I returned from vacation yesterday to a rash of comments and concerns about the use of cell phones and whether they caused cancer.
The news stories picked up on a memo written by the director of the
When I took a more careful look at the memo and the supporting information, I didn’t find any new science on the subject. It was essentially one more person adding their opinion that there was a risk to using cell phones.
What the memo didn’t say was that there are others—equally expert—who do not agree with the conclusions that cell phones cause cancer.
In the meantime, based on the media headlines, many people have become concerned that the cell phones they use every day are a proven cause of a serious disease.
Let me say at the beginning that the science on this topic is mixed, and much of it does not support a link between cell phone use and serious disease in the opinions of the experts that I rely on.
The UPCI memo makes several recommendations on what you should do about using cell phones, including keeping your kids from using them, using a blue tooth or wired headset, don’t use the cell phone in a public place, don’t use a home cordless phone since it also emits microwaves, and use text messaging as a safer alternative.
At the bottom of the first page, there is a note that these recommendations were based on advice from an international expert panel, which is available at www.preventingcancernow.org. When you click on the link, it automatically takes you to another URL: www.environmentaloncology.org, which is the website for the
I think it is important to read the information on that website carefully. The authors point out that the science on the topic of cell phone risk is not conclusive at this time. There is much yet to be learned.
What this tells me is that we are really dealing with here is what is called the “precautionary principle.” In simple terms, as I understand it, the precautionary principle says that just because you can’t prove something isn’t harmful doesn’t mean it is safe.
I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert on cell phone use and its potential harm or lack of harm. But I do turn to other experts, and many of them do not agree with the alarm that has been sounded over cell phone use in relation to cancer (cell phone use while driving is an entirely different matter).
That leaves us in a situation where each person has to make their own decision, and weigh the benefits and risks of using a cell phone or a cordless phone. If you feel the potential risk outweighs the benefit, you take certain actions. On the other hand, if you are of the opinion that the absence of strong scientific evidence on the harms of cell phone use is reassuring, you take different actions.
The suggestion of abandoning cell phone use and the use of portable handsets in the home and office is not likely to get much traction. It certainly has gotten a lot of publicity.
The Society has taken the position that most current evidence does not link the use of cell phones to cancer. If you are concerned, then you can take some simple steps to reduce your exposure.
The Society also concludes that we don’t know about the risk to younger children, and many researchers are concerned that younger cell phone users may be more likely to face a higher risk.
However, the reality is that cell phones do not emit the type of radiation that causes cancer. The majority of studies reported to date have not supported a link between cell phone use and cancer, and there is no increase in brain cancer where cell phones have been used longest. And, there is no increase in brain cancer here in the
There are studies that have shown an increase in benign tumors on the side of the head where people report using their cell phones, but the studies are considered difficult to interpret for a number of reasons.
Finally, there are things you can do to reduce your risk, such as using newer digital models which emit less radiation. You can limit your child’s use of cell phones or encourage text messaging (which is basically the only way some children currently use their cell phones anyway.) Finally, you can use a headset, which is what I do and have been doing for many years simply because I find it difficult to constantly hold a cell phone to my head.
When you think about it, some of these recommendations are similar to those from UPCI. But they weren’t issued as a major media event. They are common sense suggestions you can consider if you are concerned about the risk.
But stop using my cordless phone in my house and use only a corded phone or speaker phone? I doubt there are many people who are going to go that far in terms of changing their behaviors.
There are lots of us in medicine who have lots of opinions on a variety of subjects. We can take a look at the same data and come to different conclusions. That is not exactly an unusual event in medicine or medical science. Equating opinion to science is fraught with difficulty.
From my viewpoint, what we have here is a case where someone of academic stature decided to issue an alert and a call to action. The memo was based on personal opinion and review of the evidence. There was no new science, there was no new data. Plain and simple, it was an opinion.
What is problematic is that it is also an opinion that is not universally shared by many other equally well-qualified experts. But that wasn’t highlighted in the headlines or the news stories. You had to dig a bit to find out that the concerns are linked to precaution, rather than definitive studies on the subject.
My suggestion? Stick to the evidence and the science, state that it’s an opinion when it is an opinion, offer options for action, and let people draw their own conclusions.
This isn’t about “right” vs. “wrong.” This is about what I think vs. what you think.
Without evidence, we are on very shaky ground when it comes to making nationwide public health recommendations that take on the veil of authority when in fact the evidence is not clear, and they are based on opinion not support by clear facts.
If we aren’t careful, we will find ourselves living in a very confusing world when it comes to guiding the health of the public.