Cell Phones Don't Fry Brains After All


cell phone and cancer

In September, the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, a.k.a. the U.S. Senate, held hearings on the perennial claim that the radiation from cellular telephones causes brain tumors. Senator Harkin introduced the hearing by noting:

"There are an estimated 270 million cell phone users in the United States, and about 4 billion worldwide.  I would venture to guess that almost everyone in this room uses a cell phone on a regular basis, and most of us don't give a second's thought that it could harm us in any way.

"However, a growing number of experts think there is cause for concern.  The amount of radiation emitted by cell phones is tiny – billions of times less than an X-ray.  But some researchers believe that, over the course of many years, even this low level of radiation could cause cancers of the brain and central nervous system, as well as a range of other harmful effects.

"Indeed, some international studies have suggested that people who use cell phones for more than 10 years are more likely to get tumors on the side of the head where they usually hold their phone.  Other studies, meanwhile, have found no correlation at all.

Now a new 30 year epidemiological study done among the notoriously sensitive Scandinavians (it seems like almost anything will give those folks cancer) finds that cellphone use is not associated with increases in brain cancer. As Yahoo Tech reports:

While cell phone use jumped dramatically from 1974 to 2003, the period which the study covers, overall brain cancer trends in the population didn't follow suit. For some areas, brain cancer rates were stable or trended down. For some, the modest increase in cancer incidence had already been underway before cell phones came into use, indicating other causes are likely at fault.

In any event, no radical jump in brain tumors was detected over the years analyzed, something you'd expect if cell phones were really causing a lot of medical problems.

Maybe modern life isn't toxic after all.

Quick addendum: I went back and looked at some the Senate cell phone hearing testimony. One participant was John Bucher, the Associate Director of the National Toxicology Program (NTP), who testified

Personal (cellular) telecommunications is a rapidly evolving technology that uses radiofrequency energy or radiation for mobile communication. Currently, wireless communication devices are used by over 270 million Americans, or greater than 85% of the U.S. population. With so many users, this could translate into a potentially significant public health problem should the use of these devices even slightly increase the risk of adverse health effects.

While the weight of the current scientific evidence has not conclusively linked cell phones with any health problems, we and other scientific organizations evaluating the available studies have concluded that better data are needed to establish any potential risks to humans from the low-level radiofrequency radiation exposures associated with their use.

Implied is that if we look hard enough, we can probably find something wrong (inconclusively linked?) with using cell phones. There are precious few scientists, and especially few epidemiologists, who has ever said that more research is not needed on any topic. Good news, though. Bucher assured the senators that stimulus monies are being well spent:

[National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences] is using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to support researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, who are studying whether exposure to cellular telephones in childhood can have effects on the central nervous system. The cohort for the study consists of over 100,000 Danish children born between 1996 and 2007, with data gathered on cell phone use. The research team plans to study whether cell phone exposure might be related to behavioral and developmental problems, as well as other outcomes such as seizures, migraines, and sleep disturbances.

There sure are lot of worried people eager to spend federal dollars to prove that modern life is toxic.

Disclosure: A comment just reminded me (thanks Dello) to add that I own a some shares of Nokia that I purchased with my own money. Actually, nobody has ever given me any stock in any company.