Cell Phones Won't Turn Your Brain to Popcorn

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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