9 Comments

Summary:

After our computers, our cell phones are surely the most essential tool for most web workers. With our on-the-go working habits, many of us spend hours every week with the tiny phones pressed to our ears, dealing with clients and coworkers. Recently the potential health risks of cell phones are back in the news – CNN and the New York Times are among the major media that have covered this issue.

After our computers, our cell phones are surely the most essential tool for most web workers. With our on-the-go working habits, many of us spend hours every week with the tiny phones pressed to our ears, dealing with clients and coworkers. Recently the potential health risks of cell phones are back in the news – CNN and the New York Times are among the major media that have covered this issue.

Beyond the mainstream news, there’s a fresh bit of cell phone scariness circulating virally: a little bit of searching will get you videos in which a small group of three or four phones are used to pop some popcorn kernels. I won’t link to any of these videos – for reasons that I’ll make obvious later – but before I get to that, let’s review the more serious scientific evidence on cell phone safety.Major governmental and international bodies such as the FDA and the WHO are not, to be honest, much help in evaluating cell phone safety at the moment. Both currently take the stand that “the available scientific evidence does not show that any health problems are associated with wireless phones.” But that evaluation from the FDA was developed in 2003 (the last time that cell phone health issues were at the forefront of the news). Both organizations are working on major multi-year studies of the issues, but neither of these efforts has yet come to fruition.

Meanwhile, there are other ongoing studies of various potential problems. Two that have been in the news recently are a Danish study suggesting a connection between prenatal and postnatal cell phone exposure and behavioral problems in young children, and an Israeli study that finds a higher risk of cancer in the salivary gland among heavy cell phone users. While these are both reputable peer-reviewed studies, it’s difficult to draw a conclusion from a single unconfirmed piece of research – especially epidemiological research, where it is difficult to be sure about the cause of any single effect.

There have actually been a fair number of studies of cell phone use and cancer over the past decade. Some have shown an increased risk of cancer, some have shown that cell phone users develop fewer cancers, some show no measurable effects. The best overall analysis of these different studies I’ve found is a 2007 article that summarizes the results of 18 studies that looked at mobile phone use for 10 years or more. The authors found an overall odds ratio of 1.3 for gliomas and acoustic neuromas on the same side of the head where you use your phone.

What does that mean? It means that (if the numbers hold up) you are 1.3 times as likely to develop one of these cancers as someone who doesn’t use a cell phone. The overall incidence of gliomas and acoustic neuromas is about 6 per 100,000 people per year – so we’re talking about roughly 1 to 2 extra cancers for every 100,000 long-term cell phone users.

While any cancer is bad news, it’s important to put this number in perspective. One way is by looking at other risks we casually take. The leading cause of death in the United States remains coronary heart disease, with an incidence around 100 per 100,000 people per year. Eating lots of salty foods raises your heart disease risk by 25% according to some studies. Right there, the salt shaker is a worse risk than the cell phone. It’s easy to find other risks that are more significant than the reported cell phone numbers – driving without a seat belt, smoking and lung cancer, even eating lots of peanut butter and liver cancer. If you’re doing your best to live a healthy lifestyle and have cut out all higher risks and want to move to a wired cell phone headset – good for you. But if, like many web workers, you live a standard middle-class lifestyle, brain cancer from cell phones shouldn’t be your top worry.

Oh, and those popcorn videos? Obvious fakes. Put a few kernels of popcorn in a microwave oven and turn it on; you’ll see it takes 30 seconds or a minute to pop them. A microwave oven puts out around a thousand watts; a cell phone puts out around one watt. Yet in these videos we supposedly see three or four phones popping corn in seconds. There just isn’t that much power there, period. This same notion went around a few years ago with “use cell phones to cook an egg” and was adequately debunked then. If you want to pop corn, use an oven.

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  1. Steven Clark Saturday, June 7, 2008

    The problem is that it reminds old folk like me of the smoking issue. Remember menthol, the more healthy lifestyle choice. No cigarettes don’t kill, there was scientific evidence that took many years to beat down.

    A similar industry – how much is it worth – are cell phones. I’m personally not comfortable getting those waves in my skull regardless of any controversial studies.

    What I think we really have to wake up to is what a phone tower near our local school is risking? As we saturate our living environment with this stuff are we once again taking “controversial” risks with our health for the sake of Nokia or some company to get rich?

    I do keep it in perspective, as I do use a cell phone, though. True. But I’m yet to be satisfied beyond the cancer question of the effects of power users in their teens with growing brains etc…

    Ahh maybe cigarettes aren’t killing people. Ha. Forget I ever mentioned it. :)

    Its good to see people still discussing this topic.

  2. Steven Clark Saturday, June 7, 2008

    Isn’t Global Warming another scientific issue that big money from oil industries etc have backed with “controversial” scientific studies. I forgot that in my first comment. Sorry.

    My warning bells, as I age, actually increase when I hear that evidence goes both ways and big money is involved.

    One would expect science to produce facts of some kind, consistently. Its the mix of money and science that makes it all just that seedy, don’t you think?

    Apologies for the double comment.

  3. rob enderle Sunday, June 8, 2008

    >what a phone tower near our local school is >risking?

    It doesnt matter. Schools are all fighting to get a piece of the pie.
    My friend works for an engineering firm and they have installed towers on elementary schools and hospitals and he says that they arent lacking for choices.

    I saw the plans for towers used on top of a hospital which makes me laugh when they ask you not to use your cellphone when you visit.

  4. Steven Clark Sunday, June 8, 2008

    ha ha that’s funny rob, on a hospital of all places… it reminds me of those tacky fake palm tree towers I’ve seen pictures of… people worry about them less as they’re not as obtrusive.

  5. Steven,

    I think a core difference here is scale.
    It’s easy to isolate out smokers and say we want to study a group of people who’ve smoked a pack a day for the last 10 years.

    Saying “lets study a group of mobile phone users who’ve had them for the last 10 years” provides a very different result. The differences even between individual handsets and the radiation put out by them is massive. Plus, users that have had them that long were probably on older networks which used a technology that isn’t current and operates at different safe levels.

    I also think lifestyle conditions are probaby something that’s tested. Say the 1.3 ratio is an interaction effect – if you’re spending several hours on the phone a day, i’d imagine some significant portion of that group was in a high stress environment. Maybe phones + stres = cancer.

    It goes back to the Duhem–Quine thesis, which says scientific hypotheses are never tested in isolation. This is very, very true and we’d all do very well to remember it. Particularly in this kind of study.

  6. As far as I know, the worst place to be is directly opposite a mobile mast because of the radial propagation involved. Maybe schools and hospitals are so eager to be under the mast because that’s the “best” place to be with the next nearest mast being kilometres away and therefore weak. “Apparently” hospitals are slowly changing there tune about mobile phones being forbidden saying that they were not disturbing anything all along. I agree with Steven Clark about money and science. Who financed research into “alternative” nuclear power to steer away from fossil fuels in Britain due to strike problems with miners, resulting in oh so much evidence for global warming? Maggie Thatcher’s government.

  7. I don’t believe that cell phone towers are a problem because of the distance. The intensity of the radiation various with the inverse of the square of the distance. So, it is the phone that you have to worry about.

    However, I don’t know what the power output of a typical tower is. If it were high enough, then that could be of concern, too.

  8. Personal Projects Thursday, June 12, 2008

    Cell phones won’t turn your brain to popcorn, it may sometimes show the way to hell. I have a relevant reason to say this there was an incident where a driver suffered burns and his car severely damaged when gasoline fumes ignited an explosion while he was talking on his mobile phone standing near the attendant who was pumping the gas.
    ***Precaution is better than cure***
    -Deepa (dooyt.com)

  9. Mike Gunderloy Thursday, June 12, 2008

    Deepa, Snopes has done the research and says that’s an urban legend: http://www.snopes.com/autos/hazards/gasvapor.asp

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