Recent news indicates that cell phones and the radiation they emit may be tied to cancer. What does this mean for you?
When news broke recently that cell phones could possibly cause cancer, our own cell phones began ringing here at Winship Cancer Institute. Reporters wanted help to put the news in perspective after a panel of the World Health Organization placed cell phones in the same category they have placed coffee, exhaust fumes, the pesticide DDT and pickled vegetables, saying that the devices could possibly cause cancer.
Because cell phones are so pervasive – there are an estimated 5 billion world-wide subscribers – people were naturally concerned. Previous studies have acquitted the phones, but on May 31 a new review was saying they could be guilty after all.
It was important to me then as it is important to me now to try to help people understand the findings of the WHO panel. I think an important message from this report is that there is a possible risk, and that we need more information. Also, the report highlights just how difficult it can be to untangle cancer’s web, to find its causes and the best therapies. Just think of cigarette smoking. How many millions of people smoked for decades before tens of thousands of cases of lung cancer began to instruct us of the lethal consequences? Cancer often takes years or even decades to develop, and thus it can be years or decades before patterns of disease become clear.
The WHO panel, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is composed of 31 thoughtful, intelligent scientists from 14 countries who examined several previous studies. They concluded that they cannot rule out the possibility that cell phones can cause cancer. The panel was also careful to say that no known cases of cancer have been linked to cell phone usage.
The radiation that cell phones emit, called nonionizing radiation, is the issue. In general, most scientists have believed that these radio frequency waves were too weak to cause DNA damage that is often the cause of cancer.
That said, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported this year on research from the National Institutes of Health that found that brain activity in the part of the brain closest to the phone antenna can accelerate with less than one hour of cell phone use. That report offered a theoretical explanation – but note, only a theoretical explanation – of how such exposure could possibly cause an inflammatory response in the brain or trigger the formation of free radicals. The inflammatory response, the body’s natural reaction to injury or illness, can and often does go awry, wreaking havoc on a cellular level. Inflammation is now linked to a number of cancers. As for free radicals, this refers to free oxygen radicals within the body. They, too, are bad – thus all the advertisements you see for anti-oxidants that may fight their deleterious effect.
Also, a study last year conducted in 13 countries reported that people considered to be heavy cell phone users had a 40 percent higher risk of gliomas, a type of brain tumor, such as the tumor that claimed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
So where does this leave us? Do we need to toss our cell phones? No, but we do need more information. And some of that information needs to be how much radiation a particular cell phone emits. We need to know which phones are potentially safer. There is no reason to panic, but there is reason to begin to ask for information from cell phone manufacturers. There should be more to shopping for a cell phone than price.
Walter J. Curran Jr., MD
Executive Director, Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University
Associate Vice President, Cancer, Woodruff Health Sciences Center
Chair of Radiation Oncology