Cell Phone Cancer Scare

Cell Phone Cancer Scare
Journalist: Ian Smith, M.D.
October 31, 1999
“Can cell phones cause brain cancer?” That’s the question my editor asked me as I talked to him on my cellular phone while walking a Manhattan street last week. Looking around, I counted almost one in five people similarly engaged in conversations on their cell phones. ABC’s TV newsmagazine, 20/20, it seems, had just done a special report on the issue, once again fanning concerns that cell phones can cause cancer. He wanted to know what I thought.

People have long been concerned about the cancer-causing potential of microwaves, which at a distance are harmless, but when close to the head could be more worrisome. That’s why the FCC regulates the amount that phones are allowed to emit, and why some exceeding those standards have been recalled.

Before I go on, though, I must divulge that I’m a medical correspondent for a rival television network, NBC, working for its New York City station. Still, I was startled by the possibility that ABC could have uncovered a smoking gun in a medical controversy that has been simmering unresolved for years. The program centered on the old allegations of George Carlo, the former director of a $25 million research effort begun by the cellular-phone industry to investigate the health effects of the low-level microwave emissions.

After spending six years and millions of dollars, Carlo produced only an inconclusive report offering no more than suspicions of health risks. Even so, 20/20 accepted it as medical fact. “We have direct evidence of possible harm from cellular phones,” he told ABC’s correspondent, who cast Carlo as an ultraethical scientist breaking ranks with his bosses because they wouldn’t let him tell the truth.

“That’s laughable,” says Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, who has followed the flap since it broke in 1993. “When Carlo’s research money ran out, they weren’t going to fund more studies. Suddenly, he has this civic responsibility to tell the ‘truth’ about findings that go against the interests of those who hired him.”

The cell-phone industry, to be sure, isn’t without fault here. Numerous animal studies hint at the potential of damage to human cells from the sort of radio waves that cell phones emit. At the very least, a $200-billion-a-year industry ought to undertake further studies, if only for good public relations.

Cancer specialists, for their part, haven’t neglected the issue. “Despite what this ABC show may have reported, there’s no clear scientific evidence to date that cell phones are linked to brain cancer,” says Dr. Lisa DeAngelis, a neuro-oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City–a view, she adds, that will be reaffirmed in an upcoming study by her colleagues.

Meanwhile, if you’re uneasy about using your cellular phone even in the absence of firm evidence that it’s dangerous, here are some precautions: keep your conversations short, reserving longer chats for conventional phones; opt for a cell phone that directs the antenna away from the head; reduce cell-phone usage in buildings and cars, since that requires a stronger signal (or if you talk a lot from your car, install a phone with an external antenna); last, try a headset, with the phone strapped to your waist. This keeps the antenna away from your head–and that precious brain.