What should you make of today’s news that the World Health Organization has declared cell phones to be a “possible” carcinogen? That’s a tough one–especially if you’re not a paranoiac, a denialist, or a doctor.
This much does seem clear: the report isn’t a massive new development in the ongoing debate over whether phones are bad for you. According to CNN, thirty-one scientists from fourteen countries were part of the panel responsible for the new report. But there was no breakthrough research that revealed something we didn’t know. Actually, there was no research–the report is based on existing studies. And saying that something is possibly carcinogenic falls far short of concluding that it causes cancer. All it’s saying is that phones aren’t in the clear. The only people who should find this news to be utterly staggering, therefore, are the ones who were absolutely positive that there was no chance at all that phones might be problematic.
I’m not in any position to judge the reliability of the report. Neither, probably, are you. (But if you are an expert on radiation and/or brain cancer–hey, chime in!) Here’s how I’m responding, based more on my gut than my, um, brain:
- I’m not panicking. It won’t help. And it sounds like nothing we learned today warrants a level of panic that wasn’t appropriate yesterday; we already knew that some studies have raised concerns, and others haven’t.
- I’m curious about any new data that comes alone. New research, that is, not new interpretation of old data. And especially new data that comes from organizations with no agenda one way or the other.
- I’m most interested in long-term data. It hasn’t been all that long since cell phones went mainstream–I remember visiting London in 1995 and being startled to see normal everyday people making normal everyday calls on them in large quantities. Again, I’m no doc. But I gotta think there will be things we’ll learn over time that we wouldn’t be able to tell otherwise–be they reassuring or worrisome.
- I’m watching how the industry responds. The wireless trade association, the CTIA, is a fine organization, but I wonder just how damning any evidence of problems would have to be before it concludes that phones are bad for you. (Come to think of it, when has any trade organization ever concluded that its reason for being is dangerous? At least without being dragged kicking and screaming to that conclusion?) I also wonder what individual phone manufacturers will do. Some already recommend that you hold your phone further from your person when using it than most of us do.
- I’m going to try to use a wired headset, at least much of the time. When possible. Not in a fanatical fashion. It’s my favorite way to talk on the phone anyhow (excellent audio quality, no batteries!). Unless it turns out that earbuds cause cancer, it’s not going to increase my risk of health issues. And it’s conceivable it might lower them. Basically, there’s no downside.