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Malignant Cells?

Relax. Most scientists believe your cell phone won’t hurt you (unless you use it while driving)

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It’s the final punch line to the satirical movie Thank You for Smoking. Former star tobacco publicist Nick Naylor — charismatic, amoral, captivatingly sleazy — sits in front of a new board of white and stodgy businessmen.

“Gentlemen, practice these words in front of the mirror: Although we are constantly exploring the subject, currently there is no direct evidence that links cell phone usage to brain cancer.”

The implication is clear: You know that thing you love, the one you use every single day? Turns out it causes cancer.

But does it? Is there any evidence showing it’s worthwhile, perhaps, to hold your cell phone a little farther away from your precious head?

The National Cancer Institute, the Federal Communications Commission and the American Cancer Society all say essentially the same thing: While some studies have raised concerns, the preponderance of evidence shows no conclusive link between the use of cell phones and brain cancer.

But the scientists, as they are wont to do, all say more research is needed.

Andrew Thatcher, the X-ray section manager for the Washington Department of Health, has spent the last 15 years studying this issue. “I don’t think there’s a single replicated study at the animal or cellular level that has shown [cell phone use] to be problematic [with cancer],” Thatcher says. “Keep in mind, there are 12,000 studies on this issue.” Only a few show any signs of problems.

Environmental Health Trust founder Devra Davis says there is reason to be concerned. As an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, Davis has studied well-known carcinogens such as tobacco, benzene, asbestos, tars, sunlight, hormones and radiation. She was skeptical whether cell phones should be added to that list. Her opinion changed as she reviewed the research. In her book, Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family, she details the studies linking radiation from cell phones with tumors. She says there’s a problem with much of the research that shows no conclusive link — it was often funded by cell phone companies.

On its website, the American Cancer Society tries to lay out the basic facts. Cell phones transmit radio frequency waves. At high-enough levels, RF waves can damage body tissues, but cell phones don’t approach anywhere near those levels. 

Since they are a non-ionizing form of radiation, the American Cancer Society says, they won’t damage your DNA. The FCC limits the amount of RF energy beaming into the user’s body from the cell phone.

“Cell phones cannot cause cancer, because they do not emit enough energy to break the molecular bonds inside cells,” says Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine. Writing in Scientific American, he notes that cell phone radiation is 240,000 times weaker than green-light, and 480,000 times weaker than the power of cancer-causing UV radiation. Even if the amount of radiation increases, Shermer argues, the energy itself doesn’t. To put it simplistically, no matter how much lukewarm water you add to a tub, you’re not going to scald your hand.

Davis scoffs. “Frankly, [the article] was written by someone who didn’t understand biology,” she says. “If you’re looking to understand a human, living system, don’t ask a physicist.” Biology is more complicated than Shermer is explaining it, Davis argues. Asbestos, for example, can cause cancer without having any impact on DNA.

So how does the common layperson decide which group of scientists is right? On the one hand, you have all these American organizations — on the other, Davis says, you have her “and the French government, and the Chinese government, and the Finnish government and the Russian government.” France, in fact, forbids selling cell phones without a headset attachment.

Davis also points to the fine print in the iPhone manual itself, which advises owners to keep the iPhone about an inch away from the body  when making phone calls.

Thirteen countries conducted a study called Interphone — the largest such study ever conducted — on cell phone use and brain tumors. Overall, the abstract of the study says, there were no observed increases in risk for gliomas or meningiomas (tumors).

But Davis points to the appendix, where she says the study shows “after 10 years of heavy use, there’s a doubled risk of brain tumors.”

The abstract, however, cautions against drawing conclusions from that data, saying “biases and errors prevent a causal interpretation … the possible effects of long-term heavy-use require further investigation.”

One critique of the study, however, notes that it only assumed 2.5 hours of usage — a month. That may have made sense 10 years ago when they started collecting data, but the notion of  “150-minute plans” is comical today.

And it gets to the root of the problem that comes from studying this issue: Cell phones change. Older analog models weren’t as regulated. And, Davis says, “the 3G phones cause 10 times more DNA damage than 1G phones.” It’s got nothing to do with strength — it’s because they use “pulsed-digital radiation,” she says. 

Another part of the problem with these studies is the relative age of cell phones — they’re a fairly new invention. It takes time for cancers to grow, and takes even more time for studies to show a long-term impact. Davis points out the full effect of the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima didn’t become clear for 40 years.

In the meantime, Davis recommends concerned adults use wireless headsets to keep the phone away from the brain and to prevent children from using cell phones altogether.