RealClearScience  published this column June 5, 2011.
A recent announcement by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, part of the World Health Organization) is once again fanning the flames of an issue that had been fading away: do cell phones cause brain tumors?
Unfortunately, once you read beyond the headlines the Agency doesn’t tell us anything we didn't know already.
This is unfortunate because this type of precautionary hysteria will only cause people to shy away from a transformational technology that is safe and reliable. That doesn't stop some people from making policy based on false assumptions. Last year, the city of San Francisco mandated warning labels that cell phones “may” cause cancer -- a pointless rule the city eventually rescinded.
This situation is reminiscent of the polio epidemic mid-last century, when ice cream was thought to be a major cause of the crippling disease. In 1949, Dr. Benjamin Sandler published a book called "Diets Prevent Polio" in which he speculated that the sugar in ice cream and soda was a major cause of polio. This of course is not the case. Polio is an infectious viral disease. But ice cream and soda distributors, sellers and manufacturers took a massive economic hit in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a result of fuzzy science. The same false reasoning is hitting phone service providers and handset manufacturers today.
On a more serious note, the accusation that pediatric vaccines are a chief cause of autism tore through the ranks of anxious parents for two decades, until the true science quieted the dissenters once and for all. In this case, however, real damage was done as thousands upon thousands of parents skipped administering vaccinations to their children. Data is still emerging from the result of these skipped vaccinations, but the extant data show a sharp increase in measles among British children as an unintended consequence of fear of vaccinations. In this instance, it is reasonable to assume actual lives were lost because of faulty, or fraudulent, science.
Back to the IARC report. In the footnotes of the summary we see that evidence linking cell phones and two types of cancer, glioma and acoustic neuroma, is very "limited," meaning that "chance, bias or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence." And that there is "inadequate" evidence to suggest any other type of cancer link.
Cell phones first came on the U.S. stage in the early 1980s and took off in the mid 1990s. Today, there are over 300 million cell phones in use in the U.S., and a quarter of households in this country do not even have a land line anymore. Instead, millions of people rely solely on their wireless device for telephonic connectivity.
So, have we seen an uptick in cancer rates in this nation in the last 30 years? That's the wrong question. The correct question is, "Do we understand what causes cancer?" An instinctive reply would probably be "yes!" but do we know that non-ionizing radiation emitted by cell phones, microwaves and light bulbs is carcinogenic? We do not. Do we know that ionizing radiation, the kind found in x-rays, cause cancer with enough exposure? We do.
The fact is that brain cancer is extremely rare: about 7 cases per 100,000 people are diagnosed in the U.S. every year. And from 1990 to 2002 the age-adjusted incidence rate for overall brain cancer remained relatively flat. All this while cell phone usage grew from 4 million to 135 million (as I said, its over 300 million today). In other words, we have had a tremendous opportunity to monitor what no scientific organization could afford -- a case/control group of massive proportions.
But not only are brain cancer rates flat, U.S. life expectancy is up, drastically. This probably would not be the case if cell phones created a high cancer risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control, life expectancy in 1980 was 73.7 years. It's now almost 78 years.
In fact, the most dangerous characteristic of a wireless phone is its mobility -- we can use it while moving. This causes more damage and loss of life because people are texting or talking while driving, walking, crossing train tracks, driving trains, and flying planes, often with catastrophic and tragic results. Unfortunately, wireless devices do introduce new risks into our society, because of their effect on our behavior, not because they emit cancer-causing radiation.
There are real carcinogens in our environment, both natural and artificial, and we should be focused on limiting peoples' exposure to those whenever possible. And it certainly is not a waste of resources to test wireless devices for their radiating characteristics to make sure they are not carcinogenic. But until science has proven that there is demonstrable harm to users from prolonged usage of such devices, throwing around terms like "maybe" and "possibly" serves no public good.