Albert Einstein College of Medicine cancer epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat has a sharp take over at The Daily on the World Health Organization's recent declaration classifying cell phones as a "possible carcinogen." Kabat writes:
Thirty years ago, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health published a study in a prestigious medical journal purporting to show that drinking coffee increased a person's risk of pancreatic cancer. When asked how his results had influenced his own habits, he responded that he had stopped drinking coffee. The following day a professor of biostatistics set up a Mr. Coffee in the departmental offices, indicating what he thought of his colleague's study.
I mention this because last week a committee of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, announced that it would classify cellphone use as a "possible carcinogen," putting it in a category with 240 other exposures, including coffee and the pesticide DDT. Despite decades of research, neither of these exposures has turned out to be a carcinogen in humans.
Kabat goes on to note that (1) as cell phone usage has increased, the brain cancer rate has not, and (2) there is no known mechanism whereby radio frequency energy can induce or promote cancer.
We are faced with a paradox in our increasingly health-conscious society. It is simply a fact of life that research is going to be done on topics like cellphones. But we can never prove a negative or exclude the possibility of a miniscule risk, no matter how large the study. So even when expert bodies concede that there is no convincing evidence of a threat, we get impossibly vague advisories like the current one warning us of "possible carcinogenicity."
In an echo of the Harvard incident, Donald Berry, a professor of biostatistics at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, said "anything is a possible carcinogen." Speaking from his cellphone, he added, "This is not something I worry about and it will not in any way change how I use my cellphone."
Go here to see my Wall Street Journal review of Kabat's excellent book, Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology. Did I also mention that cancer incidence rates in the U.S. continue to decline?