The 2005 film Thank You For Smoking centers around a tobacco spokesman tasked with defending an industry that kills people in droves. Although we see the lead character, Nick Naylor, go through a crisis of conscience throughout the film, the last scene shows him giving a presentation to a new group of clients.
"Gentlemen," he says to a trio of nervous executives, "practice these words in front of the mirror: Although we are constantly exploring the subject, currently there is no direct evidence that links cell phone usage to brain cancer." The group settles back in their chairs, relieved.
The implication, of course, is that cell phone companies care about our health about as much as the tobacco industry does, and there's undoubtedly some truth to this. If cell phones were dangerous, we would expect the mobile phone industry not to be the first ones to admit it to us. In fact, like the tobacco industry before them, it's entirely possible that they would fight tooth and nail to suppress research that might implicate their product as a carcinogen. But just because it could happen, doesn't mean it has happened, and this distinction is important.
This week, goop.com, the notoriously goofy website run by Gwyneth Paltrow, published an interview with Ann Louise Gittleman, author of the book Zapped, which purports to be a "groundbreaking exposé" on electronic radiation. Gittleman bills herself as the "First Lady of Nutrition," and a "top nutritionist and trusted pioneer in health and wellness." But Gittleman's Ph.D. in holistic nutrition was granted by Clayton College of Natural Health, which closed in 2010 amid criticism of being a "diploma mill." The college was never accredited.
The Goop interview prompted a stern scolding from the sharp-witted Kate Knibbs of Gizmodo, who points out that most major health organizations in the U.S. seem pretty much unconcerned about the risk, as no science has definitively linked cell phones and cancer, or brain tumors in particular.
The debate over cell phone use and cancer has two very committed camps: the "everything is fine" camp, and the "we are all going to die" camp. Neither group seems to have the science completely on their side, though the "we are all going to die" people have less to back their claim than their competitors. The reality is that the science isn't completely in on the subject, and skepticism on both sides is healthy. It's neither accurate to say cell phones cause cancer (they probably don't), nor to insist that they definitely don't (which we can't know yet).
Here's Where We Are In The Study Of Cell Phones And Cancer:
Not one negative side effect has been conclusively linked to cell phone use, other than the predictable downsides like driving distraction (yes, even when hands-free, driving while taking a phone call is as dangerous as drunk driving). Other short-term effects, like insomnia and heart rate, are not connected to cell phone use.
According to the World Health Organization:
"A number of studies have investigated the effects of radiofrequency fields on brain electrical activity, cognitive function, sleep, heart rate and blood pressure in volunteers. To date, research does not suggest any consistent evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to radiofrequency fields at [cell phone] levels."
But the most concerning claim is that cell phones cause cancer, and specifically brain cancer. Smooshing your head against a tiny box that is talking to a satellite in space doesn't exactly inspire confidence that nothing invisible and sinister is traveling through an orifice that lines straight up with your brain.
There's an issue, however, with studying brain cancer. Tumors may not be recognized until years after they appear, making it difficult to pinpoint their origin, and even harder to perform long-term, epidemiological research. Today, 91 percent of adult Americans own a cell phone, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, but phones have only been on the market a short while, in research terms. The first truly mobile phone arrived in 1983, and similar devices became widespread in 1999. That gives us only about 26 years to look at, and for the first few years, scientists had little incentive to investigate cell phones' dangers, not knowing if they were a fad that would disappear.
As for studies on animals, some have found a connection between radio frequency exposure and brain tumors in mice and rats, but others have come up clean. The U.S. National Toxicology Program is conducting similar studies, the results of which are expected this year.
Some sturdier conclusions may be on the way, too, but will take some time. In 2010, the international COSMOS study was launched, a cohort study that is following 290,000 adult cell phone users for 20 to 30 years, tracking their health and drawing connections between cell phone use and various illnesses. The COSMOS website explains, "We will be looking at any changes in the frequency of specific symptoms over time, such as headaches and sleep disorders, and also the risks of cancers, benign tumours, neurological and cerebro-vascular diseases." A similar study in Denmark found no link between cell phone use and "tumors of the brain or salivary gland, leukemia, or other cancers."
While the COSMOS study covers adults, another large-scale study is underway which examines children with brain tumors. The Mobi-Kids study compares 1,000 children with brain cancers with 2,000 healthy children, to compare and contrast past and present cell phone use. Results are expected this year. While this is an important study, it requires the patients (and their parents) to recall cell phone use accurately, and this is a notoriously difficult way to get data. The COSMOS study, however, will track use directly, leaving no room for recall bias.
It's important to note that the National Institute of Health lists six expert health organizations that have taken preliminary stands on cell phone use and cancer, and not one organization found a correlation or advises anyone to stop using their phones. Still, each organization in its own way retains healthy scientific skepticism, noting that the results are not and cannot be conclusive at this time.
So, the "we're all going to die" people need to chill out. It's very unlikely that cell phones are causing an epidemic of brain cancer. But the "everything is fine" people shouldn't be so quick to judge, either. The science is still out, and it's the job of the rational person to be willing to live with uncertainty.
Image: Mike Licht | Flickr