Cell Phones And Cancer: Time To Hang Up?

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 University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, (UPCI) where he advised the faculty and staff of the cancer center that he was concerned there was an increased risk of cancer linked to cell phone use based on his review of the evidence.


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 UPCI Center for Environmental Oncology.  There is no separate website that I could find for “preventing cancer now.”


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.


What does the American Cancer Society have to say about this issue?


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 United States.


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.



J. Leonard Lichtenfeld's Biography

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP: Dr. Lichtenfeld currently serves as Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society in the Society's Office of the Chief Medical Officer located at the Society's Corporate Center in Atlanta. Dr. Lichtenfeld joined the Society in 2001 as a medical editor, and in 2002 assumed responsibility for managing the Society's then newly created Cancer Control Science Department which included the prevention and early detection of cancer, emerging cancer science and trends, health equity, quality of life for cancer patients, the science of cancer communications and the role of nutrition and physical activity in cancer prevention and cancer care.  In 2014, Dr. Lichtenfeld assumed his current role in the Office of the Chief Medical Officer where he provides extensive support to a number of Society colleagues and activities. As a result of his over four decades of experience in cancer care, Dr. Lichtenfeld is frequently quoted in the print and electronic media regarding the Society's positions on a number of important issues related to cancer. He has testified regularly in legislative and regulatory hearings, and participated on numerous panels regarding cancer care, research, advocacy and related topics. He has served on a number of advisory committees and boards for organizations that collaborate with the Society to reduce the burden of cancer nationally and worldwide. He is well known for his blog (www.cancer.org/drlen) which first appeared in 2005 and which continues to address many topics related to cancer research and treatment. A board certified medical oncologist and internist who was a practicing physician for over 19 years, Dr. Lichtenfeld has long been engaged in health care policy on a local, state, and national level.  He is active in several state and national medical organizations and has a long-standing interest in professional legislative and regulatory issues related to health care including physician payment, medical care delivery systems, and health information technology. Dr. Lichtenfeld is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann Medical College (now Drexel University College of Medicine) in Philadelphia.  His postgraduate training was at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the National Cancer Institute in Baltimore. He is a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the national honor medical society.  Dr. Lichtenfeld has received several awards in recognition of his efforts on behalf of his colleagues and his professional activities.  He has been designated a Master of the American College of Physicians in acknowledgement of his contributions to internal medicine.  Dr. Lichtenfeld is married, and resides in Atlanta and Thomasville, Georgia.

3 thoughts on “Cell Phones And Cancer: Time To Hang Up?

  1. Whether cell phones may or may not be just a cancer risk, one must make judgements based upon the preponderance of available evidence as opposed to proof beyond reasonable doubt.


    University of Utah psychologists published a study showing that motorists who talk on cellular phones (either handheld or hands-free) are as impaired as illegal drunken drivers (the legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.08 percent).


    Just as you put other people at risk when you drive under the influence of alcohol, you put others at risk when you drive under the influence of cell phone use.


    Impairments associated with driving under the influence of cell phone use can be as profound as those associated with driving under the influence of alcohol. Clearly the safest course of action is not to use a cell phone while driving.


    The study reinforced earlier research showing that hands-free cell phones are just as distracting as handheld cell phones because it’s the conversation itself, not just manipulation of a handheld phone that distracts drivers from road conditions.


    This kind of information helps to debunk the notion that fiddling with music, cigarettes, eating, applying makeup or shaving is a far bigger distraction than picking up a cell phone and using it.

  2. It is difficult for me to value your opinion regarding cell phones, simply because you do not seem to understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. You were quoted http://abcnews.go.com/Health/BeautySecrets/story?id=4766632&page=1 in a story regarding skin cancer and lip gloss that the connection is “just a theory”. Theories are not things easily disputed. I mean, is the theory of gravity “just a theory”? There is no current “theory” regarding skin cancer and lip gloss; there is a hypothesis.

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