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.]