Return of the ‘Cell Phones Cause Cancer’ Scare

Jonathan Brady/PA Wire URN:22370913 (Press Association via AP Images)
Jonathan Brady/PA/AP

A hardy perennial of media scare stories is the “cell phones cause cancer” debate, which headline writers love because it grabs the attention of virtually everyone, and it fits the general narrative of Big Business and consumerism as the ultimate predators. Stories that make the American lifestyle seem dangerous are difficult for the press to resist.

To be clear, the possibility that cell phone use might even slightly increase the risk of cancer, or any other health problem, is worthy of study. Even if that risk was minimal, and required enormously heavy use of the phone, it would be good to know about. My purpose here is not to casually sweep medical science aside and declare the matter resolved forever.

Studies have indeed been conducted, and they have been trending away from the conclusion that anything resembling normal cell phone use increases cancer risks. It was therefore regarded as a headline-grabbing stunner when a study surfaced to challenge this consensus.

“Hold the phone, Central! Cellphone radiation can cause cancer: study,” screamed the headline at the New York Daily News.

The possible connection between cell phones and cancer also became a front-burner issue due to the city of Berkeley, California passing a law that requires cell phone stores to inform customers, in writing, about the potential dangers of using the devices. CNN notes the Berkeley law goes beyond current federal guidelines “by stating that children and anyone carrying their phone in a pocket or bra could be at increased risk of radiation exposure.”

This is all about much more than alarming consumers with news headlines, or burdening retailers with onerous reporting requirements. Responding to the same study the New York Daily News wrote about, law professor Jonathan Turley writes, “Research like this study will be subject to a withering level of scrutiny and criticism. However, legally such studies can put companies on notice of a possible product defect and danger. Given the size of this industry, the result could be a massive change in the technology and liability for market and its participants in the coming years.”

Cell phones have become so popular that only the most dire medical findings would be likely to significantly reduce their use, but the financial and legal fallout from product liability lawsuits could deliver a major blow to the industry, with one likely result being a significant increase in the cost of cell phones, from both redesigns meant to minimize potentially harmful radiation, and the cost of major lawsuits. Who knows what other sorts of nanny interventions we could face down the line? Phones treated like packs of cigarettes, slathered with warning labels? Mandatory warning messages piped into the ears of users when they’ve been on the phone too long?

It’s important to be clear about what the science actually says, which always seems to involve a good deal of reading between the lines. The very first line of the New York Daily News piece declares, “The scientists were right – your cell phone can give you cancer,” but that’s not what the study says, and it doesn’t take full account of other research to the contrary.

The article also doesn’t say where the study comes from, merely identifying author Igor Yakymenko by name, and quoting him warning, “These data are a clear sign of the real risks this kind of radiation poses for human health.”  The study originates from the Institute of Experimental Pathology, Oncology, and Radiobiology in Kiev. Nothing against said institute – it’s just relevant information for any news consumer to have a little background on the source of scientific research.

The NYDN does specify that Yakymenko and his team conducted a “meta-study,” which is “basically a study of hundreds of other studies,” which is important to remember. Meta-studies inherit all the problems of their component research, including the problem of age – cell phone technology evolves very quickly, so popular devices from 2015 could be significantly different from those of 2012, 2008 or earlier. Most major studies cover very long periods of time, by necessity, so a great deal of the information piped into a meta-study could be based on devices dating all the way back to the 1990s. Yakymenko mentions in the article that his data was “obtained on adults who used cell phones mostly up to 10 years as adults,” which by definition means some fairly old devices were involved.

Perspective is also essential when reading science reports. The “damage” Yakymenko warns about cell phones potentially causing includes “headaches, fatigue, and even skin problems” as well as cancer. Those are certainly not problems to be dismissed casually, but the “cell phones cause cancer” warning is all you hear about in the headlines and opening paragraphs of media accounts.

The level of cell phone use required to increase the risk factors is described as follows: “For example, using your phone for just 20 minutes a day for five years increased the risk of one type of brain tumor threefold, and using the phone an hour a day for four years upped the risk of some tumors three to five times.”

That’s not terribly high usage, but with the popularity of texting, email through phones, and hands-free calling, the amount of time people spend with their phones stuck to the sides of their heads has decreased.

Also, what the study purportedly shows is an increase in risk factors that were very low to begin with. The NYDN tosses out the statistic that “in 2012, there were 6.4 cases [of brain and related cancers] per 100,000 U.S. adults.” Even that statistic is a bit misleading, because not all of those 6.4-in-100,000 cases were in any way affected by cell phone use.

Saying that a certain risk factor increases by 100 percent or 200 percent sounds huge, but when it’s increasing from .00006 to .00001, the actual change is still very small. CNN notes that the World Health Organization’s classification of low-energy radiation as potentially carcinogenic “sounds ominous,” but it “puts cell phones on the same level of cancer risk as caffeine and pickled vegetables.”

It has also been observed that the incidence of brain tumors hasn’t increased very much overall since the advent of the cell phone, which is getting close to covering the 30-year span Yakymenko reasonably advises would be necessary to gain a full appreciation of the risks from long-term exposure. The slight increase in tumor incidence that has been observed might be due more to improvements in diagnostic technology than environmental factors causing more tumors – in other words, doctors are better at finding those tumors now, and more people are being examined, so more tumors are found.

Reporting on “the largest study to date looking at cell phones and brain tumors,” which found no association between cell phone use and those tumors except in the case of a small group with very heavy phone usage, CNN notes the study’s authors hypothesized that there might have been “excess reporting in people who suffered a life-threatening disease.”

Looking at the total body of research to date, Brown University professor of epidemiology David A. Savitz judged, “We know quite a bit (about the risk) actually and it seems extremely unlikely that there is an effect. We are down to the range that there is no risk or a risk that is almost too small to detect.” The leader of a World Health Organization panel on the risks of cell phone use agreed that research suggested “a weak or moderate risk.”

Not to discount the results of any particular study, or meta-study, but it seems unwarranted to declare that all previous medical conclusions have been abruptly invalidated by the Ukrainian research and declare without reservation that “cell phones can cause cancer.” The proper attitude toward most science and medical stories is the “withering level of scrutiny and criticism” Professor Turley describes. If they survive that critical storm, it’s time to bust out the big headlines.


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