Do cell phones cause cancer? Highly debated issue continues

U. ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM — UV radiation, cigarettes, asbestos and cell phones. What do these items have in common?

At some point, each of these has been labeled as carcinogens, which are substances that can cause cancer.

Unlike the rest, cell phones have not been definitively linked to cancer. Recently, however, the director of a renowned research institute for cancer sent a memo to nearly 3,000 of his fellow faculty members to suggest otherwise.

Dr. Ronald B. Herberman is the head of the University of Pittsburg Cancer Institute. In the memo, he proposed several measures that the public should take to decrease the likelihood of getting cancer from cell phones.

Among his suggestions, Herberman included that children should only be allowed to use cell phones for emergencies, as their brains have not yet fully developed. Additionally, he recommended that cell phones be kept away from the head and that a wireless headset or speakerphone should be used instead. Furthermore, he advised that cell phones should not be used in public places because others may then be exposed to the cell phone’s electromagnetic radiation.

Electromagnetic radiation is the alleged villain in the ongoing ‘cell phones cause cancer’ debate. Electromagnetic radiation is divided into several subcategories based upon the wavelenth of the radiation. These subcategories are radio waves, microwaves, infrared waves, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays. Gamma rays have the largest wavelength, while radio waves have the shortest wavelength. Radio waves are employed in TV, radio, satellites, cordless phones and cell phones. The biological effects of radio waves have been classified into two groups, thermal and non-thermal. The thermal effects are what we exploit when using microwaves to heat food. The non-thermal effects are associated with cell phones.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asserts that the level of radio wave radiation emitted by cell phones and other wireless devices is safe.

“At relatively low levels of exposure to radio frequency radiation, i.e., field intensities lower than those that would produce significant and measurable heating, the evidence for production of harmful biological effects is ambiguous and unproven. While some experimental data have suggested a possible link between exposure and tumor formation in animals exposed under certain specific conditions, the results have not been independently replicated. In fact, other studies have failed to find evidence for a causal link to cancer or any related condition. Further research is underway in several laboratories to help resolve this question,” according to an article on the FCC Web site.

In other words, the FCC has found no evidence to support Herberman’s claims, but they also cannot conclusively refute them.

Even though the University of Pittsburg Cancer Institute’s director for environmental oncology, Devra Lee Davis, says that twenty different groups have endorsed Dr. Herberman’s suggestions, it is also useful to note that as of now, Herberman’s suggestions are simply that, suggestions. The data that he refers to is unpublished and many of the studies that he cites have not been replicated.

The unpublished data that Herberman refers to is from an ongoing multinational collaborative Interphone project. The Interphone project is one that spans 13 nations and attempts to extract data from patients with brain tumors. The patients with brain tumors are asked questions about how much they used their phone, which ear they used most often and when they began using their cell phones.

Authorities in France, India and England have also endorsed his suggestions.

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