This past week the head of a prominent cancer research institute issued an unprecedented warning to his faculty and staff to limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer.
The warning from Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, is contrary to numerous studies that have identified no link between cancer and cell phone use. Even The New York Times ran a subsequent piece identifying cell phone use as a “danger” you can take off your worry list.
Herberman admits he is basing his alarm on early unpublished data. He says it takes too long to get answers from science and he believes people should take action now — especially when it comes to children.
Heberman sent a memo to about 3,000 faculty and staff, warning that children should use cell phones only for emergencies because their brains are still developing. Additionally, adults should keep the phone away from the head and use the speakerphone or a wireless headset. He even warns against using cell phones in public places like a bus because it exposes others to the phone’s electromagnetic fields.
The issue that raises concerns is electromagnetic radiation, especially its possible effects on children. But it has not been a major topic in conferences of brain specialists.
A 2008 University of Utah analysis looked at nine studies — including some Herberman cites — with thousands of brain tumor patients and concluded that “we found no overall increased risk of brain tumors among cellular phone users. The potential elevated risk of brain tumors after long-term cellular phone use awaits confirmation by future studies.”
Yet, Herberman cites a “growing body of literature linking long-term cell phone use to possible adverse health effects including cancer.”
“Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use,” he wrote in his memo.
Herberman points to a massive ongoing research project known as Interphone, involving scientists in 13 nations, mostly in Europe. Results already published in peer-reviewed journals from this project aren’t so alarming, but Herberman is citing work not yet published.
The published research focuses on more than 5,000 cases of brain tumors. The National Research Council in the U.S., which isn’t participating in the Interphone project, reported in January that the brain tumor research had “selection bias.” That means it relied on people with cancer to remember how often they used cell phones. It is not considered the most accurate research approach.
The largest published study, which appeared in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2006, tracked 420,000 Danish cell phone users, including thousands that had used the phones for more than 10 years. It found no increased risk of cancer among those using cell phones.
A French study based on Interphone research and published in 2007 concluded that regular cell phone users had “no significant increased risk” for three major types of nervous system tumors. It did note, however, that there was “the possibility of an increased risk among the heaviest users” for one type of brain tumor, but that needs to be verified in future research.
Frank Barnes, who chaired the January report from the National Research Council, said Wednesday that “the jury is out” on how hazardous long-term cell phone use might be.
Speaking from his cell phone, the professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder said he takes no special precautions in his own phone use. And he offered no specific advice to people worried about the matter.
It’s up to each individual to decide what if anything to do. If people use a cell phone instead of having a land line, “that may very well be reasonable for them,” he said.