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Cell Phone Cancer Link: Are the Risks Overblown?

It's hard to let go of something you love. Just look at the decades it took for Americans to admit that smoking cigarettes causes cancer.

And the US loves its cell phones.

So it's no wonder there's been a backlash against the World Health Organization declaring that it's entirely possible that cell phones increase the risk of a particular type of malignant brain cancer--a fatal type by the way.

As the editorial staff at the Wall Street Journal wrote:

Maybe this cancer menace will be validated one day, but the WHO seems to be using its public health platform to exaggerate minuscule risks and send a crowd into a burning theater. The agency promoted the sensationalistic coverage with a news conference, even though it has yet to release either its scientific monograph or the forthcoming summary in the Lancet Oncology

Many pundits, bloggers, and cell phone industry hacks tried to downplay the results by comparing it to another possible carcinogen rated in the same 2B category--a possible carcinogen that you know and love: coffee.

I was shocked at how selectively these writers culled from the 2B list. As you can see, the vast majority of possible carcinogens on the list are industrial chemicals whose names are difficult to pronounce and which I'd wager you'd rather not be ingesting or have anywhere near your body.

Others downplayed the findings of the major study that influenced the WHO consensus panel of leading experts. The study, called the Interphone study, found a 40% increased risk of gliomas in the heaviest cell phone users. Matthew Herper at calculated what 40% would mean and concluded:

...the number of gliomas in the U.S. would increase by 3,000. That's a one in 100,000 increase in each person's risk of glioma, which still isn't very big.

Ahem. 3,000 new cases a year, 3,000 deaths (since it's fatal) isn't very much?!?! If there was a chemical in your food that you knew would raise your risk of brain cancer 40%, don't you think there'd be a hue and cry to get the darn thing out of the food supply?

But we love our phones. Do not touch our phones.

You can have your phones, just...

  • don't put it next to your ear (and while I'm at it, don't talk so loudly on the train, please).
  • Use an ear piece, use speaker phone, text.
  • Follow these other safety tips now, rather than waiting for more damning news to come out.
  • And don't let your kids talk on the cell phone. That's who I'm worried about. Children.

Om Ghandi, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Utah told Microwave News:

Children have thinner skulls and smaller ears than adults and so the radiation has a shorter distance to travel from the phone to the brain. (Every millimeter of separation makes a big difference.) Because more radiation gets to the brain, the specific absorption rate (SAR), the preferred way to measure the radiation dose, increases.

I'm not saying you need to panic and run out and get a brain scan. Just err on the side of caution. Some bloggers argue that cell phones are a fact of life and you with the benefits of this modern convenience come risks. Bologna. There's no need to take a risk, when there are ways to use your phone, to communicate with others, without putting the phone right up against your skull.

Will this latest data cause you to use your cell phone differently? Why or why not?


Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter.
photo courtesy of Flickr user Ron Bennetts