It's official: your cell phone may cause cancer

Cell phones are now up there with lead, engine exhaust, coffee, and chloroform.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Ed Yourdon.

I'm kind of curious about (and a little disturbed by) the recent news that the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer has reversed its previous position that cell phones are safe, and has added them to the list of big, bad potential cancer-causing concerns (PDF).

Cell phones are now up there with lead, engine exhaust, coffee, and chloroform. I mean, call me crazy, but I feel a lot safer placing a call on my iPhone (maybe with a nice cup of Joe in the other hand) than I would snacking on the paint chips from my grandparent's window sills, or breathing in the black cloudy fumes billowing from a belching tailpipe.

My first reaction to the news was incredulity and slight annoyance. Remember how, in the late 70s, Sweet'N Low was demonized as cancer causing (only to be removed from the list in the U.S. around twenty years later), while in the mid-80s much scarier sweeteners like aspartame were shadily rubber-stamped by the FDA?

Doesn't everything cause cancer? Don't we have enough to be afraid of? What's up with the focus on cell phones? It just doesn't sit right with me.

A few of my thoughts and questions on the issue

As a nurse, my first question is, how real is this threat? What should I tell my clients when they ask?

Doesn't fear of cancer cause anxiety? Anxiety is a health issue in and of itself. Cancer is a serious, heartbreaking disease. We've all lost loved ones to it. So we worry a lot about it, and stress worsens health.

Will saying cell phones may cause cancer have any positive impact at all on public health? Will it change people's behavior with cell phones?

If you thought prying a cup of coffee or a cigarette out of someone's hand is hard, just try prying away someone's Android phone! It has been interesting, in the past four years so, watching the request to turn off cell phones in certain public situations go from being viewed as normal and understandable, to being considered a ridiculous and rude imposition.

Does anyone stand to benefit from the decision to call cell phones out as possibly carcinogenic? If so, how? Of course, there's the non-cynical answer of an increase in public awareness of a potential hazard. On the dark side, possibilities include attention, press, political axe-grinding, and money. Who loses and who gains (besides possibly the lawyers)?

Cigarette companies knew their product caused cancer way before they admitted it. That's known. Costly lawsuits did arise. What are the legal and financial implications of adding cell phones to the list of carcinogenic hazards? Why now? Who will be suing who? What impact will this announcement have on the tech economy?

It hasn't really been proven that cell phones actually cause brain cancer. We would expect to see a huge upswing in brain cancer cases to match the huge upswing in cell phone use. If such a cause were completely evident, we'd be seeing some very different news stories today, stories that involve a lot less "may", "might", and "possibly".

Next: What about Bluetooth (and more) »

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Of course, people are recommending the use of Bluetooth headsets instead. But doesn't that just add another point of focus for radio waves? Where are the phones being carried while the Bluetooth headsets are on the ear? Are they in a breast pocket? Are they in a belt holster? Isn't that awfully close to the breasts, ovaries, or testes? What about internal organs? Should we fry those as well?

Why is everyone focusing on cancer instead of trying to get people to stop texting while driving?

If cell phones do cause cancer, will the Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers among us be the most at risk, because we've used cell phones longer and more? Will the digital natives among us who always gravitated toward texting be safer?

I could swear I read a science fiction piece about an entire generation losing its intellectual capacity due to cell phone use, but I can't find reference to it now that I'm looking for it. I'm not thinking of the 2006 Stephen King novel "Cell". That one dealt with a terrorist activity causing cell phone users to become violent hive-minded zombies, and was quite entertaining.

I'm no electrical engineer, but some of you readers are. What do you think about this cancer/cell phone announcement? What's the difference between Bluetooth, WiFi, and cellular signals when it comes to effects on the human organism?

What about the glass cellular phone bodies, such as on the iPhone 4? Are they better or worse in this regard than the metal or plastic ones?

I don't want to be too quick to scoff at the potential of danger. The pitfalls of a new technology aren't always evident at its early adoption. After all, Marie Curie (who was truly a genius) used to carry test tubes filled with radioactive isotopes around in her pocket so she could admire their pretty glow. X-rays were considered perfectly safe when they were new. People who worked with them had a much higher rate of death from cancer than that of the general population.

Kids used to ride bikes without helmets. Cars used to have only lap seatbelts and no airbags. Our understanding of risks (and our assessment of what's acceptable) often changes over time. So does our strategy for managing them.

My cell phone strategy I always find myself yanking my Bluetooth headsets from my ears because they're uncomfortable, or I don't like the sound quality, or both. I'm reluctant to spend on more of them because they're expensive, and I am inevitably disappointed. The wired headset that came with the earphones on my iPhone is less than stellar, as well.

If someone calls while I'm in the car, I usually let it go to voicemail. If I'm expecting an important call I feel I absolutely must answer, Ford Sync lets me do so with the touch of one console button. Then I can talk hands-free over the car's speaker phone without ever diverting my attention from the road, or removing the phone from my purse in the back seat.

When I'm out and ambulatory, I do take any necessary calls on my iPhone itself, but I keep the conversation brief because I prefer the voice quality of a landline for long chats with friends. I also firmly believe there are times when a person should be unreachable.

When I get home, my phone automatically pairs with my Panasonic Link-to-Cell Expandable Bluetooth-Enabled DECT 6.0 Phone System. I plug into that with a Panasonic KX-TCA60 Hands-Free Headset with Comfort Fit Headband, which is a comfortable, awesome-sounding inexpensive dinosaur of a wired headset.

Why would I do such a thing? Because it enables me to have a decent conversation without constantly asking, "Can you hear me now?" Because of this eccentricity, hilarity sometimes ensues when I get tangled in the cord of my cordless phone.

Now mind you, I don't do any of this to avoid cancer. I do it because I come from a generation that remembers what having a decent phone conversation was like.

I realize it's only one step removed from sitting perched on the little seat of a telephone table while absently twisting the pigtail-like cord of an old-school wired handset, rotary phone, but I'm not sorry.

Finally, why can't we put the silly things down and just have a cup of coffee together? Oh that's right -- coffee's a carcinogen, too.

What's your opinion of cell phones and cancer? What's your phone strategy? Let us know in the TalkBacks below.

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