03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Cell Phone Brain Cancer Debate

If you don't want to have to read all the way to the end of this article to get to the punch line, here it is: No one is certain what cell phones do to our brains when we endlessly rest them against our heads. At best, it's nothing. At worst, it's insidious damage that will translate into an enormous spike in brain cancers down the road. If these are our two choices--status quo versus debilitating and ultimately fatal disease--why are we even talking about this anymore? It's time to move phones away from our heads.

I am not suggesting that we give up cell phones. Not at all. I am simply saying that we should acknowledge cell phone danger and stop holding them up to our brains. I am also not pointing a finger at cell phones alone. There are studies suggesting that cordless phones in the home may affect the brain in ways very similar to cell phones. This is because both cordless phones and cell phones have antennae and it is the antenna that seems to be at the root of the problem.

Two years ago, a group of two-dozen scientists and public health officials published The Bioinitiative Report. The group looked at more than 2000 studies published in scientific journals and argued that safety standards were both outdated and grossly insufficient. Within weeks, governments across the European Union were enacting new safety standards related to electromagnetic radiation and specifically non-ionizing radiation (which is the type that is emitted from your cell phone antenna).

In the US, we didn't hear a peep about The Bioinitiative Report.

Around the same time, World Health Organization (WHO) released a policy advisory about limiting exposure to extremely low-frequency electromagnetic radiation. WHO, led by its International Agency for Research on Cancer branch, argued that there are clearly acute and likely chronic effects from this type of radiation.

Again, very little attention in the US.

Finally, a year later, the issue appeared in our own press. Dr. Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburg Cancer Institute, wrote a now somewhat famous memo to more than 3000 of his colleagues and staff outlining steps to safer cell phone use by minimizing time on the phone and, most importantly, increasing distance between the phone and your brain. But it was simply a news item and didn't seem to impact public policy or individual behavior.

Why does this debate keep falling on deaf ears in America? Because ultimately, it all comes down to our guiding legal principle: innocent until proven guilty. For every article about cell phones causing cancer, there's at least one saying the opposite. And with this volley in the press, we allow every yin to cancel out a yang. We insist that guilt be proven before we change our behavior because we desperately want our cell phones to be safe--we have already used them for so long that we don't want to think about the potential impact. Not to mention that it is so darned convenient to just hold the phone up to your ear instead of fussing with an ear piece cord that always seems to be tangled or trying to have a conversation on speakerphone while walking down a crowded sidewalk. The scales have tipped, though, and we cannot continue to ignore the mounting evidence.

As a doctor, I find it unbelievably--almost unbearably--ironic that the health and safety standards for prescription drugs are so different from those for emerging technologies. A new medicine must be proven to be safe. It cannot go out onto the market until it has been run through several levels of testing in the laboratory, in animal populations, and lastly in humans. The burden is placed upon the pharmaceutical company developing a drug and then, when the drug is prescribed, the burden is shared with the prescribing doctor. The drug is guilty until proven innocent. It is dangerous, toxic, rife with side effects until it is proven not to be. In fact, even if a drug is found to not have any negative effects, it is tested and retested until someone identifies a dose that does cause a problem. Guilty. Drugs are always guilty until proven innocent.

I don't have a problem with this system. The FDA has got it right. But cell phones should also be treated like drugs. When a piece of technology stirs up enough controversy to be covered regularly in medical journals and newspapers alike, the standard should be applied.

Besides, if you have any doubt whether cell phones are drugs, consider the following. They are addictive: try not using one for a week--you'll almost certainly have withdrawal symptoms. Cell phones can cause confusion or impaired motor skills: there are 330,000 motor vehicle accidents per year and 2,600 fatalities as a direct result of using cell phones while driving--and that doesn't include the havoc caused by drivers who text or dial while driving. Cell phones also have a variety of biological effects: people become elated or agitated while talking on them.

Ultimately, the research must continue to determine whether or not non-ionizing radiation emitted from phone antennae causes brain cancers. But everyone agrees that when the endpoint is a cancer that can take decades to form, we are talking about waiting 20 or 30 years for an answer. That's unacceptable, especially with lives on the line. So let's turn this around, call them guilty until proven innocent, and continue the trial.

Meanwhile, keep using your phone, but plug in your wired earpiece and go back to corded phones at home.

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