Center Warns Of Cell Phone Risks
Journalists: Jennfier C Yates and Seth Borenstein
July 24, 2008
Pittsburgh cancer institute warns of cell phone-cancer risk, defying published research.
The head of a prominent cancer
research institute issued an unprecedented warning to his faculty
and staff Wednesday: Limit cell phone use because of the possible
risk of cancer.
The electromagnetic fields emitted by cell phones might be a cancer danger.
The warning from Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of
Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, is contrary to numerous studies that don't
find a link between cancer and cell phone use, and a public lack of
worry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Herberman is basing his alarm on early unpublished data. He says it
takes too long to get answers from science and he believes people
should take action now — especially when it comes to children.
"Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn't wait for a
definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather
than sorry later," Herberman said.
No other major academic cancer research institutions have sounded such
an alarm about cell phone use. But Herberman's advice is sure to raise
concern among many cell phone users and especially parents.
Still, Herberman cites a "growing body of literature linking long-term
cell phone use to possible adverse health effects including cancer."
"Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that
there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some
precautionary advice on cell phone use," he wrote in his memo.
A driving force behind the memo was Devra Lee Davis, the director of the university's center for environmental oncology.
"The question is do you want to play Russian roulette with your brain,"
she said in an interview from her cell phone while using the hands-free
speaker phone as recommended. "I don't know that cell phones are
dangerous. But I don't know that they are safe."
Of concern are the still unknown effects of more than a decade of cell
phone use, with some studies raising alarms, said Davis, a former
health adviser in the Clinton Administration.
She said 20 different groups have endorsed the advice the Pittsburgh
cancer institute gave, and authorities in England, France and India
have cautioned children's use of cell phones.
Herberman and Davis point to a massive ongoing research project known
as Interphone, involving scientists in 13 nations, mostly in Europe.
Results already published in peer-reviewed journals from this project
aren't so alarming, but Herberman is citing work not yet published.
The published research focuses on more than 5,000 cases of brain
tumors. The National Research Council in the U.S., which isn't
participating in the Interphone project, reported in January that the
brain tumor research had "selection bias." That means it relied on
people with cancer to remember how often they used cell phones. It is
not considered the most accurate research approach.
The largest published study, which appeared in the Journal of the
National Cancer Institute in 2006, tracked 420,000 Danish cell phone
users, including thousands that had used the phones for more than 10
years. It found no increased risk of cancer among those using cell
A French study based on Interphone research and published in 2007
concluded that regular cell phone users had "no significant increased
risk" for three major types of nervous system tumors. It did note,
however, that there was "the possibility of an increased risk among the
heaviest users" for one type of brain tumor, but that needs to be
verified in future research.
Earlier research also has found no connection.
Joshua E. Muscat of Penn State University, who has studied cancer and
cell phones in other research projects partly funded by the cell phone
industry, said there are at least a dozen studies that have found no
cancer-cell phone link. He said a Swedish study cited by Herberman as
support for his warning was biased and flawed.
"We certainly don't know of any mechanism by which radiofrequency
exposure would cause a cancerous effect in cells. We just don't know
this might possibly occur," Muscat said.
Cell phones emit radiofrequency energy, a type of radiation that is a
form of electromagnetic radiation, according to the National Cancer
Institute. Though studies are being done to see if there is a link
between it and tumors of the brain and central nervous system, there is
no definitive link between the two, the institute says on its Web site.
"By all means, if a person feels compelled that they should take
precautions in reducing the amount of electromagnetic radio waves
through their bodies, by all means they should do so," said Dan Catena,
a spokesman for the American Cancer Society. "But at the same time, we
have to remember there's no conclusive evidence that links cell phones
to cancer, whether it's brain tumors or other forms of cancer."
Joe Farren, a spokesman for the CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade
group for the wireless industry, said the group believes there is a
risk of misinforming the public if science isn't used as the ultimate
guide on the issue.
"When you look at the overwhelming majority of studies that have been
peer reviewed and published in scientific journals around the world,
you'll find no relationship between wireless usage and adverse health
affects," Farren said.
Frank Barnes, who chaired the January report from the National Research
Council, said Wednesday that "the jury is out" on how hazardous
long-term cell phone use might be.
Speaking from his cell phone, the professor of electrical and computer
engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder said he takes no
special precautions in his own phone use. And he offered no specific
advice to people worried about the matter.
It's up to each individual to decide what if anything to do. If people
use a cell phone instead of having a land line, "that may very well be
reasonable for them," he said.
Susan Juffe, a 58-year-old Pittsburgh special education teacher, heard
about Herberman's cell phone advice on the radio earlier in the day.
"Now, I'm worried. It's scary," she said.
She says she'll think twice about allowing her 10-year-old daughter Jayne to use the cell phone.
"I don't want to get it (brain cancer) and I certainly don't want you to get it," she explained to her daughter.
Sara Loughran, a 24-year-old doctoral student at the University of
Pittsburgh, sat in a bus stop Wednesday chatting on her cell phone with
her mother. She also had heard the news earlier in the day, but was not
"I think if they gave me specific numbers and specific information and
it was scary enough, I would be concerned," Loughran said, planning to
call her mother again in a matter of minutes. "Without specific
numbers, it's too vague to get me worked up."