Cancer and Cell Phones
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a statement on May 31st warning that cell phones could possibly increase the risk of brain cancer. This conclusion was based on a scientific review of human cancer cases, experiments with animals and other evidence by a Working Group of international experts. The IARC statement goes on to say that there is not enough evidence to conclusively say that there is a link between the electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and cancer, but they did recommend that more research should be done and in the meantime, it may be prudent for individuals to minimize their exposure.
The problem with this IARC statement is that it can be unnecessarily alarming if you only look at the headlines and fail to dig deeper into the nuance and the technical aspects of the process.
First of all, the IARC gave the link between cell phones and cancer a 2B classification. If you look at the IARC’s own definitions, a Group 2B agent is “possibly carcinogenic [cancer-causing] to humans”.
But in terms of scientific evidence, the definition also states that a 2B classification means that “there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans”. And the IARC definition of limited evidence of carcinogenicity says that:
“a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer for which a causal interpretation is considered by the Working Group to be credible, but chance, bias or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence”
What this means is that based on the evidence they reviewed, there may be an association between cell phones and cancer, but you can’t say that cell phones cause cancer. It’s possible that the association is based on random chance, or that the data is skewed, of poor quality, or influenced by some other factor that may or may not be known.
So if you take all of these definitions into account the IARC is saying that the idea that cell phone use increases the risk of brain cancer is possible based on the evidence, and credible based on what we know about cancer BUT the evidence does not clearly show that cell phones definitely cause cancer.
But the story doesn’t end there. A key part of the scientific method is to continue to ask questions and seek the truth. Because the evidence is inconclusive, the research into the link between cell phones and cancer should and will continue.
In the meantime, there is not enough evidence to recommend putting aside your cell phone but if you’re concerned you can minimize your exposure to the electromagnetic radiation from cell phones with these simple tips:
1. Get a hands-free device, headset or use the speakerphone function – all of these things will allow you to keep the phone away from your head
2. Use the texting feature on your phone – this will also keep the phone farther from your head
3. Use a conventional phone (land-line) for longer calls where possible
Note that none of these measures have been proven to reduce your risk of cancer – but neither has exposure to cell phones been proven to increase your risk of cancer.
For an in-depth look at the research into cell phones and cancer, see: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/blog/nsb072610_interphone.html