Cell Phones and Cancer, Again

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It seems like this just won’t go away. One research study will show a link between heavy cell phone use and brain tumors or other cancers. Then another set of researchers will say their studies do not support drawing those conclusions. Well, today another article, on the BBC news site, is titled “Cancer link to heavy mobile use“. You should read the details at that link. Here is another story covering the same research.

What always frustrates me about news stories like these are what I believe are the lack of detail readers needed to draw conclusions. The usage in the study was described as “several” and “many” hours per day. Why can’t they just tell us how many hours that was!? The increase in cancer was said to be 50%. Although the actual numbers thee might not change the mathematics statistics, it would help readers put things in perspective. Percentage increases mean nothing to many people unless we also know the true numbers. If the increase was from 1 cancer case per million people to 1.5 cases per thousand people, the overall risk seems very small. If the increase was from 1 in 100 to 1.5 in 100, then even though mathematically the increased risk is the same, it at least appears to be more worrisome. Please, if anyone sees a flaw in my reasoning here, please post a comment. I sometimes get as confused as the next person when trying to figure out what studies like these really mean to the average person.

The study cited in today’s news stories followed 500 Israelis. This would imply a high risk of cancer in the first place wouldn’t it? I mean, if the chances of getting a certain cancer were one in 10,000, then how could studying only 500 people tell you anything? In contrast, another study in Denmark has been tracking over 400,000 people and has found no increased cancer risk.

What to do? Mobile phones are here to stay. And, until satellite technology becomes better and cheaper, the current method of using microwave radio radiation to carry our conversations is what we are stuck with. As with the adaptation of any new or safer technology, even if satellite phones become cheaper, smaller, and prove to be safer, the transition to them will take years or decades to make. This is because of the huge investment companies have in existing technology that they don’t want replaced by something newer until they are ready to be part of the change.

The study also found that users in rural areas had an even higher increased risk, although of course it was not said exactly how much higher. This is because the phones need more radiation to maintain call quality in rural areas. I remember reading somewhere that, especially in rural areas, you should keep the phone away from your body even when not making calls. I don’t know how realistic that is, but the reasoning was thus. The phones are constantly signaling back and forth to the towers so that they are ready to accept calls as they come in. Although the radiation required to do this is small compared to actually talking on the phone, the hours of exposure to a phone in one’s jeans pocket are much higher. How do we know what to believe?

So what can we do to hedge our bets? The most common recommendation is to use the speaker phone or a hands free device. Next, you can make an effort to make calls shorter or use text messaging. When I change my phone next month, a good speaker, a text messaging friendly keypad and BlueTooth technology are at the top of my list. However, I do wonder how long it will be before we see the first study outlining the dangers of BlueTooth technology. You do wear the thing on your ear and it does use radio waves to interface with the phone. I also wonder about the radio waves in general we are exposed to. I am sitting for hours every day in a room with a wireless router. Is there any danger from that?

Please comment if you have opinions, links or answers to any of my questions. Perhaps also digg and stumble, etc. to increase the possibility of getting input from someone who has some real knowledge on this confusing, but troublesome issue.

Thanks! And for now let’s just be thankful that because our kids are so into text messaging on their mobile phones, they actually spend very little time with the devices held to their ears.

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Will Sig
1 Swubird

Very interesting post. You’re absolutely right, cell phones are here to stay, so we need to know the facts. Give me a Z-score!

The whole thing reminds me of a similar situation with overhead power lines. No body knows if they will definitely harm you, or not. A friend of mine has a large, expensive home, but the problem is that it’s located directly underneath some rather foreboding-looking power lines. You know, those big, metal, multi-line monsters that stretch across the countryside. Well, he asked me if I thought that he should sell the place because he didn’t want to harm his kids. What was I going to say? Maybe? Maybe not? The data supports no definite conclusions. It all sounds so – flaky. Several years have passed since that conversation, and he still lives in the home. Nothing seems to be medically wrong with him, or anyone in his immediate family. So, I guess, based on a sample size of four, electromagnetic waves are safe. And since we can’t avoid exposure to electromagnetic waves, that’s good news.

Have a nice day.

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2 Abhinav Sood

Electromagnetic radiation and microwave radiation are not the same thing. Microwaves, radio waves, X-rays, visible light, etc. are subsets of Electromagnetic radiations.

electromagnetic (EM) spectrum is the range of all possible electromagnetic radiation. The “electromagnetic spectrum” (usually just spectrum) of an object is the characteristic distribution of electromagnetic radiation from that object.

Electromagnetic (EM) radiation, also called light even though it is not always visible, is a self-propagating wave in space with electric and magnetic components. These components oscillate at right angles to each other and to the direction of propagation, and are in phase with each other. Electromagnetic radiation is classified into types according to the frequency of the wave: these types include, in order of increasing frequency, radio waves, microwaves, terahertz radiation, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays.

These image links may help. 🙂

Image 1

Image 2

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3 Will

One of the things I wondered is if electromagnetic radiation and microwave radiation are the same thing? I thought microwaves were just one type of EM? Are the wireless signals bouncing around my house EM, microwave, neither or both? If the time of exposure is the main factor in health consequences, I would think living in a house with wireless internet might be a problem?

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4 Micah

I would be interested in a study of cancer risks of those living under the cellphone transmitters themselves. Surely these give out more radiation on a continuous basis. I wonder if anybody has studied these?

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5 JD Thomas

Micah, living UNDER the cell tower is probably one of the safest places to be. The microwave transmitters are designed to spread out from there so the exposure would probably be least right next to it.

Will, if its available, I highly recommend the LG ENV for your next phone. I’ve had mine now for 6 weeks and I love it. Text messaging is easy with the internal keyboard, the camera is decent, and my Bluetooth headset works better on it than either of my previous two phones

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6 Will

Micah – That question is a good one and what JD says makes sense, but who knows for sure. I wonder about the overall exposure as we go about our daily lives. As I noted above, I am really wondering about sitting for hours at a time in the same room as a wireless router.

Thanks for the phone rec., JD. I have that one on my list, although with a few cons.

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7 A.

I find the BBC are very bad about not giving original sources of their information. I’ve found the abstract here. It compares 1,266 people without tumours against 402 people with benign tumours and 82 malignant tumours. There was no evidence of a difference between the two groups until they looked at “heavy” users of cell phones. I see a problem with that – an arbitrary decision on what constitutes heavy use. Where is your cut-off between the two groups?

Also the final sentence of the abstract is, “Based on the largest number of benign PGT patients reported to date, our results suggest an association between cellular phone use and PGTs.” It sounds to me that they were including benign tumours in the calculations. I had assumed they would also compare benign vs malignant. If benign tumours are included it is considerably less scary than the media reports, though I admit I wouldn’t want one.

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8 Will

Thanks for finding that abstract A! Maybe I’ll put the link in the original post, although it really does not contain the information needed to really understand the study. I agree that an arbitrary cut off for “heavy use” is troublesome. That is actually one of the most important bits of information I would want to know.

If they don’t find any increase in tumors until people surpass and average of 5 hours per day on the phone, that would be very different than if the cutoff point was 1 hour. Especially for someone like me that probably averages 30 minutes per day with the mobile at the ear. It also seems bad that they suggest an even greater risk for rural use and don’t define exactly what that is. I suppose more specific information is available in the full text of the article, but I don’t feel like paying $36.00 for one time access to it.

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9 Anna

Will I hate talking on the phone. I have cell phone, and I don’t even have it on most of the time, just for emergencies. You are so right about those reports, I find that they are never clear. And most of the time I am confused, this is not good for you this year, but next year new report comes out, its good for you. I just stick with simple rule, moderation and balance, and hopefully it all work out for me on the end. However, I am computer fan, and we do use wireless a lot at home – how much I am willing to sacrifice for my work and hobby, not sure. Does it have health implications, I think yes, but then you add up everything else in the house emitting something, the cumilative effect may be dangerous or not, that I don’t know. Recently someone said that even sitting in the basement is no good, because of radiation from the ground. Great post Will as usual, and you have brought some good points to the table, thanks. Anna 🙂

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10 Will

You know Anna you are right about the moderation and balance. Yes some homes have problems with the ground underneath emitting radon, I think. I have really adopted the mobile phone habit. I will feel better once I have a Bluetooth headset and a phone that is easier to text on as that will keep it away from my ear more.

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11 Technology Slice

It’s a little hard to trust these studies when they keep contradicting themselves. A lot of things can cause cancer.

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12 Valerie

My mom always remind me not to always use mobile phone as she believe it can cause brain tumor and other types of cancer. There are lots of studies and research out there claiming it can; but there are also some studies who are contradicting. I think what we can do as of now is to use our mobiles moderately. Anyway, I don’t use my phone often to call; only for emergencies…so, no worries for me.

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13 Ritu Raj

It is your great review on the use of cell phones from the health point of view. I had also read the news of BBC on the cell phones use and brain tumer. Actually, when cell phones ring, it creates vibrate with the support of battry. That vibrate creates electronic magnetic field that are harmful for our brain. When we talk with the cell phones the electrics voice always passed way through our brain and that creates the chance of brain tumer.

Thanks

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