can cell phones fry your brain?

December 26, 2008

When the first cell phones went on sale, somebody, somewhere looked at those brick sized devices and said: “Holy crap, I bet this freaking thing gives you brain cancer!” So for the last few decades, doctors and scientists have been trying to figure out if that’s indeed the case and whether using your cell phone might just cost you a brain.

brain

A conclusive answer to this question would affect not only some 3 billion people or 45% of the world’s population, but the future of Third World countries where the lack of an infrastructure that could support business operations means that cell phones are fast becoming the de facto communication device. Who would invest in a country where the only cost effective method of staying in touch with anyone out of earshot is pumping carcinogenic radiation into an organ most people would consider rather important? Given the significance of the research and some two decades of studies and survey projects, we should’ve had a definitive answer as to whether cell phones are a health hazard or not by now.

But that’s easier said than done. A new generation of cell phones comes out every year. A brain tumor takes over a decade to develop. By the time you can put together a study to see how cell phones affect their users, the technology and the habits you’re studying are already outdated. On top of that, studying something over a decade means that most participants drop out long before your data collection is done and you’ll end up with too few people to make your survey meaningful on a macro scale. Of course just because it’s challenging to find a link between cell phones and cancer, doesn’t mean scientists stopped trying. Case in point, the biggest research project on the subject; the Interphone Study which worked with tens of thousands of people in fourteen countries since the late 1990s.

According to the group’s data, people who use their cell phones at least once a day for over ten years are facing a 50% increase in their chances of developing brain tumors. Quite a few of the cases would be malignant. But before you start wondering if you should get a hazmat suit next time you want to use your cell, you might want to keep in mind that the study’s data collection phase was conducted in 1998 and 1999 and the technology being linked to new cancer cases is long gone. On top of that, the Interphone Study is very limited in its scope and is very vague on the most important question. How exactly does the electromagnetic radiation from cell phones cause cancer? Causation is just as important as correlation.

Maybe rather than collecting extremely limited data sets and analyzing them for years on end, we should be studying the effects that cell phones have on living things more closely. After all, if we really want to find out whether our handsets are ticking time bombs, a research project that only studies talking on a phone with a GSM chip once a day or more and analyzes its data sets for almost a decade while the world leaps ahead, just doesn’t cut it.

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