San Francisco recently lost a battle to label cell phones with warning stickers stating that they are “possibly carcinogenic,” but SF’s neighbour Berkeley has taken up the fight, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
If the proposed ordinance passes, Berkeley would be the first U.S. city to require such warnings — though the science behind them is far from settled.
Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?
No one disputes that cell phones emit radiation that can be absorbed by human tissue. But that doesn’t mean we know that mobile phones cause cancer.
Cell phones emit “non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation” (the kind that comes from microwaves), not “ionizing radiation” (the kind that comes from X-rays). And it turns out that’s an important difference.
“Exposure to ionizing radiation, such as from radiation therapy, is known to increase the risk of cancer,” the National Cancer Institute explains, although even there, the dose matters a lot. “However, although many studies have examined the potential health effects of non-ionizing radiation from radar, microwave ovens, and other sources, there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk.”
Non-ionizing radiation also does not cause DNA damage, something that’s usually considered a necessary trigger for cancer.
While people spend much more time with their cell phones than their microwaves, it’s still hard to get a good idea of the dose of non-ionizing radiation we get from them. The amount of radiation absorbed by individuals will vary depending on the kind of phones they have and how they use them.
A lot of uncertainty also comes from improved cell phone technology and increased usage over the years — the research just can’t keep up.
What we’ve seen in studies
“Studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck,” the National Cancer Institute notes on their website. But their fact sheet addressing the topic is not conclusive for the reasons above.
Since proximity is so important in radiation exposure, most research has looked for links between cell phones and brain cancer specifically, which only represents 2% of all cancers.
Between 2006 and 2010, there were 6.5 cases of brain cancer per 100,000 people, though rates are significantly higher in those over 65 (19.4 per 100,000). Since the risk is so small, even if researchers were to find conclusively that cell phones double that risk — something they certainly have not shown — the risk of brain cancer would still be much smaller than that for other more common cancers.
For anyone curious about the thick stack of research on whether cell phones cause cancer, the National Cancer Institute provides an excellent walk-through. (Results have been mixed, nothing has shown a causal link, and more research is needed, they conclude.) Other organisations have weighed in as well.
The World Health Organisation, in 2011, concluded that the radiation emitted by cell phones was “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on evidence they describe as “limited.” This “2B” classification, “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” is the same risk level WHO ascribes to coffee and pickled vegetables. More recent research, however, suggests that if anyone is at risk, it’s the heaviest cell phone users, not those who use their phones with moderation.
The Berkeley Test Case
Details about the stickers proposed in Berkeley are not yet known, though according to the Chronicle, advocates are talking to “a Harvard University law professor” to help them draft an appropriate message.
They are hoping Berkeley will get an outcome different from San Francisco’s, where industry lobbyists successfully argued that a “possibly carcinogenic” warning on cell phones would violate their First Amendment Rights.
An industry group has already written to the Berkeley City Council in protest.
“Any attempt to place labels on cell phones or their packaging contradicts the clear message of federal regulatory agencies that have carefully considered this issue, which is that devices compliant with the federal standards are safe for consumer use,” the senior director of legislative affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, wrote on July 3, according to the Chronicle.
The ordinance will be debated in the City Council on September 9.
In the meantime, people concerned about the potential but as yet wholly unknown risks from cell phones can minimize usage, text instead of call, use a headset, and keep a distance from the phone as much as possible.
While the research has been inconclusive so far, scientists are working to figure out if there is a link between cancer and cell phone use — or if such a link can be ruled out.
One study in the U.K., known as COSMOS, began in 2010 and will follow 290,000 cell phone users for 20-30 years. Researchers will have access to participants’ phone records, which should give a much more reliable picture of usage than previous studies, which relied largely on people’s recollections of their cell phone usage from many years ago.
Such ongoing research will be crucial.
“It often takes many years between the use of a new cancer-causing agent — such as tobacco — and the observation of an increase in cancer rates,” Dr. John Moynihan, of the Mayo Clinic, points out. “At this point, it’s possible that too little time has passed to detect an increase in cancer rates directly attributable to mobile phone use.”
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