Do cell phones cause cancer? That is what the British government wants to know. Some recent studies have raised questions about the safety of cell phones after ten years of use. Specifically, does using a cell phone for ten or more years lead to an increased chance of brain cancer?
Many studies have been conducted over the years, some with conflicting results but the latest consensus is that cell phones are generally safe for use in the short term. The effects of long term usage have yet to be studied. Some researchers feel that there is a critical need to study the long term effects and believe governments should be more concerned about the health of its citizens.
Professor Lawrie Challis is one such researcher. He is currently securing funding from the British Department of Health and the mobile phone industry itself for a long term study. The study which will cost over 3 million pounds or almost $6 million US will study 200,000 volunteers for at least 5 years to determine if cell phone use leads to an increase of any of several different ailments. Researchers will study the effect of long term usage on diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease as well as brain cancer.
In an interview with The Times, Professor Challis said there was a “hint” of evidence that there may be long term effects from cell phone usage. The Times asked Challis if the mobile phone could be the cigarette of the 21st century and he replied, “absolutely.”
Professor Challis asserts that long term studies are needed because most causes of cancer require at least 10 years to produce noticeable problems in a population. Challis said, “You find absolutely nothing for ten years and then after that it starts to grow dramatically. It goes up ten times. You look at what happened after the atomic bombs at Nagasaki, Hiroshima. You find again a long delay, nothing for ten years. The same for asbestos.”
Challis has found support in the government. The Shadow Health Secretary told The Times, “At the moment there is little evidence to suggest that use of mobile phones has any impact on health, but it is vital that there is continuing research to establish if long-term use is a danger.” (For Americans, a Shadow Secretary is a member of the party that is out of power. There job is to suggest policy alternatives to the ruling party.)
Professor Challis also wants to study the effect of cell phone use on children. Challis disagrees with the general consensus that cell phone usage affects children in the same was as adults. Challis said, “We all know that if you’re exposed to sunlight as a kid you are much more likely to get skin cancer than if you’re exposed as an adult.”
Probably the first major alarm story came from a 2002 Finnish study which claimed that phone radiation caused abnormalities in blood vessel cells. The researches said that no conclusion should be drawn, but that didn’t stop many news organizations from inflating the issue and causing many cell phone users to become concerned.
Then in 2003 another study was released by a Swedish team that suggested that there was a higher risk of acoustic neuroma, a benign growth of abnormal cells on one of the nerves in the skull. The risk was associated with analog phones which for the most part have since been phased out. In 2005 another study showed no link between cell phone use and the risk of acoustic neuroma for at least 10 years of use. Data for longer than a 10 year period was insufficient to draw significant conclusions.
In 2004 a study suggest users in rural areas were prone to higher rates of brain cancer with mobile phone usage because of the higher strength of signals required for the signal to reach the tower from the phone.
In the most bizarre study, a US team found that heavy cell phone users had lower sperm counts. Some thought the result was from ancillary causes like lack of exercise or stress that would be consistent with heavy mobile phone usage.
Finally in 2006 a Danish study, the largest of its kind, found that there was a slight increase in the risk for acoustic neuroma after ten years of usage. The study followed 420,000 users for as long as 21 years. However the researchers concluded that no firm conclusions could be drawn.
As mobile phone users ourselves, of course we are interested in news of this type. However, we take the results of this research with a large helping of salt. Most of the studies to this point have been inconclusive. The researcher in this case, Professor Challis, seems to be reaching rather far in comparing cell phone usage to nuclear fallout, asbestos (another over blown fear) and cigarettes.
Keep in mind that researchers like Professor Challis make their living on studies of this kind. It is in his best interest to convince governments and the citizens that there is some hidden risk that must be examined for the safety of the public. If he succeeds in procuring the funding for his study he has guaranteed himself a job for five years. When one follows the money in such a situation, one realizes that Challis’s motivation would be to find some kind of inconclusive evidence in order to convince the public of the need for additional studies in the matter. In this manner he could guarantee himself a comfortable position conducting research with little pressure for actual results.
Another point is raised brilliantly by the 2003 study. The technology in phones is constantly evolving. Many people are switching to Bluetooth headsets as a matter of convenience. The places the mobile phone emissions away from the users head. By the time this study concludes the headset could very well be the most common means of talking on a mobile phone. The results of the study will then be almost meaningless. This would be a great excuse to conduct a new and improved study to reflect the new style of mobile phone usage.
If you are concerned about radiation then you may want to try using a speaker phone or a Bluetooth headset. Practical measures like this are far more beneficial than ridiculous studies. Besides providing protection from the possible effects of cell phone radiation a headset or speakerphone would provide for much more ergonomic use of a mobile phone.
Take these studies with a healthy dosage of skepticism and make sure you review the source of any study and the possible motivations for it before taking any self appointed expert’s word as fact. Common sense is very powerful if used correctly.