Editor's note: Henry Lai is a research professor in bioengineering at the University of Washington. He specializes in research on the biological effects of electromagnetic fields.
(CNN) -- A World Health Organization panel announced this week that microwave radiation from cell phones may cause cancer, and that people should use them less.
The panel, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, comprises 31 scientists from 14 countries and is widely considered to be the best authority on carcinogens. Its director, Dr. Christopher Wild, said that until we better understand the risks, "it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure, such as hands-free devices or texting."
Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, an independent and reputable source for reporting on the health effects of electromagnetic fields and radiation, said people should listen to the warnings. "The public has been given a lot of contradictory and misleading information," Slesin said. "Now we have the first official acknowledgment that we may have a problem and we should take it seriously. A good first step would be to limit the use of cell phones by children."
The agency's findings are mainly based on studies showing that heavy users have an increased long-term risk of developing brain tumors. There is also evidence of a link between cell phones and tumors of the acoustic nerve and salivary glands.
The findings suggest that most current safety standards don't protect people from the phones they use. Not only are they based on obsolete research, but -- incredibly -- they don't even consider the effects of long-term exposure.
The new study is hardly the only worrisome research done on cell phone dangers. Other research, for example, indicates that cell phone radiation may damage DNA and change the shape and mobility of sperm, possibly affecting male fertility. Still other work points to effects on the metabolic and electrical activities in the brain. Numerous studies have come to the conclusion that cell phone radiation increases free radicals in the body. Free radicals can have profound effects on human health.
Another aspect of this story is that there are many other sources of microwaves in our environment. Radio and TV transmitters are also major sources of radiation exposure. And then there are the hundreds of thousands of cell phone base stations. Even though they emit relatively low amounts of radiation, their exposures are constant and involuntary.
We have a long way to go before we will fully understand what cell phones can do to our health. We have a lot of research to do. But we should all keep in mind that with some 5 billion users, even a small health effect could -- over time -- be a major calamity.
I hope people listen to the WHO's warning. You don't have to give up your phone; you just have to take simple steps to protect yourself. We all need to be careful and adopt a precautionary approach . It's not that difficult, and our children may well thank us for it one day.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Henry Lai.