Wrong number: Media dials up cell phone scare

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In what has quickly become the first big health scare of the summer season, the World Health Organization (WHO) — via their cancer evaluation affiliate, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) — released a statement yesterday that classifies the radiofrequency electromagnetic fields associated with cell phones in their category IIB, meaning “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” One news source after another picked up and ran with the story, and links accumulated on Twitter feeds and Facebook pages as the public reacted. And yet, most of this was overreaction.

“This,” says ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, “is a story that causes unnecessary anxiety.” The new classification, based on IARC’s assessment of earlier studies, stems largely from an international study that found a slight increase in the rate of brain glioma (a type of tumor) in people who had used a cell phone for over 30 minutes a day for 10 or more years. However, the classification of “possibly carcinogenic to humans” means that there have not been enough long-terms studies from which to draw a definite conclusion. Indeed, the same study actually found a reduced risk of cancer among the large majority of cellphone users — another outcome entirely divorced from reality.

ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross does not see the new classification as a real concern. “There’s no biological hypothesis to explain how cellphone ‘radiation’ might cause cancer,” he notes. “Cell phone ‘radiation’ is neither ionizing nor mutagenic.” Dr. Ross is amazed at Dr. Keith Black, chair of neurology at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, who has frequently been quoted likening cell phone use to “cooking the brain” via “a very low-powered microwave oven.” Dr. Ross finds the analogy irresponsible and outrageous. “There are so many other important concerns that far outweigh this,” he observes.