Friday, June 06, 2008

Cellphones Causing Cancer?

A recent article again raises the possible link between cellphones and neurological cancers:

Last week, three prominent neurosurgeons told the CNN interviewer Larry King that they did not hold cellphones next to their ears. “I think the safe practice,” said Dr. Keith Black, a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, “is to use an earpiece so you keep the microwave antenna away from your brain.”

Dr. Vini Khurana, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the Australian National University who is an outspoken critic of cellphones, said: “I use it on the speaker-phone mode. I do not hold it to my ear.” And CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon at Emory University Hospital, said that like Dr. Black he used an earpiece.

Along with Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s recent diagnosis of a glioma, a type of tumor that critics have long associated with cellphone use, the doctors’ remarks have helped reignite a long-simmering debate about cellphones and cancer.

That supposed link has been largely dismissed by many experts, including the American Cancer Society. The theory that cellphones cause brain tumors “defies credulity,” said Dr. Eugene Flamm, chairman of neurosurgery at Montefiore Medical Center.

I'm not sure why, but I feel like such views are unduly alarmist. If a definitive study does not yet exist, then those who believe such an association does exist should construct a definitive study and perform the research, versus going to the media and sounding "possible" alarms. This reminds me of the news stories every year of some random natural good that either causes or cures cancer/heart disease/diabetes. For example, the research on alcohol is confusing. You should drink a glass of wine a day to prevent heart disease, but any more, and you increase the risk of liver disease and other adverse effects. I feel like ambiguous research findings should be kept out of the public arena until something definitive can be said. Unless this is done, we as physicians risk confusing our patients and losing their trust. Just my $0.02.


  1. I think the main issue is that cellphones are a new, previously nonexistent variable in the health equation with unknown long-term effects.

    This is why I also use the speakerphone option whenever I can. Even definitive studies are often not rock-solid. If they were, we wouldn't have, say, drugs that have successfully cleared every governmental hurdle and yet end up causing some crazy symptom in patients years later (and being taken off the market).

    It pays to play it safe. Why subject your body to some unnecessary new effector?

    This is also why I avoid antiperspirants whenever I can (because of the aluminum content). Etc.

    Your classmate

  2. I disagree. I believe that anecdotal evidence should be considered when analyzing risk/benefits. It would be absurd to do a double blind study on parachute in preventing death, but I would bet that you would never jump out of an airplane based solely on anecdotal evidence.

    The problem with the FDA is that we have former drug company executives with heavy ties to manufacturers in charge of approving drugs for public use. Sometimes these execs do not even hold medical accreditation. It is a serious and dangerous problem that should be brought to life. Legislation should be introduced to prevent it.

  3. I suppose I cannot include all clarifications in my post. I am not against all anecdotal evidence (especially common sense items like the parachute example). However, I feel it should be presented systematically as a case report or case series, not as sensationalist quotes to CNN, which in my opinion has developed a reputation of such stories over the past few years.

    The problem with such implied causation is where do you stop? Perhaps I could convince people that laptops have led to increased rates of testicular cancer, and then get some oncologist to say he never uses a laptop on his lap. This all his the glimmer of truth, but at the end of the day, there is nothing here. For another example, search this site for posts on the (lack of an) autism-vaccine link. When something is unknown, we should use science to answer the questions raised instead of merely making assertions that are in line with our fears.



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