This jury still out on cell phone effects

October 10, 2008

In the Sept. 26 JP Gazette article “Critics call for halt to antenna plan,” reporter John Ruch writes that it is a “myth” that cell phones can cause cancer, because “scientific studies have not demonstrated any convincing cause-and-effect relationship.” Following the same logic, belief that smoking causes cancer was a myth until 1996, when benzopyrene in tobacco smoke was first directly linked to lung cancer. The kind of demonstration some require can take years or decades. But, in the meantime, epidemiological studies can provide grounds for taking reasonable precaution, as when the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packs was mandated in 1965.

Are there any such studies for cell phones? This past July, Dr. Ronald Heberman, head of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, issued an advisory on cell phone use, citing what he called “a growing body of literature linking long-term cell phone use to possible adverse health effects including cancer.”

In October 2007, an article in the peer-reviewed journal Occupational Environmental Medicine analyzed the results of 11 studies and concluded that “use of mobile phones for more than 10 years give a consistent pattern of an increased risk for acoustic neuroma and glioma [brain cancers].” Professor Kjell Hansson Mild of Umea University (Sweden), a principal author, told the British newspaper The Independent: “I find it quite strange to see so many official presentations saying that there is no risk. There are strong indications that something happens after 10 years.” Like Dr. Heberman, he advised that adults limit their use and that children not use cell phones at all except in emergencies, because their thinner skulls and developing nervous systems make them especially vulnerable. (See

Maybe this research will all turn out to be mistaken. Other studies show no correlation between cell phones and cancer, and researchers agree that more study is needed. So at this point it’s like deciding how to invest: it’s for each of us to decide what risk we can tolerate. But for that we first need all the available information, not dismissal of any concerns.

Arnold Chien
Jamaica Plain