check your caller i.d., it might be brain cancer

December 21, 2009

Ok, probably not since the jury is still out as to what risks cell phone use could have, but little things like doing studies and coming to a consensus based on empirical evidence won’t slow down the efforts of Maine State Representative Andrea Boland to propose a bill which would require that every cell phone sold in the state carries a cancer warning. If you’re picturing big boxes alerting you to all kinds of awful health hazards, much like the warning boxes on cigarettes, then you’re on the right track. Looks like ’tis the season for technophobia in New England and the old urban rumor of cell phone induced cancer may be back in the media spotlight…

cell phone ad

There are plenty of cancer studies involving the radiation emitted by wireless devices, however, a big problem with these studies is the delay between the technological advancement of the devices and finding tumors. It could take up to a decade for tumors to grow and over this time, the subjects change five or six generations of cell phones and wireless devices. Which ones are responsible? How did their emissions cause tumors? Are the tumors really cancerous or benign? Is there an identifiable, statistically significant trend in specific cancer types among the heaviest cell phone users? These questions are difficult to answer since there are so many kinds of cancers and tumors, and since cancers are a degenerative condition more likely to appear with age, as we’re living longer and longer lives, it means that more and more people are living to develop cancers and a simple correlation isn’t enough to make the case for cell phones being a major health hazard. There’s also the important issue of how radiation from headsets would even cause tumors.

Still, that hasn’t stopped both doctors and journalists from claiming that our wireless devices are slowly killing us, or at the very least, harming our kids in unpredictable ways. For example, last year, The Independent ran an article which linked cell phone use of pregnant women to behavioral problems in children. Oddly, most of the cited problems sound an awful lot like borderline autism spectrum disorders, so much so, that it’s kind of surprising that anti-vax groups haven’t been going after cell phone makers. The study itself monitored over 13,000 kids born in Denmark during the early 1990s and concluded that mothers using handsets more than twice a day had a 54% chance of seeing their children develop emotional and behavioral problems. And even stranger, when the kids started using cell phones they were 80% less likely to develop certain social skills. It seems, however, that the reporter forgot to look at the study’s abstract, which states that the results may be completely unrelated and could be due to a wide variety of other factors not tracked by the researchers.

But while the article above and others like it seem to follow the Science News Cycle, sometimes, alarms are being sent out by medical professionals. As noted in the AP story about the proposed bill, preliminary results of a study on cell phone use prompted the director of University of Pennsylvania’s cancer center to send out a warning which asked to keep children away from headsets for the safety of their developing brains. Since the study wasn’t named, it’s hard to track down its actual results, however the fact that doctors are jumping on one of the oldest technophobic urban legends of the last few decades is disconcerting. This is a situation in which you need skeptics to look over the available information and decide if there really is any evidence for the a cell phone induced spectrum of cancers. So far, studies seem to show either a slight risk of benign tumor growth or absolutely no notable effects of cell phone use. Research projects that find any risk of malignancy tended to suffer from poor controls or had a sample too small to be meaningful. This is why it’s been so hard to reach a consensus on the issue and the researchers tend to stay away from making definitive claims.

So with all due respect to Rep. Boland, but her gesture to protect the citizens of her state is based on over-the- top media reports rather than sound science and would more likely scare people and propagate urban myths than help avoid cancers or other health hazards. What this example shows us, is just how easily bad science in the press can become pointless laws and why we need responsible, skeptical science reporting instead of scary stories about cell phones frying people’s brains extra crispy with deadly radiation, based on skimming a study which makes no claims to this effect. It might not move as many papers or generate that many hits, but it would cut down on senseless panic and potentially, needless and confusing laws.

See: Divan HA, Kheifets L, Obel C, & Olsen J (2008). Prenatal and postnatal exposure to cell phone use and behavioral problems in children. Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.), 19 (4), 523-9 PMID: 18467962

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