There have been plenty of raging debates over the potential cancer risks linked to cellphone use, but this week health news was rocked by an announcement from the World Health Organization.
After reviewing dozens of studies, the WHO for the first time has taken the stance that radio-frequency energy from cell phones may cause brain cancer.
Emphasis on "may."
The news sounds scary at first, particularly when you read that the agency now lists mobile phone use in the same 2B "carcinogenic hazard" category as lead, engine exhaust and chloroform.
It's important to note, however, that classifying something as "possibly carcinogenic" doesn't mean it automatically causes cancer—in this case, there is limited evidence, and more long term studies are needed.
(Coffee and pickled vegetables are in this 2B category as well, in case that makes you feel better.)
The WHO's expert panel concluded there was some evidence cell phone use was linked to two types of brain tumors, but admitted the lack of a strong connection, saying, "there were acknowledged gaps and uncertainties."
Clear as mud, right? You have to love health studies that seem custom-built to confuse the hell out of people.
One aspect that does seem worth thinking about is how cell phone affect kids. To date, there have been no long-term studies on the effects of cell phone usage among children, and there's some concern that they may be particularly at risk.
Dr. Keith Black, chairman of neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles:
"Children's skulls and scalps are thinner. So the radiation can penetrate deeper into the brain of children and young adults. Their cells are dividing faster rate, so the impact of radiation can be much larger."
Age is also a worry in terms of overall exposure, since cancerous environmental factors often take several decades before triggering any consequences.
Otis Bawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society:
“If some feel the potential risk outweighs the benefit, they can take actions, including limiting cell phone use, or using a headset. Limiting use among children also seems reasonable in light of this uncertainty.”
The takeaway from this whole thing? It's that more studies need to be done, of course. In the meantime, it probably wouldn't hurt to switch to an earpiece if you're a heavy cellphone user.
As for kids with phones, my inner Andy Rooney says we should take their phone away anyway, because come on! In my day we used PAY PHONES if we needed to call someone! Uphill, both ways! But perhaps it's more reasonable to give them a hands-free headset.
What do you think about this WHO report? Does it change how you feel about cellphones at all?
Image via Flickr/Emst Vikne