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Could cell phones increase your risk of cancer?

A rather black sheep topic in the medical community is whether cell phones cause cancer.  The weak electromagnetic fields and transmission sent off by the devices are something that many users expose themselves to numerous times daily.  One difficulty in determining the amount of possible danger is that such effects would likely be long term and cell phone use has been around for two decades, with heavy use only coming in the late nineties.  With cell phones threatening to replace the land phone lines nationwide the issue is causing growing concern.

It does not help that the few early studies have shown seemingly contradictory results, some showing no risk, some showing significant risks, others showing specialized but less sweeping effects, which could be detrimental (ie. effects on only certain cancers, cancer characteristics).  Still the current evidence supporting the view that mobile phones may cause cancer, combined with the results of several unreleased studies were enough to convince top cancer doc, Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute to warn his faculty and staff to limit their cell phone use because of cancer risks.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has remained unconcerned about the threat, Doctor Herberman feels the evidence is stacking up.  He says the possible threat, particularly to children is to serious to adopt a "wait and see" approach.  He states, "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."

Doctor Herberman's statement is the first time a head of a major academic cancer research institution has vocally supported the idea of a cell phone-cancer link.  Many think that it will have significant impacts at other institutions and in general public opinion.  In his memo he states that children should only use cell phones for emergencies due to greater risk on their developing brains.  The memo went out to his institution's over 3000 faculty and staff members.

In the memo Doctor Herberman suggests that there is evidence that keeping the cell phone away from the head or use of speakerphone or a wireless headset can help reduce users risk.  He also warns to avoid public use on public facilities like buses or subways as it exposes other to the EM radiation in a public health hazard analogous to, but perhaps not comparable to, secondhand smoke.

Despit the fact that the topic has not been widely discussed or addressed among brain specialists there have been a growing number of studies looking at the issue.  Most have concluded against there being a threat.  French and Norwegian studies, as well as a 2008 University of Utah analysis of nine U.S. studies all found no clear risk of brain cancer increases.  However as the University of Utah analysis points out, "The potential elevated risk of brain tumors after long-term cellular phone use awaits confirmation by future studies."

The FDA's website officially states, "If there is a risk from these products -- and at this point we do not know that there is -- it is probably very small."

However Doctor Herberman believes that there is a "growing body of literature linking long-term cell phone use to possible adverse health effects including cancer."  He continues, "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."

Devra Lee Davis, the director of the university's center for environmental oncology was a key advocate of the stance.  She states, "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."

Both she and Doctor Herberman reference the results of Interphone, a massive ongoing research project involving 13 nations.  The research published to date in peer reviewed journals has been less alarming but cautionary, and Doctor Herberman believes more alarming results are surfacing.  However the research has come under fire by the National Research Council in the U.S. for its "selection bias", requiring brain tumor victims to recall how many times they used cell phones over certain periods, which is considered to be questionable in accuracy.

The largest fully completed study, from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2006 tracked 420,000 Danish cell phone users and found no clear link between cell phones and cancer.  A more recent French study found no significant risk of three major types of nervous system tumors, but did find an increased risk for one type of brain tumor among heavy users that needed to be verified.

Dan Catena, a spokesman for the American Cancer Society is neutral on the topic stating, "By all means, 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.  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 cancer."

Joe Farren, a spokesman for the CTIA-The Wireless Association says that his organization is concerned that "misinformation" may be spread about cell phones.  He states, "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."

Some studies do support the conclusion, though. A study in Finland found that cell phone users of 10 years or more were 40 percent more likely to get a brain tumor on the side of the head they usually hold their phone.  A follow up study in Sweden indicate this risk to be closer to four times as great.

In February, DailyTech reported in a study appearing in a U.S. medical journal, which indicated that heavy cell phone use raised the risk of some tumors as much as 50 percent.  Cancers of the salivary gland in particular were found to be the most commonly induced type.  This study differed in that it looked at the effects of long term use.  Also it was among the first studies to examine cancer rates in other organs besides the brain.

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Basic statistics
By masher2 on 7/25/2008 1:26:56 PM , Rating: 5
Unfortunately, the problem here is one endemic to many epidemiologists. Statistics is the heart of their profession, yet many of them have forgotten the most basic rule of the field: "corelation does not prove causation".

Run enough studies looking for a correlation on anything, and you'll find a hit or two. Does chlorine in water cause AIDS? Cities with chlorinated water have higher rates of the disease. Does global warming reduce the number of pirates? Historically, there's a clear correlation in the data.

To get from a correlation to a inference requires a mechanism of action. But how can cell phones cause cancer? The radiation is not ionizing -- it's many billions of times less energetic than visible light in fact. It's only possible means of action is to add a small amount of extra heat to the brain.

But how much heat? The brain itself generates up to 40w of heat...and the amount of heat energy absorbed from cell phone radiation is on the order of a few microwatts. Your brain gets a hundred times as much simply from stepping into the sun on a hot day.

That's why these studies are always "contradictory". Run one, and you see a random correlation. Run another, and it vanished, possibly to be replaced by another one entirely.

RE: Basic statistics
By drank12quartsstrohsbeer on 7/25/2008 1:40:30 PM , Rating: 2
The same thing could be said about global warming.

I wonder what the correlation coefficient is between people who will disagree with this study but think we should 'err on the side of caution' with carbon emissions.

RE: Basic statistics
By Yossarian22 on 7/27/2008 10:23:54 PM , Rating: 2
It wouldn't exist. Can't have a correlation coefficient with categorical data.

Now a chi-square test could be used to prove that the rates are not independent.

/statistics rant

RE: Basic statistics
By Cosworth on 7/25/2008 1:42:22 PM , Rating: 5
"corelation does not prove causation"

I love it when people try to work their way around that. Like the decrease in the number of pirates on the seas correlating to the increase in global temperature. :)

We need more pirates!

RE: Basic statistics
By feraltoad on 7/26/2008 2:07:13 AM , Rating: 2
Wait! There has been a dramatic increase of pirates since 2000 lending credence to your claim! Great Scot, you've done it, man! Now, are u retty to go to de ents of de irf? I'm super cereal!

RE: Basic statistics
By Cunthor666 on 7/27/2008 6:24:41 PM , Rating: 2
Ugh... three parts was enough, thank you very much! :)

RE: Basic statistics
By kattanna on 7/25/2008 1:50:08 PM , Rating: 5
Does chlorine in water cause AIDS? Cities with chlorinated water have higher rates of the disease.

it sure does, as it allows children to grow to adult hood and therefore have sex.

without chlorinated water, they would most likely die from some disease within the unclean drinking water long before reaching the age to have sex.

RE: Basic statistics
By xRyanCat on 7/25/08, Rating: 0
RE: Basic statistics
By Ammohunt on 7/25/2008 2:19:07 PM , Rating: 2
So you are saying Chlorinating the water of African children is wasted effort?

RE: Basic statistics
By karielash on 7/25/2008 1:55:49 PM , Rating: 2

Just because radiation is non-ionising does not mean it cannot effect or have an effect on a cell or cell structure, in some cases a radical effect. I think the argument is that it's better to be safe than sorry.

You could take the approach that you need to prove something completely safe before you use it, in which case we would never get anything done, or we could throw caution to the wind and check on safety after a tradegy has occurred, or we could take the middle road and accept that some devices 'may' cause problems, personally I think cell phones fall into this category, when someone proves they are lethal I will give them up, until then, I will use it, my child however will not be getting one.

RE: Basic statistics
By Master Kenobi on 7/25/2008 2:00:20 PM , Rating: 2
The "better safe than sorry" argument is constantly used with supporting evidence is far fetched at best. It's an argument that plays on peoples fears without having to back it up with anything concrete. I'm rather disappointed that this doctor has stooped to such a level, but there's always a few in every crowd.

RE: Basic statistics
By karielash on 7/25/2008 2:11:50 PM , Rating: 3
I wouldn't argue strongly for either approach, I think both arguments are out of place in this context. As with most things, taking a common sense middle of the road approach is usually the most beneficial, will mistakes be made, probably. But both arguments 'ultra-safe' and 'don't care' also have validity in some areas, it's using common sense and applying them correctly that seems to cause most problems.

RE: Basic statistics
By MrBungle123 on 7/25/2008 2:05:19 PM , Rating: 2
You could take the approach that you need to prove something completely safe before you use it, in which case we would never get anything done, or we could throw caution to the wind and check on safety after a tradegy has occurred

Hey it worked for the USSR right?

RE: Basic statistics
By DLeRium on 7/25/08, Rating: 0
RE: Basic statistics
By karielash on 7/25/2008 2:27:18 PM , Rating: 2

Well part of the problem is you quoting half a paragraph to make a point already made in the other half of the paragraph.

RE: Basic statistics
By Complex Pants on 7/26/2008 8:20:35 PM , Rating: 2
Ok, time for a lesson on cancer.

Altering the structure of a cell does not create cancer. Tumors are created when DNA is mutated to a point where a cell cannot control/regulate its growth rate.

That being said, if the electromagnetic radiation is not energetic enough to alter DNA structure long enough for the cell to replicate its DNA, proof read the replication and allow the mutated DNA to pass onto the daughter cells, it will not cause cancer.

As far as I understand it the radiation emitted by cell phones is on the level of radio/microwaves. I have not heard of any studies that link radio waves to any form of cancer. In addition, cordless phones have been in use for years, why are they not suspected of causing cancer?

RE: Basic statistics
By cheetah2k on 7/27/2008 11:36:06 PM , Rating: 3
I used to design mobile towers for Optus in Queensland, Australia not long ago, and when we did our RAD HAZ training, the guys from MIT in Melbourne noted that common sense applies when using a mobile phone - use your phone in moderation, and no longer than 5 minutes at a time.

They also mentioned that if, while using your phone for extended length of time, you may experience a warming sensation on your face, possibly leading to a popping sensation in the back of your ear (that being your bain tissue expanding). We all laughed, but the lecturer didn't appear to be joking...

RE: Basic statistics
By Lerianis on 7/28/2008 1:36:31 AM , Rating: 2
He had to have darn well been joking. Every study I have seen that has tried to link cell phones and cancer (Yes, there have been OTHER studies done) have proven that there is NO link between the two.

I seriously doubt that a cell phone would or could make your brain tissue expand anymore than being out in the sun on a hot day would.

RE: Basic statistics
By JoshuaBuss on 7/25/2008 1:57:57 PM , Rating: 1
well said, masher. i never understood why people are suddenly more concerned with cell phones when basic electric lines actually produce more radiation.

got any statistics on the amount of radiation we get from radio and tv waves vs. cell phones? that'd be interesting to see.

RE: Basic statistics
By foxtrot9 on 7/25/2008 4:05:43 PM , Rating: 4
the difference is that you don't put your head up against a radio wave transmittor or power lines for hours each day/weak. It's the proximity that is a problem

RE: Basic statistics
By Oregonian2 on 7/25/2008 8:17:36 PM , Rating: 2
In the Portland west hills, right nearby to the TV towers that are putting out megawatts of ERP, there are massive quantities of (high-end) houses.

It's done.

RE: Basic statistics
By Tamale on 7/26/2008 10:49:07 AM , Rating: 2
yes, but the power lines are putting off orders of magnitude higher powered radiation, more than compensating for the difference in proximity, no?

RE: Basic statistics
By foxtrot9 on 7/28/2008 1:31:44 PM , Rating: 2
I am no expert here, just heard that from someone who is - I don't think the magnitude makes up for the proximity. Apparently the energy dispersion happens very quickly as it leaves the source

RE: Basic statistics
By Complex Pants on 7/26/2008 8:42:23 PM , Rating: 2
After further thinking about this for a second, I would like to pose the question: why doesn't your hand get cancer if cell phones are bad? We are holding the cell phones after all.

I mean, skin cells on your hand divide much more than supporting glial cells in the brain, and skin cells are less protected, so why isn't the EM radiation affecting them?

RE: Basic statistics
By Treckin on 7/25/08, Rating: -1
RE: Basic statistics
By Solandri on 7/25/2008 2:33:48 PM , Rating: 2
The studies don't overlook these things. Nearly every statistical or epidemiological report I've seen has a couple paragraphs devoted to "our findings represent merely a correlation... caution must be taken before arriving at conclusions..."

Unfortunately, the media conveniently removes any reference to those things when dumbing down the story for the general public. As a result you get crazy things like people thinking it's safer to drive than to fly, that they need to fear child abduction more than the swimming pool, that silicone breast implants cause immunological diseases, or that the overhead power lines caused their hair to fall out.

RE: Basic statistics
By Biodude on 7/25/2008 3:09:02 PM , Rating: 2
Absolutely, I was going to say the same thing. All statistical studies, no matter how definitive, only show correlation. Some correlations, like lack of seatbelt use correlates well to being ejected from a car during a bad crash, can allow you to deduce certain causations, such as lack of restraint allowed an occupant in a specific crash to be ejected, but general, sweeping policy statements or changes in behavior are still something that must be debated and concluded.

Perceived risk plays a huge role here.

RE: Basic statistics
By Yossarian22 on 7/27/2008 10:43:57 PM , Rating: 1
You missed his point entirely. This has nothing to do with lurking variables.
Correlation is not causation. The only way to prove causation is experimentation, not observational studies such as these.

RE: Basic statistics
By Yossarian22 on 7/27/2008 10:52:02 PM , Rating: 2
I have no idea how I just split my post.... I blame the cell phone next to me giving me cancer.

The correlation into causation is just one problem with this study. I could probably generate tons of correlations from brain cancer data. Brain cancer is extremely rare, so random correlations will appear fairly often.

Let's say I want to determine if there is a correlations between pounds of mashed potatoes consumed and brain cancer. Assuming I get funded (fat chance), I need to pick some arbitrary alpha level (it depends on your field and how reliable you want your results to be). Let's say .95 as it is the most common. (this means I consider results that only occur by chance 5% of the time as statistically significant)

It is readily apparent that there is no correlation between eating mashed potatoes, but 5% of the time, I will find results that are statistically significant. If I run enough of these studies, I will eventually find a very, very strong correlation by sheer random chance. The above is a massive simplification.

RE: Basic statistics
By Justin Case on 7/25/2008 2:27:02 PM , Rating: 2
It's [sic] only possible means of action is to add a small amount of extra heat to the brain.

Not really. Even non-ionising EM radiation can interefere with cell function (or with the nervous system, etc.). In other words, the radiation itself doesn't cause cells to mutate, but it causes them to function or replicate incorrectly, possibly leading to mutations. You don't shoot the guy, you wind him up so he shoots himself.

The question is how is cell phone radiation any different from other forms of radiation at similar wavelengths (UHF), that we already get from many other sources, and how much of that radiation actually reaches the brain (compared, for example, with the amount that reaches the skin on your ear).

Personally I think the "link" between cellphones and brain cancer is complete BS, but it's naïf to assume that any non-ionising radiation can be boiled down (ha-ha, boiled down) to heat.

RE: Basic statistics
By masher2 on 7/25/2008 2:36:52 PM , Rating: 1
> "Even non-ionising EM radiation can interefere with cell function "


RE: Basic statistics
By Justin Case on 7/25/2008 8:40:22 PM , Rating: 2
The same way that your nervous system does.

RE: Basic statistics
By Octoparrot on 7/25/2008 8:49:03 PM , Rating: 2

That's an old article that came out when I was in medical school. This does not prove that EM fields can directly cause carcinogenesis, but merely shows that EM fields can indeed alter the activity of one particular cellular enzyme. The question is whether such alterations in enzymatic function are significant enough to lead to aberrant cell growth, or whether other feedback mechanisms in the cell can prevent this. It would be very interesting to see the state of research on whether proto-oncogenes such as p53, or even general classes of enzymes such as tyrosine kinases (many growth factors operate this way) can have significant activity enhancement, but I'll defer to somebody who's active in the basic science field to say more.

RE: Basic statistics
By Complex Pants on 7/26/2008 8:29:17 PM , Rating: 2
Altering the function of a protein is fine, but as a Dr. you should know that cancer is the result of mutation. So, as I said above earlier, if cell phone radiation does not possess enough energy to mutate DNA, I seriously doubt that cell phones would be able to cause cancer.

While alter the function of a protein may cause a deregulation in growth, removing the cell phone would stop the growth. It would seem to me that you would also need consistent, extensive exposure to the radiation to promote a tumor to grow. And it if was a direct result of cell phone usage I would expect some bilateral development due to the fact that people do switch hand while talking.

Unilateral development of tumors would be more in line with bluetooth headset usage. I would be interest in a study exploring the use of those, consider the large number of Xobx 360 users who play games online and communicate for hours using bluetooth headsets.

RE: Basic statistics
By Complex Pants on 7/26/2008 8:31:43 PM , Rating: 2
I wish I could edit that last message...either way, I am basing the info I posted on research I did on GBM, for which I got my M.S. in neurobiology from in 2007.

RE: Basic statistics
By Octoparrot on 7/26/2008 9:42:17 PM , Rating: 2
Point well taken, but I'd be interested to know if alterations in the DNA repair framework could alter the frequency of mutation. As you point out, causing errors of metabolism will not directly lead to DNA mutation.

1) There are a number of enzymes involved in DNA replication, which would be where it might be worth looking at these studies. What happens if exonuclease/proof-reading activity is impaired?

2) You must know more than me about such things as transposons, or the RNA interference pathway, as these have been more recently understood. Given external retroviruses that piggyback the RNA & DNA machinery of the cell--is it not plausible that such a virus could have reproduction enhanced slightly if certain enzyme activities are altered? What if the frequency of disruptions to cellular DNA is increased ever so slightly--including insertion into non-coding elements that control transcription, leading to a deregulation of growth factors in one line of cells? A long chain of low probability events to be sure...but not improbable. Interesting question though whether we could ever prove this is clinically insignificant or not.

RE: Basic statistics
By Complex Pants on 7/26/2008 10:37:05 PM , Rating: 2
1) Totally true and impairing proof reading could totally be an upstream cause of tumor development.

2) Transposons may be a cause, but then since they would be present in every other cell in the body, why would cancer be limited to the brain. In theory if this was the case then just basic sunlight exposure would provide enough EM radiation to stop all sorts of enzymes in your body and I would expect tumor formation would increase greatly. I am just starting medical school and I don't have hard facts on this, but it is my belief that the blood-brain barrier is pretty effect against most types of viruses, so it would seem unlikely to me that an external virus in conjunction with cell phone radiation would cause a tumor. But as you said, it could just be a long chain of low-probability events that have occurred, which in my view boils down to bad luck. I always like to remember that getting struck by lighting has about a 1:20,000 chance of happening. It gives me a healthy perspective on things.

I also want to know why cell phone always seem to give you brain tumors, but no tumors on your skin, either on your head or hand. It would seem to me that faster dividing, less protected cells would be more susceptible to EM radiation than the slower dividing glial cells.

RE: Basic statistics
By masher2 on 7/27/2008 11:14:26 AM , Rating: 3
I also want to know why cell phone always seem to give you brain tumors, but no tumors on your skin, either on your head or hand. It would seem to me that faster dividing, less protected cells would be more susceptible to EM radiation than the slower dividing glial cells.
Skin cancer is 20X as prevalent, making for a larger statistical base which is much more resistant to spurious random associations.

Rarer conditions like brain tumors show a much smaller number in any sample population, and thus are much more susceptible to chance variations.

RE: Basic statistics
By Biodude on 7/25/2008 3:25:53 PM , Rating: 2
Nail on the head, I'd give you a six if I could.

I cannot personally imagine how any electromagnetic radiation below massive, directed fields, could effect the physiology of a cell. Now I'm not an expert on the biochemical pathways governing every single mechanism within a cell, but I'm just not seeing how a cell phone could do this. I think this doctor, who means well, has fell into the "we must be safe" trap.

There's risk, oh no! We can't have that.

RE: Basic statistics
By Octoparrot on 7/25/2008 8:57:54 PM , Rating: 2
Well--you could suppress a tumor suppressor gene (like the retinoblastoma gene) or you enhance a growth factor/proto-oncogene sufficiently, and you could produce a cell that slips free of the normal cell growth regulatory mechanisms that prevent immortal tumor cells from arising. There are probably other ways as well, but this is off the top of my head from my early 1990's molecular biology knowledge. I already gave a citation where ornithine decarboxylase activity was shown to be enhanced by EM fields. You might need an orders-of-magnitude affect, not merely a 5x or 10x alteration either way, though.

The fact that this has not been widely announced yet suggests that either nobody did the studies to see if EM radiation enhances these enzymes (hard to believe), or they did them and couldn't find anything dramatic of the enzymes they did study...yet. Somebody who has more recent knowledge of molecular biology can probably comment more. It's a good thing biological systems are so robust, isn't it?

RE: Basic statistics
By Nik00117 on 7/25/2008 4:24:51 PM , Rating: 2
I agree, with my job i'm on the phone very often. I don't even think twice about calling up a customer, I mean the way my mom uses her phone she should be long dead and buried. Shes one of those ladies that shock the hill out of the billing poeple at the local vodafone place when they see she used up all her minutes plus some when she is on her highest plan there is.

RE: Basic statistics
By foolsgambit11 on 7/25/2008 4:25:42 PM , Rating: 3
Does global warming reduce the number of pirates? Historically, there's a clear correlation in the data.

<joke> Yes, of course. Not only is their a correlation, there is causation. It's just the other way around - Decreasing pirates leads to global warming. Global warming is caused by the greenhouse gasses emitted from all those coast guard vessels patrolling the high seas, preventing piracy. </joke>

RE: Basic statistics
By James Wood Carter on 7/25/2008 6:20:24 PM , Rating: 2
"corelation does not prove causation".

Somehow thats wrong, no corelation is itself a trend in statistics and its as worthy as correlation. Like many medical studies you can't prove whats causitive, you can only derive a surmise. And i can confidently say that correlation nivolving good statistical studies are key to find causitives of diseases.

As to global warming studies, well there are studies supporting and against the theory. Doesn't mean either side is true or untrue. personally when the EU has done a combined study over many years and published sufficient data to show strong evidence that there is global warming .... i'm convinced. [and before you say otherwise you really should give that 1000 page dossier a fair review]

RE: Basic statistics
By Grabo on 7/26/2008 8:56:37 AM , Rating: 2
Sigh, so please provide a few solid links to studies claiming that stepping outside on a hot day is the same as holding a mobile phone close to your ear for some time?

You seem to be categorically throwing the above article and the whole controversy that surrounds the radiation from cellular phones (and the polar bears) out the window?

RE: Basic statistics
By elgueroloco on 7/27/2008 5:58:35 PM , Rating: 2
We are bombarded 24/7 by waves from radio stations, TV stations, etc, whose waves are far more intense than anything a cell phone puts out. In addition, cell phone towers are putting out powerful signals all the time. Nobody's worried about those. Proximity doesn't matter, because the signal from a phone is so weak with regards to energy that you are still getting far more energy from a radio or tv station than from your cell phone. What's more, radio and tv hit you 24 hrs/day, from the time you are first conceived as a zygote, through gestation and life, until you die (which renders the argument about childrens' sensitive, developing brains null and void: if it doesn't screw up a fetus, it won't hurt a kid or an adult). Cell phones only hit you when you use them. If radio doesn't give us cancer, cell phones won't either.

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