The hands-free tumor

I subscribe to about fifteen magazines. In the last few months, three of them have written lengthy articles on the same topic: cell phones and cancer.


First, there was the September/October issue of Skeptical Inquirer, with the story dominating the front cover: "Power Line Panic and Cell Phone Mania (Why Cell Phones and Power Lines Aren't Health Hazards)".

Then came February 2010's GQ, and Christopher Ketcham's "Warning: Your Cell Phone May Be Hazardous to Your Health". [Note the fiery debate at the end of this article; 93 lengthy, angry responses to date].

Most recently, the March 2010 issue of Popular Science and James Geary's comprehensive "Killer Cellphones? The Real Science Behind the Health Scare." [Almost hilariously, Geary posed the question of whether or not cell phones cause cancer to John Walls, the VP of public affairs for CTIA, the international association representing the cell phone industry. You'll never guess what he said: "The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk." It's good journalism, but no less laughable.]

By far the most personally disheartening was the first one, because I count on the writers of that magazine to be significantly more logically sound thinkers than any others. That article—an evidence-based opinion piece—was written by research scientist ST Lakshmikumar, and he wraps up the piece like this:

  • "Unless one is willing to discard the concept of photons, Planck's law, and the interaction between photons and atoms—and thus the entire body of quantum physics—it is simply not possible for the photons associated with either a power line or a cell phone to cause cancer … there is simply no reason to worry about cancer of any variety from their presence."

Forget whether or not YOU think cell phones and power lines cause cancer. Ask yourself what does cause cancer? Lakshmikumar says that he can tell us what doesn't cause cancer even though he can't, any better than anyone else, tell us about all those things that DO cause cancer.


It's not as though the experts have always been so smart on the subject.

The overwhelming number of doctors, scientists and researchers at work for the NIH for the bulk of the 20th century to cure cancer were smokers. And not just any old researchers, but those leading the charge. Behold, the first director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr Clarence Cook Little lighting up on the cover of TIME:

The brilliant Evarts Graham, the first surgeon ever to successfully remove a cancerous lung, was a chain smoker who refused to accept the link between smoking and lung cancer until late in his career, despite all the evidence he saw.

Graham died of lung cancer.

Another chain-smoking NCI director, Kenneth Endicott, saw the link but couldn't give up his 3-4 packs-a-day habit, so he spent his tenure in the 1960s chasing a curious dream—not the eradication of smoking, but the dream of a safer cigarette. And he spent lots of taxpayer money on it. That's how badly he wanted to hold on to his cigarettes.


Self-interest always clouds cancer issues. Cancer bitching is inconvenient. No one who spends all day on their cell phone wants to believe that it might be raising their risk of cancer. Not because they fear cancer, because they fear losing their phone. When cancer accusations get in the way of big business, a pattern develops (one I'm borrowing almost verbatim from the Devra Davis book below):

Step 1: Find legitimate and unresolved scientific questions
Step 2: Pay big money to big-name experts to consider them
Step 3: Have this favorable work presented at meetings and published in peer-reviewed journals

It's a pattern seen in tobacco, asbestos, and vinyl chloride, to name just a few, and one that's easily spotted in the cell phone industry right now. Just look what happened to researchers Henry Lai and Narendra Singh when their research failed to jive with the cell phone industry.


Nobody's saying that you should flush your cell phone down the toilet, but how about using an ear piece, one that keeps the signal away from your head? It's like my father Alan Bonander intimated to me when I was a student at UCLA and looking to make extra cash as a research guinea pig: He couldn't say how he got Parkinson's Disease, but when there's some plausibility, and when the alternative is not a big deal, why take the risk?

By Ross Bonander

- Davis, Devra. The Secret History of the War on Cancer
- Michaels, David. Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health
- The Environmental Health Trust's Campaign for Safer Cell Phones
- Home page for James Geary
- Home page for Christopher Ketcham
- Cnet: Apple bans iPhone app that measures cell phone radiation
- TIME: Cell Phones' Radiation Report Card

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