July 23, 2008
The director of a cancer institute tells faculty and staff to limit
cell phone use due to possible cancer risk, although numerous
studies have found no link.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The head of a prominent cancer research institute
issued an unprecedented warning to his faculty and staff Wednesday:
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
don't find a link between cancer and cell phone use, and a public
lack of worry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Herberman is basing his alarm on early unpublished data.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.
"Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn't wait for a
definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe
rather than sorry later," Herberman said.
No other major academic cancer research institutions have sounded
such an alarm about cell phone use. But Herberman's advice is sure
to raise concern among many cell phone users and especially parents.
In the memo he sent to about 3,000 faculty and staff Wednesday, he
said children should use cell phones only for emergencies because
their brains are still developing.
Adults should keep the phone away from the head and use the
speakerphone or a wireless headset, he said. He even warned against
using cell phones in public places like a bus, because it exposes
others to the phone's electromagnetic fields.
The issue that concerns some scientists - though nowhere near a
consensus - is electromagnetic radiation, especially its possible
effects on children. It is not a major topic in conferences of brain
A 2008 University of Utah analysis looked at nine studies -
including some Herberman cites - with thousands of brain tumor
patients, and concluded,
"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."
Studies last year in France and Norway concluded the same thing.
"If there is a risk from these products - and at this point we do
not know that there is - it is probably very small," the Food and
Drug Administration says on an agency Web site.
Still, Herberman cites a "growing body of literature linking
long-term cell phone use to possible adverse health effects
"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.
A driving force behind the memo was Devra Lee Davis, the director of
the university's center for environmental oncology.
"The question is, do you want to play Russian roulette with your
brain," she said in an interview from her cell phone while using the
hands-free speaker phone as recommended. "I don't know that cell
phones are dangerous. But I don't know that they are safe."
Of concern are the still-unknown effects of more than a decade of
cell phone use, with some studies raising alarms, said Davis, a
former health adviser in the Clinton administration.
She said 20 different groups have endorsed the advice the Pittsburgh
cancer institute gave.
Authorities in England, France and India also
have cautioned children's use of cell phones.
Herberman and Davis point 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
The published research focuses on more than 5,000 cases of brain
tumors. The National Research Council in the United States, 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
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.
Earlier research also has found no connection.
Joshua E. Muscat of Penn State University, who has studied cancer
and cell phones in other research projects partly funded by the cell
phone industry, said there are at least a dozen studies that have
found no link between cancer and cell phones.
He said a Swedish
study cited by Herberman as support for his warning was biased and
"We certainly don't know of any mechanism by which radiofrequency
exposure would cause a cancerous effect in cells. We just don't know
this might possibly occur," Muscat said.
Cell phones emit radiofrequency energy, a type of radiation that is
a form of electromagnetic radiation, according to the National
Cancer Institute. Though studies are being done to see if there is a
link between it and tumors of the brain and central nervous system,
there is no definitive link between the two, the institute says on
its Web site.
"If a person feels compelled that they should take precautions in
reducing the amount of electromagnetic radio waves through their
bodies, by all means they should do so," said Dan Catena, a
spokesman for the American Cancer Society. "But at the same time, we
have to remember there's no conclusive evidence that links cell
phones to cancer, whether it's brain tumors or other forms of
Joe Farren, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade
group for the wireless industry, said the group believes there is a
risk of misinforming the public if science isn't used as the
ultimate guide on the issue.
"When you look at the overwhelming majority of studies that have
been peer reviewed and published in scientific journals around the
world, you'll find no relationship between wireless usage and
adverse health affects," Farren said.
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 landline, "that may very
well be reasonable for them," he said.
Susan Juffe, a 58-year-old Pittsburgh special-education teacher,
heard about Herberman's cell phone advice on the radio earlier in
"Now, I'm worried. It's scary," she said.
She says she'll think twice about allowing her 10-year-old daughter
Jayne to use the cell phone.
"I don't want to get it [brain cancer] and I certainly don't want
you to get it," she explained to her daughter.
Sara Loughran, a 24-year-old doctoral student at the University of
Pittsburgh, sat in a bus stop Wednesday chatting on her cell phone
with her mother. She also had heard the news earlier in the day, but
was not as concerned.
"I think if they gave me specific numbers and specific information,
and it was scary enough, I would be concerned," Loughran said,
planning to call her mother again in a matter of minutes. "Without
specific numbers, it's too vague to get me worked up."
“This Is Your Brain on Cell Phone Radiation”
by John Cox
Another group of "prominent" doctors and public health researchers
have issued the latest warning that cell phone use possibly might
increase the chances you get brain cancer.
One of them, Dr. Ronald Herberman, director of the University of
Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, went so far as to write a memo to 3,000
faculty and staff encouraging them to use cell phones less, to keep
them as far from their head as possible, and only let children use
them in emergencies.
Good luck with that.
So. Legislators and what I would guess are called traffic safety
advocates are saying cell phones (or at least the deadly hand-held
cell phone) lead to traffic accidents; doctors and public health
folks are saying they might lead to brain tumors. Kind of a public
policy dilemma here: if you allow phones in cars, users end up dead
long before debilitating brain cancer can kill them; but if you ban
them in cars, users are exposed to radiation longer, and develop
In the face of such danger, perhaps the responsible solution is to
BAN CELL PHONES outright. The precedent is already being established
with the bans on trans fat in New York City and Boston. Then there's
the move to ban second-hand smoke... outdoors, as ABC's 20/20
correspondent John Stossel enumerated in a story on Nanny State
That may be the next step: according to one account Dr. Herberman,
"warns against using cell phone in public places, like a bus,
because it exposes others to the phone's electromagnetic fields." I
can see it now: "A subway user was roughed up, verbally abused and
his cell phone ground under foot by angry fellow riders when he
refused to stop using his cell phone, despite the city's ban on
second-hand radiation. ‘Your brains are already fried, what
difference does it make," was his comment, according to several
I read three accounts on the newest radiation warning, one in the
Washington Post, which ran the lengthy Associated Press story, one
by the Baltimore Sun, and one from eSchool News, which rewrote some
As is often the case, reading them side by side just adds to the
fear, uncertainty and doubt that is the point of such stories, and
often of the people featured in them.
eSchool News captured this
perfectly: the new warning,
"has rekindled fears about the possible
health risks associated with extensive cell-phone use."
"rekindled" is a nice touch: those persistent, banked and smoldering
embers of fears flaring up... again!
The eSchool story refers to the possible risks due to
"extensive...use" yet when it quotes Dr. Herberman, he uses the term
"longterm...use." From what I can see, those are two very different
things biologically: one implies bathing your brain in
electromagnetic radiation by mashing your cell phone to your ear for
hours a day; the other giving your brain a few zaps daily or weekly
between now and your retirement.
The ad hoc group which issued the new cell phone radiation warning
"the most recent studies...show a possible association
between certain benign tumors and some brain cancers on the side [of
the head where] the device is used."
That's more than enough for Dr. Herberman.
"Really at the heart of
my concern is that we shouldn't wait for a definitive study to come
out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry," he says.
(This, by the way, is the basic argument made by advocates of sexual
abstinence: don't do it, and you can't get sick or pregnant.)
But my favorite quote is from Devra Lee Davis, director of the
University of Pittsburgh's Center for Environmental Oncology, and
author of "When Smoke Ran Like Water: tales of environmental
deception and the battle against pollution." She's described in one
story as "a driving force behind Herberman's memo" and in the other
as "the key architect of the warning."
We get it: she's a player.
Here it is:
"The question is do you want to play Russian roulette
with your brain. I don't know that cell phones are dangerous. But I
don't know that they are safe."
So keep your calls short, and keep the phone away from your head.
I'm not sure that the people most concerned about cell phone dangers
will be reassured by this second bit of advice: keeping the phone in
your pocket or purse, with a cable or Bluetooth (CAUTION! More
radiation!) headset shifts the organs being irradiated from your
head to your Naughty Bits.
What neither Davis nor the reporters address is the nature of
safety, which cannot be absolute. Are cars safe? Is coffee safe? Are
backyard swing-sets safe? Is wood-grilled beefsteak safe? Greenpeace
charged last year that the Apple iPhone, quite apart from the
radiation "danger," was environmentally unsafe
People make decisions about safety based on a range of evaluations
and values, that is on what is prudent - what is careful, sensible,
based on sound judgment. Russian roulette, one could argue, is the
opposite of prudent, but there is not the slightest evidence that
pressing a cell phone to your head in any way, even metaphorically,
is equivalent to pressing a six-shot revolver, loaded with one
bullet, to your head and pulling the trigger.
Instead, Davis and Herberman offer as sensible and sane a principle
that is clearly the opposite of both: that the absence of absolute
proof of safety means that an activity or object must be treated as
absolutely unsafe. People who actually live like that are regarded
rightly as paranoid delusional.
I need to stop here: I have an incoming call on my cell phone....
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