Phone and cancer Part 4: why the answer is hard to find

July 6, 2009 by  
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So does mobile phone use cause cancer? You may ask yourself why, in spite of all the research on this topic going on out there, in cancercells-univ-birminghamspite of all the man-hours and millions of dollars spent, a clear cut “Yes” or “No” response can’t be given. In this fourth post on the mobile phone-cancer link series, we look at the reasons why the answer to this simple question remains elusive.

Short-term vs. long-term

Compared to more than half of this world’s population, mobile phone telephony is pretty young. Mobile phones became only widespread in the 90s. The effects of carcinogens take time to manifest in symptoms. Take the case of smoking and the increase in incidence of lung cancer – there was a time lag of 20 to 30 years till the link was prove being doubt. In the same way, the health effects of something new such as mobile telephony will take time to manifest. Most short-term studies on mobile phone use produced a “no” answer. However, it may be possible that in 30, 40, 50 years form the now, the answer would be different. A Swedish study, for example, found an increased risk of developing acoustic neuroma only after at least 10 years of phone use.

Unreliable data collection

Data on mobile phone use are mainly based on reports of the users themselves. Self-reports of any kind whatsoever, are notoriously unreliable and inaccurate. electricity_towerSome studies, for example, revealed that people tend to underestimate the number of calls they make in a certain period of time but tend to overestimate the duration of the calls.

No point of comparison

In a comparative study, there must be a study group (exposed) and a control group (unexposed). Unfortunately, electromagnetic field are so ubiquitous that almost every in this world has been or is exposed. Unless you live in a cave or in most remote parts of this world. Even the technophobes among us are still exposed to radiation from other household appliances indoors as well as to base stations and telecom masts outdoors. It is therefore extremely difficult to find “unexposed” people who can be used as study controls.

Data on children lacking

The brain and children and adolescents are still developing. In contrast, adult brains are not growing as much. Most data on exposure on phone radiation are on adult users. There is very little data available on the effect of exposure to the young, developing brain. But on the other hand, hey, what parent would sign an informed consent to turn their kids into guinea pigs?

So, will we ever get an answer?

According to the National Cancer Institute,

It may be years until scientists know whether cell phones are linked to cancer. Like other electronic devices, cell phones give off electromagnetic radiation, but the radiation they produce has not yet been proven to pose a cancer risk. Because so many people use cell phones and their use is radiationpredicted to keep growing, it is important to learn whether the radiation they emit affects health. Also, because cellular phone use is still relatively new, cancers that take a long time to develop would not have been picked up by studies done to date so it is important that further studies be conducted.

Photo credit: stock.xchng; Cancer cells: Univ. of  Birmingham

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