…cell phones and cancer…why now?

June 2, 2011

We have been hearing about the World Health organization’s conclusion that cell phones pose a health risk that is similar to lead exposure [http://www.latimes.com/health/la-he-who-cell-phones-20110601-1,0,3926296.story]. A summary of the report will appear in a medical journal in July. But advance news stories indicate that as with lead exposure, more exposure increases risk. Cell phone use rarely–less risk. Cell phone use for hours at a time and/or every day–greater risk.

Why has this report come out now? Last year, the U.S. National Cancer Institute reviewed research relating to cell phone use and cancer and posted a summary of their conclusions at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/cellphones. It is tricky to read through the findings. They sometimes suggest that the issue has been directly studied. The ‘gold standard’ for clinical trials is based on randomly assigning individuals to a condition in which the thing to be studied is ‘given’ to those participants and another condition for which the randomly assigned individuals do not have exposure to the thing being studied. Thus, when the NCI reports about studies that have compared individuals who subscribe to cell phone service with those who do not, it begins to sound like a randomized trial. I subscribe to a cell phone service and seldom use my cell phone. My daughter has a cell phone service, it is the only phone she has [no land line], and she uses the phone–talks on it–a lot. So if we were both included in the study mentioned by NCI based on being subscribers, the results might not be an accurate reflection of a relationship between cancer and cell phone use. Subscribers who seldom use their cell phones, if included in the denominator of an equation designed to inform about risk, may artificially reduce the overall risk.

For example, if there are 2 cases of cancer in people in the population that is not subscribed to cell phone service–let’s say that is 100 people–and there are 2 cases of cancer in people in the population that is subscribed to cell phone service–let’s say that is 200 people–it suddenly appears that  there are fewer cases in the latter…. But what if only 50 subscribers use the cell phone everyday….not even counting how long everyday–just everyday. 2 cases among 50 people is twice the risk of the poulation of nonsubscribers… Is that accurate?

So that has been the challenge for some years now. No one is going to conduct a randomized trial of cell phone use in which they randomly assign some people to be users and some to be nonusers, and then have some users use briefly everyday, and some users use for two hours, and some more…and track cancer incidence across yearssssss of the lives of the participants. So we have to rely on the research that makes comparisons such as the one described above. The WHO’s group of scientists apparently reached the conclusion that the nearly four dozen published studies reviewed with the thousands of particpants is sufficient evidence to classify cell phones as a possible risk for cancer. In view of how cell phones work, it seems a safe bet. And the ways to reduce risk by using the cell phone with a device that keeps the phone away from my brain is an easy and effective way to reduce that risk…

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