Posted by: ateedub | July 31, 2008

More on Cell Phones

It’s been a week since Herberman of University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute publicly declared his fear of a link between cell phones and cancer. Several more mainstream media sources have since covered this topic, including Larry King Live.

Larry King’s segment (scroll down to the cell phone transcript) featured only scientists and physicians. This has not been typical in the MSM where health – or science – related panels often include consumer/patient advocates or industry marketing professionals.

Thank god there was a scientist who can talk clearly on camera and whose position reflects the scientific consensus. Ted Schwartz, director brain tumor surgery at Weil Cornell, introduced his perspective (“First let me say…”), then clearly stated that “there is no conclusive evidence” and we don’t create health policy based on inconclusive evidence.

Devra Davis of UPCI’s Center for Center for Environmental Oncology was also on the show, and in fact stayed on for the entire segment (unlike most others who came in mid-way or dropped off). Davis has had good media training, and her message comes across very clearly and rationally. Unfortunately, the first two doctors to appear on the segment with her could not get their message across to counter her claims.

Dr. Keith Black, Chairman, Dept. of Neurosurgery, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center:

We know that microwave radiation can damage cells, and there’s been some experimental evidence to suggest there are harmful effects. As Dr. Davis said, at this point, they’re looking at the relationship between cell phone use and brain cancer. We have conflicting studies. Some studies, which are not absolutely perfect, showed no correlation. We also have some studies that tend to suggest a correlation.

Ok, that’s not terrible – but definitely not great. Compare it to Schwartz’s “there is no conclusive evidence.” Also, the opening statement about microwave radiation is misleading since it’s such a vague statement (what dose damaged cells, and what constitutes damage to cells?). Black continues with:

One of the recent studies from Sweden show that if you use cell phones an hour a day for ten years, your risk may be increased as much as two-fold. The real concern is analogous to this: we’ve only been using cell phones for a short period. Most of the studies are for a short period of time. So if you have a 14-year-old who smokes cigarettes, we don’t expect that 14-year-old to develop lung cancer at 24. We expect them to develop lung cancer at 54. If you have an eight-year-old using a cell phone, we don’t expect them to [do you feel get] lung cancer at 18, but at 48.

He just lost everyone who is not an epidemiologist. There are too many numbers in there, and honestly, don’t think that many people understand the timing of the relationship between smoking and lung cancer – at least not when it’s articulated like this.

Later on, Paul Song, a radiation oncologist from somewhere in LA (institution not identified), injects the idea that your phone getting hot while in use implies radiation exposure:

I think the most important thing is that when we look at any type of radiation exposure, whether or not it’s radio waves or gamma waves, is that the duration of your exposure. So clearly if you’re on the cell phone for a long period of time — I think we all have been in situations where our ear gets warm — that clearly means maybe we’re on a little too long.

There is no direct association here, but the implication is there. My understanding is that the heat from cell phones is a byproduct of the electrical processes that take place in the phone. It’s the same thing with the CPU in your computer. The radiowaves being emitted by phones are not like the waves emitted by your microwave, so your brain is not being cooked. Think about it – the phone itself gets hot. If radiation were heating your ear, the phone would stay cool and your ear would warm up.

The CTIA (wireless company association) sent a great statement saying that this issue needs to be guided by science:

This is an issue that should be guided by science. The overwhelming majority of studies that have been published in scientific journals around the world show that wireless phones do not pose a health risk. Furthermore, this is the public position of leading health organizations, such as the United States Food and Drug Administration, the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization. Public statements and declarations not guided by published scientific research can have the effect of misinforming the general public. As technology continues to evolve, the industry supports continued research. But we want to stress the fact that this a consensus among leading health organizations concerning published scientific research, and they show no reason for concern.

Sanjay Gupta (CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent) and Otis Brawley (Chief Medical Officer of ACS) inject a rational discussion of the issue.

Later that night (July 29th), I watched the Colbert Report where author Eric Roston talked about the role of science and technology in our society. One statement really stood out to me:

Science is the foundation of our technology, technology is the foundation of our economy, and if we don’t follow the carbon and we are serious about our future we should go back and look at the fundamental architect, builder and building block of civilization.

His new book is about carbon, but I thought the sentiment also applied to this cell phone debate and the role of science in our society. Just replace the word carbon with science in the quote above.

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