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The Paralyzing Precautionary Principle

July 26, 2008. On July 23, Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, warned his faculty and staff to limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer.* He even warned them against using their cell phones in public places because they might expose others to dangerous electromagnetic radiation. He might as well have warned them to stop watching television or using a toaster because of the possible risk of cancer. And what about those laptops and hair dryers? Is it possible someone, somewhere could get cancer from the radiation emitted from a toaster, a hair dryer, or a laptop? I suppose so. But it is about as likely as a severed arm reattaching itself to the body it once graced. Likewise for getting cancer from using a cell phone.

Dr. Herberman's reason for issuing the warning is an example of the precautionary principle gone amok: it hasn't been proven that cell phone use doesn't cause cancer. I have news for him: it will never be proven that cell phones don't cause cancer. You can take that to the bank.

"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," Herberman said. Of course we shouldn't wait for the definitive study because there is no such thing as the definitive study. There can be and, in fact, have been some very good studies that have found no cancer risk from cell phones.* But no study will ever show that nobody at any time is at risk to get cancer from using a cell phone. Herberman's warning is "contrary to numerous studies that don't find a link between cancer and cell phone use, and a public lack of worry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration."* Even so, Dr. Herberman is worried. According to the Associated Press, he sent a memo to about 3,000 faculty and staff, which told them that children should use cell phones only for emergencies because their brains are still developing. I can think of better reasons for not letting children use cell phones except in emergencies.

Why aren't others as worried as Herberman? Because if they were as worried as Herberman is, they'd be paralyzed. They wouldn't drive a car, get on a bus, eat a meal at a restaurant, or turn on any electrical device. They wouldn't stand near a granite mountain because it might give off cancer-causing electromagnetic radiation. They wouldn't go swimming in the ocean for fear of being eaten by a shark or killed by a jellyfish. They wouldn't even read his memo out of fear that their computer monitors might be poisoning them with radiation. They wouldn't open their mail for fear of being killed by anthrax or a mail bomb.

Even so, he has his defenders. Here are a few comments from readers of the New York Times:

I really wish that something like this would have been said about ten years ago. I bought a cell phone six years ago, used it as my only phone for three years, and quit using it immediately when I found out about radiation. I have not used it in over a year and never will again. The companies that make them should put the yellow and black nuclear sign on them and let us know what they are. (Jen)

Companies are not required to publish results showing health risks. This is the big weakness of FDA protocols.

I have a friend, a retired venture capitalist, who worked for Motorola as a cellular engineer before becoming a VC. He says they have long known about the increased risk cell phones pose to the brain.

However, being a ‘profit maximizing concern’, they kept quiet. It’s not just their phones that pose this risk; it’s inherent in the RF (radio frequency) pattern. (Fred)

Better safe than sorry. Wait for definitive studies at your own risk of being diagnosed with cancer, undergoing chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.

All this just for the convenience of talking to other people? No thanks!

There is no harm created by lessening or discontinuing cell phone use. Those who are sick with cancer may have regrets; those who remain healthy don’t have such regrets. (AZ)

I think it’s definitely wise to err on the side of caution rather than have your kids blame you in 50 years for letting them use cell phones as a kid. (Jon)

“Correlation does not equal causation” served the cigarette industry well for years. Why shouldn’t the cell-phone folks and their apologists adopt it? I, for one, take this “correlation” as a serious hint from the universe, and will so advise my daughter. (Virginia)

In 20 years, when a definitive study does come out, have fun crossing your fingers and hoping; everyone knows that works wonders with cancer. (James)

Hey People you really should NOT place a cell phone anywhere near your ear and should limit use of it. Air waves are traveling threw [sic] you as you read this and yes they could be rearranging your cells. (George)

Don’t be so hasty to dismiss the possibility. I am 32 years old and have maybe a year or two to live. Have had a cell phone in my ear most of my adult life. (Brain Cancer Patient) [Note: There are several posts from people claiming their own brain cancer or that of someone they know was caused by cell phone use based on the facts that they got the cancer after using a cell phone for some time and the cancer was on the same side of the head that they usually  held the phone.]

There is even one post from a fellow who believes the video he saw of people popping corn with their cell phones was not a hoax.

To be fair, there are a good number of posted comments that indicate that at least some of the readers of the Times have an understanding of what we can and can't know from scientific studies of causal connections. (My favorite comment came from Jonathan: In other news, a prominent back surgeon warned against stepping on cracks, noting that while the evidence is not clear, it’s not worth the risk to your mother’s back. A close second as my favorite was Michael's comment: I understand Colin Powell at the direction of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld is preparing a power point on the issue to present to the UN.) It is easy to sympathize with the post hoc reasoning and selective thinking of the cancer patient. Even so, lots of people who don't use cell phones get brain cancers. Lots of people who get brain cancers and use cell phones on one side of the head get the cancer on the other side of the brain. And lots of people who use cell phones don't get brain cancer. In any case, of more relevance than this or that anecdote of a person with brain cancer who used a cell phone would be data that show a dramatic increase in brain tumors as use of cell phones rises dramatically.

Only a few of the 250+ postings address the issue of how it could be possible for a cell phone to cause cancer. All cancers involve cell damage, the disruption of chemical bonds. Can the radio waves emitted from a cell phone disrupt chemical bonds in cells? Bob Park writes:

In a classic 2001 op-ed LBL physicist Robert Cahn explained that Einstein won the 1905 Nobel Prize in Physics for showing that cell phones can't cause cancer. The threshold energy of the photoelectric effect, for which Einstein won the prize, lies at the extreme blue end of the visible spectrum in the near ultraviolet. The same near-ultraviolet rays can also cause skin cancer. Red light is too weak to cause cancer. Cell-phone radiation is 10,000 times weaker. (See also Hybridphobia.)

According to the American Cancer Society:

Cellular phones operate at the radio frequency (RF) part of the electromagnetic spectrum. This is non-ionizing radiation. Other examples of the non-ionizing part of the electromagnetic spectrum include AM and FM radio waves, microwaves, and infrared waves from heat lamps. Unlike x-rays and gamma rays (which are examples of ionizing radiation), radio waves have too little energy to break the bonds that hold molecules (such as DNA) in cells together. Similarly, since RF of this frequency contains relatively low energy, it does not enter tissues. At very high levels of exposure, RF can cause warming of tissues, much as a heat lamp does. The wavelength of cell phone waves is about one foot and the frequency is approximately 800 to 900 MHz, although newer models may use higher frequencies up to 2,200 MHz.*

One poster, Elizabeth, notes this theoretical problem of the waves emitted from cell phones being capable of breaking chemical bonds, though she was corrected by Amy about confusing size with energy and frequency:

It’s not the relative size of the wavelengths of light to size of DNA, but the energy a photon carries, that determines whether it will cause a mutation (and, in turn, cause cancer).

Ionizing radiation causes mutations by knocking an electron off a DNA molecule, ionizing it. Once ionized, the DNA is more susceptible to a reaction that would mutate its gene sequence.

It takes a fair amount of energy to ionize a molecule like DNA. The energy of a proton of light is inversely proportional to its wavelength. Short-wavelength radiation, like x-rays and gamma rays, are highly energetic and readily ionize a molecule like DNA. Long-wavelength radiation, like microwaves and radio waves, simply don’t have enough energy to knock an electron off a molecule, and are non-ionizing radiation. No ionization, no reaction, no mutation.

One ignoramus posted: It is microwave energy…heat…it is cooking your brain. Another ignoramus posted as "a scientist" and wrote:

Cell phones are convenient but they use radio frequency waves with medium energy to transmit. These waves are capable of penetrating cells and damaging DNA. Over a very long period of time, DNA damage can accumulate and give rise to an unrepaired ‘event’. When these events mount up in the context of hereditary predispositions and limited cellular lives, cell death can result. Cell death is a protective (’good’) outcome. Bad outcomes involve abnormal cellular proliferation. Such proliferative events are rare, but are selected for (because such cells tend to survive in deprived environments). Ergo, radiation causes DNA damage, causes mainly cell death, but sometimes inspires abnormal proliferation which we call neoplasia or cancer. Yes, this is possible.

Maybe he learned his science from Dr. Dragon Dabic.

According to the Associated Press, the driving force behind the memo was Devra Lee Davis, the director of the university's center for environmental oncology.

"The question is do you want to play Russian roulette with your brain," she said in an interview from her cell phone while using the hands-free speaker phone as recommended. "I don't know that cell phones are dangerous. But I don't know that they are safe."

Nor does anyone else. Nor will it ever be otherwise. But the probability that cell phones are dangerous is not worth worrying about unless you thrive on fear and worry, or are one of those posters who knows there is a conspiracy on the part of Motorola and other evil agents of capitalist doom and destruction to keep us ignorant of the real dangers of their product. Or unless you want some free publicity.

(For more on the history of cell phone hysteria, see my Skeptic's Dictionary entry on electromagnetic fields.)

reader comments

28 Jul 2008

The precautionary principle fails for the same reason that Pascal's Wager fails: you can't mine information from a seam of ignorance. If we don't know whether mobile phones cause cancer, then we also don't know whether they prevent or delay cancer or have some other as yet undiscovered benefit. (Besides the obvious benefit of speaking to people far away.) It's not possible to tell which behaviour is erring on the side of caution.

People really don't seem to be able to accept the implications of "we don't know." Is there a deep psychological explanation for this? I don't know.

Norman Paterson

reply: Yes, there's a deep psychological reason for this: we must protect the children; otherwise the tribe will die out! Or maybe it's even more basic: fear of the unknown is what drives us make up stories to guide our behavior and relieve our anxiety at the same time. Or maybe it's something else altogether.


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