Field of Science


Your Cell Phone Isn't Killing You (Despite What You've Read)

I promise I wasn't looking for another New York Times columnist to argue with. Maureen Dowd just fell right into my lap today* while I was checking the news online. Number one on the Times's "most e-mailed" list right now is: "Are Cells the New Cigarettes?"

I thought, "Ooh, stem cells!" and clicked on the story. There's been some news recently about a woman with kidney disease who died after receiving an experimental stem-cell treatment in Thailand. A group called the International Society for Stem Cell Research is cracking down on clinics that offer unproven stem cell treatments to desperate patients.

Disappointingly, Maureen Dowd didn't mean cells, she meant cell phones. (But I understand the temptation to choose snappy alliteration over clarity.) San Francisco is going to start requiring cell phone retailers to display how much radiation each model emits. There is already a legal limit to how much radiation phones can emit, and you can find the numbers online somewhere, if you're a dedicated Googler. But in San Francisco, the "amount of radio frequency energy seeping into the body and brain" will now be displayed.

Dowd commends the mayor for "caring about whether kids' brains get fried." Personally, I'm against brain frying of any kind. But do cell phones fry your brain? Or, more specifically, give you brain tumors?

The rumor has been out there for a long time, and a lot of time and money has ben put into investigating the question. The National Cancer Institute cites about 30 studies on the subject. The conclusion? "Research studies have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancer." Studies have focused on various types of brain cancer, how often people use their phones, and even what side of their head people talk on, and found no solid evidence of brain frying.

There have been a few studies, though, that claimed to find some connection between cell phone use and cancer. One difficulty of these studies is self reporting: If you ask a person with a terrifying brain cancer, "Say, did you use your cell phone especially often--before you got that tumor in your head?" what do you think they're going to say? Overall, there was no increase in brain cancer in this country between 1987 and 2007.

Cell phone towers, as opposed to the phones themselves, have also been rumored to cause brain frying. But a recent study found they were perfectly safe.

Of course, most of us have been using cell phones for less than 10 years. It's possible that they're causing slow-developing tumors, and in another 10 or 20 years their effects will be obvious. But it's worth asking how they would cause cancer at all. Cell phones emit radio waves, which are non-ionizing radiation. That is, unlike UV rays or X-rays, cell phone waves can't mess up your DNA. I'm no physics expert, but the NCI makes it pretty clear: "There is currently no conclusive evidence that non-ionizing radiation emitted by cell phones is associated with cancer risk."

The San Francisco mayor is just worried about people's safety. "You see all these kids literally glued to their cell phones," he says.** But with so many actually dangerous things out there, I wish people wouldn't fear-monger about dangers that are speculative. Besides, I have observed my 19-year-old sister using her cell phone in her natural habitat. Though she is capable of sending a hundred text messages in one day, I don't think I've ever seen her talk on the thing.

*Not literally.
**Not literally.

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