Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?
The World Health Organization (WHO) incited something like mass panic last week when it announced that cell phones cause cancer. Actually what it said was that a meta-study of the available evidence suggests that cell phone use might be “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” putting these common devices in the same general category as cultural bugaboos such as lead.
Now. If you saw or heard anything about this news story, you may have noticed a certain tone of breathless hyperbole accompanying the coverage. Part of this was by design, of course – news organizations earn their keep by scaring us into watching, buying, following, and otherwise consuming their products. But another part was a simple byproduct of our generally poor understanding of statistical science. Simply suggesting that something might be possible is a far cry from proving a causal link, and in that distinction lies the key to a more reasonable reading of this news.
The clearest discussion of cell phone use and cancer appeared recently in the New York Times. As the terrific Siddhartha Mukherjee put it:
…[W]hen patients with brain tumors happen to share a common exposure — in this case, cellphones — the line between cause and coincidence begins to blur. The association does not stand out nor does it disappear into statistical white noise. Instead, it remains suspended, like some sort of peculiar optical illusion that is blurry to some and all too clear to others.
The full article makes several essential points about what we can and cannot know regarding a widespread, low-grade, potential risk factor like cell phones and the very rare cancers they may or not cause. The upshot is this: WHO aside, this new “announcement” is anything but a statement of fact.
So what should you do? Well, even though the science is inconclusive, there are some good reasons to err on the side of caution. Our bodies evolved over millions of years to meet certain demands and to consume certain things. Modern products such as refined sugar and cell phones have been around for mere milliseconds on our evolutionary timeline, meaning there is little that can be known about prolonged exposure to these newcomers.
So I would recommend some reasonable moderation: minimize close contact with your phone, use headsets when possible, and exercise caution when you are exposed to that device for long periods of time. Not because we know anything for sure, but precisely because we don’t.