The WHO’s Cell Phone Cancer Report: I’m Not Panicking. But I am Paying Attention

By  |  Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 5:03 pm

What should you make of today’s news that the World Health Organization has declared cell phones to be a “possible” carcinogen? That’s a tough one–especially if you’re not a paranoiac, a denialist, or a doctor.

This much does seem clear: the report isn’t a massive new development in the ongoing debate over whether phones are bad for you. According to CNN, thirty-one scientists from fourteen countries were part of the panel responsible for the new report. But there was no breakthrough research that revealed something we didn’t know. Actually, there was no research–the report is based on existing studies. And saying that something is possibly carcinogenic falls far short of concluding that it causes cancer. All it’s saying is that phones aren’t in the clear. The only people who should find this news to be utterly staggering, therefore, are the ones who were absolutely positive that there was no chance at all that phones might be problematic.

I’m not in any position to judge the reliability of the report. Neither, probably, are you. (But if you are an expert on radiation and/or brain cancer–hey, chime in!) Here’s how I’m responding, based more on my gut than my, um, brain:

  • I’m not panicking. It won’t help. And it sounds like nothing we learned today warrants a level of panic that wasn’t appropriate yesterday; we already knew that some studies have raised concerns, and others haven’t.
  • I’m curious about any new data that comes alone. New research, that is, not new interpretation of old data. And especially new data that comes from organizations with no agenda one way or the other.
  • I’m most interested in long-term data. It hasn’t been all that long since cell phones went mainstream–I remember visiting London in 1995 and being startled to see normal everyday people making normal everyday calls on them in large quantities. Again, I’m no doc. But I gotta think there will be things we’ll learn over time that we wouldn’t be able to tell otherwise–be they reassuring or worrisome.
  • I’m watching how the industry responds. The wireless trade association, the CTIA, is a fine organization, but I wonder just how damning any evidence of problems would have to be before it concludes that phones are bad for you. (Come to think of it, when has any trade organization ever concluded that its reason for being is dangerous? At least without being dragged kicking and screaming to that conclusion?) I also wonder what individual phone manufacturers will do. Some already recommend that you hold your phone further from your person when using it than most of us do.
  • I’m going to try to use a wired headset, at least much of the time.¬†When possible. Not in a fanatical fashion. It’s my favorite way to talk on the phone anyhow (excellent audio quality, no batteries!). Unless it turns out that earbuds cause cancer, it’s not going to increase my risk of health issues. And it’s conceivable it might lower them. Basically, there’s no downside.

And you?


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10 Comments For This Post

  1. holding it wrong Says:

    Apple was right all along! you are not supposed to hold a phone cupped in your hand beside your face, you are supposed to hold it with your thumb and index fingers, far away from your face.

  2. patrick Says:

    Since no new scientific studies were performed, I'm pretty much ignoring as the studies they used showed no clear link.

  3. Geack Says:

    This guy IS qualified to judge the reliability of report:

    This is one of those issues that get enough uninformed public attention that medical people are forced to look into it, but physicists and chemists think it's nonsense because there's no known mechanism by which the "problem" could cause the feared result. The most easily understandable part of the argument in the link is that the tiny amount of energy coming from a cell phone can barely penetrate your skin, much less your skull. Plus skin cells reproduce much more rapidly than brain cells, so they're always more susceptible to cancerous mutation. But there's no outbreak of skin cancer near peoples' ears. (Which isn't a surprise – there's no known way microwaves could cause skin cancer, either. But if you're really paranoid and looking for cancers from cell phones, you should really be looking for skin cancers).

  4. Geack Says:


    If Technologizer considers itself a "smarter" take on tech, the writer really ought to do some more research before throwing up his hands and saying, "well, MAYBE cell phones can give you brain cancer". They CAN'T. All this inconclusive medical "research" is a snipe hunt driven by the fears of the misinformed public. You owe your readers better information than this.

  5. Geack Says:

    Just a little more for those truly worried about this topic: see….

    The Interphone study, which appears to be the one which gave the WHO team enough concern to include phones on their list, showed a very slightly increased risk of glioma, a rare brain cancer. But it had a huge flaw: The study consisted of interviewing people who had this rare cancer, telling them they were researching a possible cause, and then asking them to estimate their cellphone use for the past ten years. Unsurprisingly, given that people would really like to have an answer as to why they have cancer, they reported cellphone use slightly higher than average. The researchers who wrote the report stated: "Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation."

  6. Hal Woodward Says:

    Most of the studies showing NO possible link between cell phones and cancer were either done or paid for by the Wireless Technology Association. This group also happens to be funded by the cell phone manufacturers. Their top researcher was held up to be the most brilliant scientist in the world on matters concerning cell phones. In the latter part of his research he reversed direction and issued a statement saying "We now believe that there is a possible link between long term cell phone use and cancer". He was dismissed as soon as he released the report and immediately branded as a crackpot. He went from brilliant to stupid because of one report?

    Second thought, I spoke personally with Dr. Chun, the chief scientist at the Motorola development labs. He told me that he believed that long term use of cell phones was dangerous to a person's health. He was going to test an antenna shield to determine it's effectiveness, BUT his lawyers for Motorola stopped the test – risk management, because people might sue Motorola.

    Finally, I was told by one of the top researchers in a different cell phone manufacturer, that the major cell manufacturers agreed NOT to ever advertise claiming that "Their SAR was lower than the other's SAR". Does anyone ever remember any of the major cell phone manufacturers using their lower SAR numbers in advertising their cell phones?

    Final thought, I was in an FCC certified lab testing a simple multi-layered metal tape for shielding the cell phone's antenna (that is where all of the radiation comes from – not from the ear speaker) and found that the SAR tests were testing with the cell phone being 2" away from the ear – any body out there hold your phone that far away??? When the Motorola cell phones I was testing were placed directly against the dummy's ear the SAR was more than double Motorola's stated SAR reading.

    I have proof of what I have stated and the FCC certified SAR report (can't make up the certificate numbers on the report) on the Motorola cell phones.

  7. geack Says:

    Did Dr. Chun say WHY he was concerned? Because so far no one – including people whose careers are built on this research, and people funded by lawyers looking for evidence for the mother of all class-action lawsuits – has even proposed a mechanism by which the microwaves from cell phones COULD cause cancer, much less shown evidence that they DO cause cancer. Electromagnetic fields are not the same thing as the nuclear "radiation" most people think of when they hear the word. The SAR agreement was entirely logical because advertising your low SAR would lead people to believe a higher SAR is somehow worse or more dangerous, when there's simply no reason at all to believe that. It'd be like advertising a lower-calorie hat, if there was a segment of the population who were concerned their hats were somehow making them fat.

  8. geack Says:

    You appear to have gone from reasonable concern about a new technology to being convinced there's a danger (and a coverup?!) – when all the research has shown no danger. The most reliable studies about this stuff have been paid for by the phone makers because it's their responsibility to do this research, and because people and their lawyers were making completely unsupported accusations. Who paid for the studies that claim to show increased risk? And which set of studies is generally better-designed and more thorough? You need to apply the same high standards to everyone, not just to those you've chosen to disagree with. And how do you address the fact that the people who wrote the Interphone study stated right in the report that the extremely small apparent increased risk in one group of very heavy users, who were self-reporting their use AFTER being dignosed with cancer, was due to this reporting bias and basically meaningless?

  9. Hal Woodward Says:

    The good Dr. was concerned because he believed that the charged particle ions, over time, would cause damage. The SAR is important because over certain readings there is immediate damage – the reason the FCC placed limits, if they exceed those limits, they can not sell the cell phone.

    If you believe that the CTIA would ever admit that there is a problem with a cell phone, you are naive. They are completely funded by Cell Phone Manufacturers.

    Radiation from the cell phone's transmitting antenna although is low level, but like all radiation accumulates with increased exposure. If you receive short exposure, no problem, however where Dr. Chun, I and many other scientists see potential problems is that the youth of today live on their phones – I have seen kids talking to each other when they are six feet apart.

    Cell phones changed over the years, the antenna, which was always exposed on the early cells were recessed into the body of the phone – strange to do this when the antenna functions better when outside the body of the phone. Pull that cell apart and you will find a metal plate has been inserted between you and the antenna – that plate blocks a lot of the radiation from the antenna, which steals from the quality of the transmission – now ask yourself if the radiation can't hurt me, WHY did they put it in the cell?

    Old cell phones allowed the SAR to be variable – pushing the energy level up to maintain a good signal. Your current cell no longer can do that unless you are calling 911 and are in a bad reception/transmission area. This is changing as cell phones become more capable, but with those increased capabilities comes new, higher energy radiation to maintain great data movement by the phone, when you are accessing the Internet, etc. Those also scare me for our young, who again use and use and use that capability – I project that within five to ten years we are going to have a huge spike in the diagnosed cases of tumor – brain tumor, but then it will be a little too late.

  10. Matthew Loxton Says:

    So I guess Phillip Lennard was wrong back in 1900 when he proved that only frequencies from ultraviolet and above can ionize