First Cancer, Now Cell Phones Cause a Rash?

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As the world turned its ears towards mobile phones, occasional warnings abounded about the radiation from cell phones being linked to particular types of cancer—warnings that were alternately reinforced and debunked by successive studies. Now, the British Association of Dermatology (or BAD) is warning of a new allergic skin condition caused by extended use of mobile phones.

Yes, that’s right: talking on your cell all day may not give you a tumor, but it might give you a rash.

Dubbed “mobile phone dermatitis,” the condition usually manifests as a rash on the ear or cheek, depending on where metal parts on the phone come into contact with the skin. In some users, the condition could even manifest on the hand or fingers, depending on how folks use their phones.

The condition has only recently been reported and identified— so many cases have probably gone mis-diagnosed or unreported—but the root cause is believed to be a contact allergy to nickel and nickel alloys in phones’ casings and buttons. Users to have contact reactions to nickel-plated clothing accessories or jewelry—like buckles and rings—would be at a higher risk for developing a reaction to metal phones.

“Given the widespread use of cell phones, the presence of metal in the exterior casing of these phones and the high prevalence of nickel sensitization in the population, it is not surprising that cell phones can cause allergic contact dermatitis,” said Dr. Lionel Bercovitch of Brown University, one of the study’s authors.

A study published earlier this year tested for nickel in 22 popular phone handsets from eight manufacturers, and found nickel in ten of them. More fashionable designs with metal accents are generally more likely to contain nickel in their cases or controls.

[Speaking first-hand for a moment: contact allergies to nickel are real. I have quick reactions to nickel alloys, although I’m more likely to be triggered by strings on musical instruments than by phones.]

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