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ALTOM: Don't sweat the cancer risk of cell phones

June 18, 2011

In late May, the World Health Organization (www.who.int) released a report that scared the bejabbers out of millions of cell-phone users throughout the world. It formally upgraded its appraisal of cell-phone cancer risk to “possibly carcinogenic to human beings.”

A blogosphere and media headline storm ensued. Companies throughout the cell industry immediately bristled and objected. Organizations that issue lots of cell phones to its members began warning them to use the phones judiciously. Blog comments proliferated. Fear stalked the land.

And now, as you might expect, I’m going to tell you not to worry about it. I am going to say that, and I’m going to explain why you shouldn’t worry. This is not as terrifying as it appears.

The problem isn’t so much the media or WHO as it is how science works. A popular misconception holds that science just accumulates facts, but in most cases it doesn’t. Instead, it theorizes, collects data, analyzes the data and reports out what it sees. What it sees is almost always ambiguous. That’s the nature of data in the real world. It jitters and shifts around, making any question hard to answer.

That’s why scientists use statistical techniques to investigate phenomena. It’s why we have the phrase “statistical significance.” In essence, science doesn’t stack up facts so much as it stirs up statistically likely “maybes.” That’s also why the case against the tobacco companies was so infernally hard to make, because not everybody who smoked died of it. Science works on a preponderance of evidence, not on certainties.

WHO’s International Agency for Research into Cancer (www.iarc.fr) has the unenviable job of figuring out which things in our modern world are not at all carcinogenic, probably carcinogenic, very likely carcinogenic and undoubtedly carcinogenic. It uses a five-level classification scheme, called groups 1, 2A, 2B, 3, and 4—respectively definitely, probably, possibly, not classifiable, and probably not carcinogenic. Rather alarmingly, only one substance is in group 4 right now, so based on that the casual observer might perhaps assume the rest of the world is out to give us cancer.

It’s important to understand that what category something is placed into is a matter of how much evidence there is, not whether something is absolutely known to be carcinogenic. For example, the supposedly deadly group 1 contains hundreds of chemicals and exposures, but it includes such ordinarily innocuous things as solar radiation, alcohol, soot, tobacco and wood dust. Many of the substances are carcinogenic only in large amounts and during specific times, such as smoking tobacco or cleaning out chimneys. The point to group 1 is that, given enough time and exposure, these substances are known to cause cancer, although whether you’ll get it in those conditions is statistical and you might clean out chimneys for decades with no more ill effects than being mistaken for a character out of “Mary Poppins.”

Cell phones are now in group 2B, which holds the things that are “possibly” carcinogenic. This is a sort of catch-all group for chemicals and circumstances that can’t be entirely proven not to be carcinogens, but there’s not really any solid evidence that they are, either. It’s essentially a parking lot for something that needs further study because we can’t rule out its being a carcinogen.

To get to this point with cell phones, the IARC didn’t do original research. Instead, it assembled a group of scientists to put together a consistent picture out of a handful of studies conducted around the world, some of which are a bit questionable. A few of the studies are quite old now, from the days when cell-phone radiation needed to be stronger. Several studies relied for usage data on surveys, which are notoriously prone to inaccuracy. None of this is unusual in scientific literature.

After the papers had all stopped rustling, the conclusion was that there was no strong evidence that cell phones caused cancer, but there wasn’t enough strong evidence that it didn’t, so into group 2B it went.

My comments shouldn’t be taken as criticisms of WHO or its International Agency for Research into Cancer. They have a very hard job to do, and they have to approach it with scientific rigor, which always produces more shrugs than definite answers. Cell phones are ubiquitous around the world, so if they’re causing cancer we really ought to know about it.

Right now, the evidence strongly shows that, for the business user, cell phones are the least of our worries, unless we’re in the habit of answering them in dense traffic. You’re at greater risk of choking on your lunchtime arugula than getting cancer from a cell phone. When the IARC bumps cell phones upward into group 1, then you can start worrying.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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