If cellphones cause cancer, how do they do it? No one knows (i.e. don’t panic)

Anytime the words “brain cancer” and “cellphones” show up in the same news story, a whole lot of people are going to feel jumpy the next time they hear their ringtone. And now that the World Health Organization has declared cellphones to be a “possible” cause of brain cancer, we can expect a fresh round of cellular anxiety. But before you toss your phone — or panic about those many hours already spent with a phone attached to your skull — it’s important to put the new WHO report into context.

A panel of scientists convened by a WHO panel declared that cellphones are a “level 2B carcinogen.” This is the label given to lots of things that might — as in “maybe, maybe not” — cause cancer. Coffee is in the same category, but you don’t see people fleeing Starbucks. Interestingly, the WHO has given an even stronger label — level 2A carcinogen — to shift work. By that measure, anyone afraid to pick up their Droid should be even more worried about being the closer at Chili’s.

If cellphones have any inclination to cause cancer, they do an extremely poor job of it. Brain cancer is still a rare disease, and there’s no evidence that it’s getting any more common. In Scandinavia — one of the most wired-in regions of the world — the rates of brain cancer have hardly budged since the mid-1970s, back when phones actually hung on walls.

The WHO panel based its report on many, many cellphone studies. Top scientists from around the world have blown through millions of dollars on research, and the most anyone can say about cellphones and cancer is: maybe, maybe not. The much-anticipated INTERPHONE study — a 13-country investigation that compared the cellphone habits of more than 5,000 brain cancer patients with a matched group of people without brain cancer — failed to clear up anything. The researchers’ bottom-line conclusion: maybe, maybe not.


Scientists haven’t even been able to answer a seemingly basic question: How could cellphone radiation cause cancer in the first place? Stronger forms of radiation — such as X-rays — set cancer in motion by breaking apart strands of DNA. The microwaves from a cellphone don’t have nearly enough energy to even rattle DNA, let alone tear it to pieces, and many radiation specialists scoff at the idea that cellphones can cause any long-term harm.

In short: The WHO report is no reason for alarm. But as long as a shred of doubt remains, people will worry. If it brings peace of mind, you can always ditch your phone or use a hands-free set, says Kenneth Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. The question, though, remains: Will your brain be any better off? Or only your mind?

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