Ten years, 13 countries, 13 thousand participants, and $24 million, and we now have it. The Interphone study, the comprehensive effort to either put our cell phone fears to rest or label them a carcinogen, officially concludes that “Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma (a specific brain cancer thought to be promoted or triggered by cell phone radiation) was observed with use of mobile phones.” It also says “There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure” and those tumors are more likely to show up on the side of the head on which the user typically holds the phone.
In a press conference announcing the results, Elizabeth Cardis, one of the researchers involved, said, "We have not demonstrated that there is increased risk but neither have we demonstrated that there is an absence of risk. These findings of increased risk in the heaviest users suggest a possible association but we don't have enough scientific evidence."
So, essentially, the Interphone report says what you want it to say. If you don’t want to see a link between cell phones and cancer, you don’t. If you do, you can find one. Look at the headlines (courtesy of Microwave News).
—"Brain Tumour Link to Mobiles"
—"Mobiles Do Not Increase Risk of Brain Tumor"
—“Talking on the Mobile Just 30mins a Day Linked with Heightened Risk of Brain Cancer "
—"Mobile Phones Do Not Increase the Risk of Cancer"
Why the confusion? Well, some data was plain weird—among light cell phone users, the cancer risk appeared lower than among folks that didn’t use cell phones at all—calling into question the methodology used. And the “conclusions” were subject to negotiation—negotiation that took four years and led to compromises in how to report the results.
One such compromise moved some interesting data from the main report into an appendix. This appendix shows a clear and statistically significant correlation between years of cell phone use, total talk time, and total number of calls and brain tumor risk.
Perhaps a bigger problem in my book: the study is clearly dated—it defined “heavy” cell phone use as more than 30 minutes a day; these days, that’s practically nothing.
On the other hand, more and more people are using wireless headsets, which could lower the risk.
On the other other hand, children are using cell phones more often and at younger and younger ages—starting in elementary school instead of high school. And children, with smaller ears and thinner skulls, absorb more radiation from cell phones than adults, not to mention that, if there is a danger from that radiation, their developing organs would likely be more vulnerable.
On the other hand, kids don’t talk much these days, they text. Which takes the phone away from their vulnerable brains. (But the phone is in their pockets, constantly buzzing—should I be worried about what affect that’s having on my kids’ future health? Is anybody studying that?)
The one thing the participants in the Interphone study agreed upon—more research is needed. After all, other scientists have noted, no other of today’s known carcinogens could have been definitively tagged as such in their first ten years—even cigarettes. Of course, while we wait another ten years or so for more answers, we’ll keep using our cell phones.
There is something the industry could do while we’re waiting, however—make SAR numbers more visible to cell phone shoppers. The SAR, Specific Absorption Rate, is a measure of how RF energy is absorbed by the body. In the U.S., the FCC limits legal SARs to 1.6 watts per kilogram. But some phones come in way below this. You wouldn’t know it, however, when you’re in a store shopping for a phone—it’s typically not one of the specifications on display.The last time I bought a cell phone, I spent several minutes on the phone with customer service as the representative poured through spec sheets on the phones I was interested in, trying to find the numbers. (No one had ever asked him to do that before; he was surprised to learn how much they differed.) All things being equal, I figured I’d pick the phone with the lowest number—it couldn’t hurt.
And just that’s about all I can do, for now, besides text instead of calling the next time I need to reach my kids, and finally finish setting up that Bluetooth headset that’s been sitting on my desk for months. And wonder if, a decade from now, I’ll regret signing up for that family plan.
In the meantime, though, I need to go in the pantry and think about what canned foods I can do without—did you catch the latest about BPA?
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.