Cell Phones And Brain Cancer: A Comprehensive Research

Posted on June 4, 2011 in Sci-Tech

Research by Shraddha Sankhe:

There is some news about the health detriments from our favorite toy-the cell phone. World Health Organization on Tuesday, May 31st issued a statement warning the people who use cell phones about an increased risk of two rare, unpublished, brain cancers. This risk is classified in the same category of “possibly carcinogenic” as that of lead, chloroform and coffee.  The radiation emitted by cell phones used for a prolonged period, say, over 10 years, is a big Cancer risk according to the 31 member international panel of WHO, from 14 different countries.

The data was collected for WHO by multi-country researcher Interphone Studies and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) with research inputs from Swedish Cancer scientist Lennart Hardell.  The data, WHO admits, lacks “scientific evidence”. The rare type of Cancers kept under wraps could actually be somewhere close to the Acoustic Neuromas and Glioma according to the WHO 2006 report which also says, “Recent studies have reported an increased risk of acoustic neuroma and some brain tumors in people who use an analogue mobile phone for more than ten years. Also no data is available on the reproduction of these effects when digital mobile phones are used”.

Mobile phones have been in extensive use over a relatively short period of time leaping from an acoustic cell phone to the latest (a normal sight in everybody’s hand) GSM/CDMA enabled second generation digital phones.  There are approximately 5 billion cell phone subscribers globally. There is no surprise that (read: smart) mobile phone technology is not restricted to making and receiving calls only.  Abhay Bhangale, a Software Engineer from Chicago uses his iPhone  4 for texting, photos, chatting, checking mails, music and as an iPod while Tong Niu, a New York City student uses her phone as a calculator and a timer in addition to all the uses mentioned.

The risk is almost negligible for those who’re not excessive cell phone users like Rahul Nuthakki, a Civil Engineering student from Brisbane, Australia. But the risk almost doubles when one sees the larger picture as a public health issue. Also, there have been debates as to how far one must sleep from a cell phone. There is, however, enough evidence that Indians have no separate fear of radiation from cell phones; it is assumed to be similar in all parts of the world. Dr. Jonathan Samet, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at University of South California’s Keck School of Medicine and the Chairman of the panel that issued the report said, “We have half the world’s population already using cell phones, and people are using them younger and longer. We clearly need to keep track of this“.

Joel M. Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health told LA Times, “This is a major scientific consensus conference that has basically implicated cell phone radiation with increased tumor risk. I think they are particularly concerned about cell phones just because of the widespread utilization. It’s not like it’s some esoteric chemical used by industry that they think may be carcinogenic. Everyone is exposed to cell phones”.

According to International Commission on Non-Iconizing Radiation Protection’s 2009 report, the causes for brain tumor are not as direct as cell phone radiation.  To date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use. John Walls, vice president for CTIA- The Wireless Association., in a statement issued on same day as WHO, rejected the warning saying, “Coffee and pickled vegetables are also listed as “possibly carcinogenic”. It is a review of what already existed”.

However, the biggest doubt was expressed by Harvard Medical School’s publication Harvard Heart Letter. Its editor P J Skerret wrote, “I think the IARC decision puts cell phones on notice–a formal “we’ve got our eyes on you” warning–more than it fingers phones as a cause of brain cancer. For now, I’m far more concerned about being rammed by someone talking on his or her cell phone while driving than I am about getting brain cancer from a phone”.

When asked if the warning will affect his cell phone use, Shriraj Mohan, a Mechanical Engineer from Detroit was quick to reply, “Nope. Besides, I don’t believe that prolonged usage causes cancer”. Abhay Bhangale gives a tip indirectly, “I almost always use my handsfree and never stick my phone up my ear. So my phone is always 2 feet away from my brain as I talk to anyone”. Apparently, the WHO has informed consumers that even in the phone’s manual, it likely says something to the effect of, “We recommend you hold your mobile device about an inch away from your ear”.

Tong Niu has solid reasons to nix the WHO claim saying, “I’m not really convinced. They didn’t really conduct new research and the carcinogenic effects of cell phone use have always been around. Also, I think WHO said that using cell phones for one hour a day can double your chances of getting a rare type of brain cancer. And while that is scary, if my original chances of getting the cancer were 1%, increasing it to 2% isn’t that much of a difference”.

I got an opportunity to get in touch with Dr. Sherry Pagoto, Professor at University of Massachusetts Medical School, Health Behavior Scientist and a Psychologist. I asked her about her opinion regarding the warnings issued. Her answers seem to address the situation in a more pragmatic manner :

Me: As a doctor yourself, Dr. Sherry, would such a warning deter you from using your phone? Is it even practical to do so?

Dr. Pagoto: No, this information does not deter me from use.  Cell phone waves have been given a 2B classification by the WHO, also included in that category is coffee, food dyes, progesterone-only contraceptives, and a host of medications that are in regular use (see the list here http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Classification/ClassificationsGroupOrder.pdf).  The data do not appear to be strong enough to make a strong recommendation against use.

Me: Honestly, is there much to be scared of? We’re exposed to TV and random radio waves every day. (Your opinion on this as a psychologist would add more weight.)

Dr. Pagoto: What I hear the WHO saying is that there is some, very limited data to suggest a possible association.  I think that is probably true for many things, this one just happens to get a lot of press.  You should be more scared of heart disease because that is what is most likely to kill you (#1 cause of death), not a brain tumor.  If we all took healthy actions to reduce our risk of heart disease (e.g., regular exercise, low saturated fat, high fiber diet, proper sleep), that would improve public health a lot more than reducing cell phone use.  I think it’s more important to focus on the causes of diseases that are MOST likely to kill us, rather than those that are least likely to kill us.

Me: The doctor community has been divided in two opinions (in the last 2 days itself). Some say it’s a myth, ramming into someone while speaking is a bigger risk than getting brain cancer. What would be your opinion on this?

Dr. Pagoto: The data as they stand only suggest a correlation, which could be accounted for by a host of other factors.  One challenge is that it would be difficult to establish causation given the ubiquity of cell phone use (no control group) and we couldn’t randomize people to exposure vs no exposure to test for a causal effect, due to ethical reasons, as well as my latter point about ubiquity of use (almost everyone is exposed and people who are not exposed (no cell phone) might be different in many ways from people who are).

It is important to note that the jury is still out on the WHO warnings. Some claim that it is a myth, a few would give in to a conspiracy theory that many billion cell phone users are indeed the coin clinkers for the few mobile manufacturers of the world. Is there a lobby that has influenced a decision to broadcast the warning? Or is there a lobby that has resulted this ‘warning’ to be precisely ‘mild, inclusive or ‘still in progress’ yet very serious & final’?

My take is that we cannot say “No” when our mouth is greased. Indeed, it’s impossible to replace cell phones with any of the latest (or old) communication device/technology. Like the adage that says, “Too much of good is too bad”, we need to know the repercussions of excessive dependency on cell phones before it is too late. The issuance of warning by the World Health Organization is the ringing bell of this ‘knowledge’.

Shraddha Sankhe is a Senior Editor of Youth Ki Awaaz. She is doing her bit to help create enough ‘chatter’ in the matters of Rural Development, Health & Sanitation, Social Awareness coupled with solid Economic Reforms. Shraddha will shortly be pursuing her MA Journalism at Missouri School of Journalism, Columbia, USA from 2011-2013. She is also a Fellow at Health Communication Research Centre, Missouri state, USA. Shraddha will bring her global experience in health and science journalism to the Missouri School of Journalism as she begins her Smith/Patterson Fellowship for the 2011-2012 year.