study published the same year in the New England Journal of Medicine had similar results, as did a later study of thousands of cell phone users in Denmark. And yet another study, in 2006, found no link after comparing hundreds of people who had brain tumors to nearly a thousand who didn't and went a step further. It pored over phone company records to make sure subjects' reports of how often they used their phones -- and for how long -- were accurate.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates radiation emissions from certain electronic devices, has said that there is no scientific evidence linking wireless phones to health problems. Other agencies that have reviewed the evidence have issued similar statements. Seems the most dangerous thing you can do with your cell phone these days is talk on it while you're driving.

But because cell phones are relatively new, most studies have looked at phone use only over a period of a few years, not decades. One reason this debate is still alive is that it's technically too early to rule out any longer-term safety risks.

But if chatting on your phone makes you nervous, you can do a few things to limit your risk:

• Get rid of it. This will put a serious cramp on your social life, but think of what you can do with the extra seventy dollars a month you save on phone bills.

• Use a headset or earpiece, so the phone is away from your head.

• Avoid using the phone when it's roaming or the signal strength is low. At those times, the phone is working harder to establish a connection and thus is emitting more radiation.

• If your phone has an antenna, extend it as far as possible: most of the radiation is focused near the midpoint of the antenna.

• The U.S. Federal Communications Commission maintains a Web site where you can find out the levels of radiation emitted by your cell phone or wireless device. Here it is: http://www.fcc.gov/oet/rfsafety/.