Every so often, a new media report warns us of the potential dangers of cell phone use. But while it's frightening to think that health problems lurk within our favorite communication device, these media bulletins don't lead to a mass rejection of the cell phone. Perhaps that's because so much is still unknown about the long-term effects of cell phone use.
A new study following 250,000 European mobile phone users for at least two decades aims to determine whether links truly exist between cell phones and health problems. The study's co-principal investigator, Dr. Mireille Toledano, a senior lecturer in epidemiology at Imperial College London's School of Public Health, answered my questions last week.
How will the study work?
In the [United Kingdom], participants will be sent an invitation pack via their mobile phone network operator. If they are interested, [they] will go online to http://www.ukcosmos.org/ and complete the consent form and online questionnaire. It takes about 30 to 45 minutes. With their permission, we will monitor their health for the next 20 to 30 years via linkage with national health records and storage of information on secure databases at Imperial College London.
You're investigating possible links between cell phones and health problems. Which health problems are you considering?
The study will be monitoring a large range of health outcomes, including brain cancers, salivary gland cancers, skin cancers, leukemia, cerebrovascular disease (stroke) and neurodegenerative disease [such as] Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis.
Is there any evidence to suggest that cell phone use is connected to those health problems?
The balance of evidence to date is reassuring that mobile phone use for less than 10 years does not cause cancer. However, uncertainties remain with regard to longer-term use. Mobile phones are still a relatively new technology and most people haven't been using them for much more than 10 years. Also, some diseases take many years to develop and there hasn't been a sufficient observation period for potential disease development since the time that most people first started using their phones. In addition, most research to date has been based on recall of past mobile phone usage and this lends itself to inaccurate reporting and the possibility for recall bias which makes it difficult to interpret study findings. Finally, studies to date have been focusing on brain tumors only, but nowadays people don't only use their phones by making voice calls and putting their phone to their head.
For all these reasons, there are a number of uncertainties and gaps in our current scientific knowledge about a new widespread technology. The [study] will address these gaps by looking at long-term mobile phone use, potential long-term health effects, prospectively collecting information on mobile phone use so as to avoid any recall biases and a range of different health outcomes.
What's your goal?
To monitor the health of a large number of mobile phones users across Europe for the next 20 to 30 years and hopefully exclude any links between mobile phone use and possible health effects over the long term.
Why is this research so important to you?
This is an important international initiative because there is currently scientific uncertainty about a relatively new and widespread technology that is part of everyday life for most of us. To address this uncertainty, the most responsible step society can take for the sake of current mobile phone users and for future generations is due diligence by beginning to monitor the health of a large number of mobile phones users over a long period of time. In this way, the study will build up a valuable picture as to whether or not there are any links between mobile phone use and possible health effects over the long term.
Image: Mireille Toledano
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com