Mixed signals

The Baltimore Sun

Everything gives you cancer. There's no cure, there's no answer. Everything gives you cancer. Don't touch that dial; don't try to smile ...

Joe Jackson, "Cancer"

Maybe Mr. Jackson was on to something. Though his 1982 pop lament focused on the potential perils of meat, alcohol and tobacco, the words seem newly prescient after a warning that using a cellular phone may increase the risk of brain cancer.

Are there any two scarier words in English? But wait - before ditching that new iPhone in the Dumpster, it should be noted that the usefulness of this week's warning by 23 prominent doctors and researchers is questionable. Devra Lee Davis, head of the department of environmental oncology at the University of Pittsburgh and leader of the group of 23, unhelpfully observed: "I don't know that cell phones are dangerous. But I don't know that they are safe."

Cell phones do emit traces of electromagnetic radiation, and claims that they cause harm go back many years. One of the most prominent cases was that of Dr. Christopher J. Newman, a Baltimore neurologist who sued several wireless phone companies, arguing that using cell phones had caused his brain tumor. A judge ruled in 2002 that the scientific evidence he mustered was too weak.

Dr. Newman, who died in 2006, might have made a stronger claim today. Several studies have found no link between cell phones and cancer, and the American Cancer Society and U.S. Food and Drug Administration say there is no evidence of risk. But a study published this year in the International Journal of Oncology did find an association between long-term cell phone use and certain tumors.

So a world with perhaps 3 billion cell phones is now advised to "limit" their use. But by how much? Is 30 minutes a day excessive? Is two hours OK if parsed into short segments? Nobody says - because nobody knows.

Ah, technology: always a blessing and a curse. Cell phones save lives, of course, and in ways that aren't always obvious (a lost family was rescued in Oregon in 2005 when authorities searched near where their dead phone had last "pinged" a transmission tower). They make it easy for you to remind your spouse to pick up an extra gallon of milk. They are helping to vault developing societies into the 21st century.

And as we all know, they also ring during movies, encourage loud talking in restaurants, and have an uncanny tendency to go dead - or missing - just when you need them. And now ... this.

It's time for the National Academy of Sciences or National Institutes of Health to launch a major inquiry into this subject and help consumers assess the risk. Meantime, we can fall back on that age-old antidote to conflicting medical advice: common sense. Most headsets can easily keep suspect phones far from worriers' noggins. Children's brains are developing, so limiting their exposure to radiation seems wise.

And if it does turn out that our phones are killing us, we'll just move on to a new wondrous technology - and the next set of anxieties. It has ever been thus.

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