Monday, June 02, 2008

Stem the Cell?


Until recently my main problem with cellphones was that they turn drivers into idiots. My wife and I have both had close calls with distracted drivers, obliviously pulling into traffic, making turns, whatever, without even an indication of seeing us. Nor, when the tires squeal and the horns honk (and, unwisely in these times, a finger rises), a recognition of error. When I was working, no one knew my cellphone number. I wore a pager, and when it went off in the car, I pulled over to call back.

That, of course, hasn't changed; and in terms of killing us off I'd guess it'll always be in the driving mode that they are most dangerous. But there's something rising above background noise: do cellphones cause brain cancer, or do they not? Ted Kennedy, among other things a crusader in the fight against cancer, now has it, in his left parietal lobe, which is where a right-hander holds his phone. A senator, I'd assume, is on his cell a lot. Of course, it's not just him; but I'd guess the question will rise on the news.

From what little I know, it's still an open question. But a very recent report was just the latest among others that raise alarms. Not everyone agrees. In medical populism, I'm a skeptic by nature: I (along with pretty much all respected and respectable researchers) reject the vaccine/autism link, for example. The world is full to overflowing with pseudo-medical charlatans and credulous victims. But I've begun to think it calls for continued serious scrutiny. The question of increasing incidence of brain tumors has been out there for many years. In general, the consensus has been one of no link to cellphones. I'm in no position to render a meaningful opinion on where the science is, but I do know that retrospective comparative studies are less useful than prospective ones. And it's hard to imagine the construction of a definitive forward-looking study that would satisfactorily address the question, short of strapping cellphones to the heads of monkeys for the next ten years. (Given the low incidence, you'd have to enlist enormous numbers of people into a prospective study; how could you find matching groups of people who differ only in their willingness to live with or without a cellphone for ten years?) Off the top of my head (near where the phone resides) I'd say it must be that if there is a connection, it's complex: perhaps a trigger of some sort in those otherwise prone for reasons not yet known. Because even if the incidence is rising, it remains very low compared to the number of people using the devices.

Meanwhile, it seems prudent to be prudent. I'm not giving up my cellphone: it sits in the glovebox of my car most of the time. Neither I nor my wife is the kind who live with a phone attached to the ear all day. But I'll use mine as little as possible; maybe switch sides regularly. It'd be nice to know if using earpieces makes a difference; and if so, whether wireless ones are just as bad (assuming they are bad) as the cellphones themselves. Maybe the smart thing, until more is known, is to use a remote but wired earpiece. And to keep paying attention.

[Update, 7/08: Here's a recent article of interest.]

13 comments:

Hugo said...

I once heard that a wired ear was even worse because the signals would travel along the cord directly into your ear.
I'm pretty skeptical too, from what I've seen I'm withholding judgment until there are good reports, my gut tells me that it's probably ok and the practical use of a cellphone makes me want to take a little risk.
I'm a bit more cautious with my daughter but not overly so and not only because of the radiation.

AlisonH said...

I read of one study--and I can't quote chapter and verse now, I'm afraid, probably in Newsweek?--claiming that one particular genetic variant, quite rare, had been linked to a brain tumor type that seemed related to cellphone usage, but the study said all other brain tumor types were simply random as far as now known.

I was particularly interested at the time because I'd recently run into a friend, Sue in my book, who had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor just behind her right ear. She lost part of her face along with the tumor, but has survived four years now.

Rob said...

If I could rid myself of my cell, I probably would. Simplify. That sounds so peaceful to me.

By the way, I answered your question on my blog today.

Sili said...

Ben Goldacre agrees with you that there *may* be something there - but the hysteric quackery does nothing to confound the issue.

If you're right, I'd say that it should be possible to see a difference in the location of the tumour according to people handedness.

Does lefthandeds get tumours in the right parietal lobes? Do people using bluetooth or other earpieces get testicular or chest cancers instead depending on which pocket they keep the phone in?

It seems to me that there's should be plenty of ways to strenghten/reject the hypothesis based on retrospective questioning.

Anne said...

Hold the phone! Oy, that was bad. Anyway - I think this article does a very nice job of summing up what we know. Working in a hospital among tons of electromagnetic equipment seems much worse than a cell phone.

http://tinyurl.com/yz3jye

I apologize for the lack of proper link - I don't know how to do that. Check it out; I wouldn't lead you astray.

Iikka Järvinen said...

Of course, you can never be sure about these things without researching them.

But I personally would extremely suprised if we ever discovered a link between cancer and cellphone usage. Radiation that's emitted from the phone is non-ionizing radiotion, that pretty much by definition does not cause cancer. Those photons that the phone sends out simply do not have enough energy to cause any chemical/physical reactions at the cell level.

To put things in perspective, the photons of visible light(frequency ~ 6*10^14Hz) have approximitely 300 000 times more energy than the photons/quanta that are emitted from the cell phone (with frequenzy ~ 1900MHz). And remember, visible light is still non-ionizing.

Dr. John Baldwin FACS said...

Of all the wisdom posts that Dr. Schwab has made, this one stands alone as a potential life-saver. As I write this on 6-4-08, a new release from interviews on the CNN Larry King show of three prominent neurosurgeons shed light upon the cellphone-brain cancer causation. Dr. Sid was correct: there is currently no convincing evidence that cell phone use causes brain cancer. However, as with lung cancer in 1946, when a sharp upward spike was seen, which correlated with the new popularity of cigarette smoking, brain cancer is surging with the popularity of cellphones. Billions of dollars and millions of people were involved with smoking...so correction and truth moved slowly. But cigarettes do what the label says: "This product can cause birth defects and cancer." Similarly, cellphones, innocuous as they seem today, used by nearly a billion people, some slavishly...can possibly cause cancer of the brain. The escalation of glioblastoma of the brain, now +9,000 cases/year from nearly nothing, and almost always fatal, has struck the cell phone side of the brain of Sen. Kennedy. Much like Mrs Rockefeller's (VP wife) and Mrs. Ford's (Pres Wife) simultaneous White House breast cancers in the 70's, it brings to the rest of us the reality of disease, stress, causation and prevention. And so it is time to go buy your earpiece to put the radiofrequency waves far from your brain...and please do this for your children and keep your conversations short. You may be saving your life. Should you dissent, just Google "cellphones brain cancer" and see what has been written, remembering the incredible pressure to keep this under "wraps". Dr. Sid is right on this situation, ahead of the curve, as he always has been. Trust him and get your earpiece. You will need it if you are driving, and down the line,it may save your life. Remember, these studies only become obvious when the motality becomes overwhelming and that could be twenty years. Meanwhile, be smart. OK, we could be wrong...but an earpiece and some belief could save your life!
Good job, thanks Sid....Dr. John Baldwin, FACS (the real JB)

Iikka Järvinen said...

Thank you Dr. Baldwin for your post, it was a good read.

I would like to remind you though that correlation really is not causation. Just because brain cancer rates have been rising while the popularity of cell phones is soaring really does not mean that the two are connected. And inhaling smoke to your lungs is really quite different from using a cell phone, so I don't think comparing the two is fair.

Remember that the radio waves that your phone emits are so low-energy that they simply cannot act with matter at all. That's why I have a hard time seeing how RF-radiation could possibly cause cancer. It's like a bull(a gamma quantum) versus an ant(a RF quantum) in a china shop. The ant is simply just too small to do any damage.

And there's also the fact that if cell phones cause cancer, then most likely every modern appliance that uses electicity causes cancer. Your microwave oven, TV, car radio, wireless laptop, the PC you're writing this on, all these things emit trace amounts of radio frequency radiation. The NPR talk radio that is passing through your body as I write this operates on frequency band virtually identical to that of cell phones. We've been using some of these technologies for nearly a century now, and fundamentally cell phones are no different in term of radiation.

On the other hand, there's no harm in using an ear piece so if that helps you sleep well at night go ahead and use one.

Dr. John Baldwin said...

I completely respect and value the contribution to the discussion given by iikka. This poster obviously is a student of this stuff and knows the subject well. I did not want to convey a comparison of cigarette smoke to cell phones, simply draw a parallel between a now-recognized killer which was once thought of as actually good for you! ("Camels are good for your T-zone" 1948 ad) It took lots of time for that one to be unmasked.
I am absolutely not learned on the various ionizing/radiofrequency waves, and I agree our current society is bathed in them, but I do know that brain cancer, particularly glioblastoma is invariably fatal within two years despite Duke University, surgery, chemo and gamma knife..all things I don't need. So I would, at least personally, and for my family, opt to take a few simple precautions: 1.keep the calls brief if holding it to your head and 2.if you are one of those people whom I see everyday who LIVE with cell on their ear, I would humbly suggest the ounce of prevention...an ear device. On July 1 in California, it is a big $$$ ticket to drive with the cell to your ear and my CHP neighbor is salivating at the increased arrests,so there is reason #3.
Realizing there is no proof, and lots of other ways to get killed, I would just like to draw an X through this particular risk at least for my own family. OK, I'm done...

Hugo said...

So I went out to look for the earpiece is even worse evidence ...
Tadaa:
http://www.emf-health.com/airtube-headset.htm

So to really protect yourself you can get a magic chip or a crappy air-tube ear, I remember those from the airplane, the audio quality sucks on those plus you still need a speaker.
Better get that magic amulet at the bottom too.
PS. the latest JREF Swift issue has a bit on something similar (WiFi radiation).

Rico said...

Use the wired earpiece, but don't lay the phone in your lap...you'll fry your balls.

Hugo said...

Wellllll you can make popcorn with a cellphone, here's indisputable proof
Pop corn with cellphone

(ps. I shouldn't have to but just to be sure: click to debunk)

Clinton said...

I think it would be relatively easy to recruit people and track the number of minutes they use on their cell phone plans... it would make for sensational headlines regardless of the results. I can see it now:

"Unlimited phone plans limit your life!"

or

"This is your brain on a cell phone."