Thank You for Phoning: Mobile Phones and Cancer

Too close for comfort? Apple's iPhone 3G.

Too close for comfort? Apple's iPhone 3G.

If you’re reading this article on a smartphone, check that you’re holding it at least 15mm away from your body. That’s the small-print manufacturer’s warning that comes with your iPhone 3G.

It’s not too hard to do, though it’s a jolt to realise how often we unthinkingly read with our phones resting on our knees, or talk, in a noisy crowd, with them pressed against our ear.

The World Health Organisation advises that holding your phone 30 to 40cm away from your body will give you a ‘much lower’ exposure to the radiofrequency fields that are ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’.

Try texting with a ruler held between you and your mobile; that’s effectively the closest the WHO thinks you should be to your phone, if you want to reduce your exposure to ‘possible’ carcinogens. Feels weird, doesn’t it?

The jury is out on whether mobile phone use is linked to brain cancer; however, many experts are worried. It’s too early, they say, to conclusively judge: mobile phone use only became common in the 1990s. In March this year, the cautious-by-nature World Health Organisation upgraded its position to the warning that mobile phone exposure is ‘possibly carcinogenic’.

Charlie Teo: One third of brain tumours around the ear

Brain surgeon Charlie Teo notes a disturbing rise in brain tumours around the ear.

Brain surgeon Charlie Teo notes a disturbing rise in brain tumours around the ear.

Earlier this week, leading brain surgeon Charlie Teo wrote a piece for The Punch expressing his concerns. ‘I see 10 to 20 patients each week and at least one third of those patients’ tumours are in the area of the brain around the ear. As a neurosurgeon I cannot ignore this fact.’

Teo says two of the largest centres in the world have documented a disturbing rise in the incidence of brain tumours; UK figures suggest a 50% increase in frontal and temporal lobe tumours between 1999 and 2009.

He is calling for more – and better – research. Of the studies that show no link between mobiles and cancer, up to 75 per cent have been funded by telcos. (Of those that show a link, predictably, none have been funded by telcos.)

30 minutes daily use = 40% increased risk of tumours

Interphone, the world’s largest study – conducted in 13 countries over 12 years – suggests no overall link between mobile phones and brain cancer, but concludes ‘the possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation’ (our emphasis).

The study also concluded that those in the top ten per cent of phone usage are up to 40 per cent more likely to develop glioma, a common type of brain cancer.

Just 30 minutes of mobile phone conversation daily is enough to put participants in that top ten per cent category. Think about it: how many people do you know (or sit next to on the train journey home) who easily do that? In 2010, the New York Times wrote that ‘today’s typical user indistinguishable from the heavy user of 10 years ago’.

Teens and children at increased risk

The Interphone study’s authors have said that mobile phone use is ‘more prevalent’ now than it was during the study period. They also admit ‘it is not unusual for young people to use mobile phones for an hour or more a day’.

‘Young people are both higher users of mobiles and more susceptible to radiation. The New York Times said:

‘Radiation that penetrates only two inches into the brain of an adult will reach much deeper into the brains of children because their skulls are thinner and their brains contain more absorptive fluid. No field studies have been completed to date on cellphone radiation and children.’

Both British health authorities and the Royal College of Physicians have suggested ‘it would be prudent’ for teenagers not to use cell phones.

Calls for research that’s ‘not flawed’

Epidemiologist Devra Davis has argued that many studies are not thorough enough.

Epidemiologist Devra Davis has argued that many studies are not thorough enough.

Another oft-cited study used to back up the case that there is no link between mobile phones and cancer is a 2006 Danish study that followed more than 420,000 mobile phone users for more than 21 years and found no evidence.

That study has been described as deeply flawed. As American epidemiologist Devra Davis told Lateline last year, the average user in that study has used a mobile for eight years. It seems that ten years or more is the amount of time that triggers a measurable increased risk. More importantly, perhaps, that study excluded business users of mobile phones – probably the heaviest users. (It began with 700,000 mobile users and excluded 200,000 for being business users; that’s a significant percentage.)

‘We need to design a study that is not flawed from the start,’ says Charlie Teo.

Comparisons to tobacco and asbestos industries

Devra Davis is the author of Disconnect, which was nominated for the US National Book Award. She brings a particularly disturbing perspective to the topic:

I worked at the US National Academy of Sciences for 10 years and in that capacity as director of one of their large boards I oversaw the evaluation of the evidence on passive smoke and tobacco and asbestos and in those instances we looked at the data and we said well we’re not sure, we think there could be a problem and while we waited and continued to evaluate the issue unfortunately millions of people were exposed … In this situation with cell phones I don’t think we want to wait.

Using your phone safely

It’s not all doom and gloom though; there are things you can do to decrease your risk, including (but not limited to) using a headset rather than talking directly into your phone. (Charlie Teo has said he always uses a headset or a speaker phone.) And don’t sleep with your phone under your pillow or on your bedside table, next to your head.

Devra Davis has a terrific list of ten mobile safety tips on her website. Here’s a summary:

Use a head set, use a speaker phone, don’t keep the phone on your body. Be smart and sensible with how you use a phone and don’t give a phone to a child to use without a head set or a speaker phone. Children should be encouraged to text and not talk on a phone and all of us should think twice before keeping a phone close to the head or close to the body.

We’ll leave you with a snippet of dark satire, from the ending of Jason Reitman’s 2005 spin-doctor film, Thank You For Smoking:


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