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Cell-Phones Join DDT & Coffee as Cat-2B Carcinogens

by June 02, 2011

A new classification for cell-phone use was issued Tuesday by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France. The panel is part of the World Health Organization (WHO) and used dozens of its published studies to form this conclusion. WHO and other health agencies will now use this information to begin work on a guide for cell-phone use.

Few topics get the tech-community into an uproar like the cell-phone/cancer connection. It ruffles the panties of the told-ya-so technophobes and doting grandparents concerned with little Aiden and Caleigh’s obsession with those new fangled devices. Meanwhile it causes the rest of us to roll our eyes in anticipation of another short-lived media frenzy.

What Exactly is this New Connection Between Cell Phones and Cancer?

The IARC has merely added cell-phone use to a category WHO calls 2B or possibly carcinogenic, which is really not a tangible connection at all. But that won’t deter the sensationalism of the story. The recurring cell-phone cancer debate has more to do with our social anxieties about the adoption of new technology than any true medical or scientific assessment of its risk.

Most of us have a love / hate relationship with cell-phones. While a convenience it’s often at a price of being connected with obligations we’d rather forget from time-to-time. Sometimes we resent having to compete with cell-phones and text messaging when in the company of others.

On one hand possibly carcinogenic is the same category as DDT - a pesticide we innately deem harmful. Few sights are more horrific than that of children playing within plumes of DDT fog. These images were used (clearly in another time that was more at peace with chemistry) to reassure people that DDT was perfectly harmless.

But to this day, DDT use and its subsequent ban remains an emotionally loaded controversy. The DDT question is invariably stacked with our modern attitudes toward chemical-use in general as well as conservation and wildlife preservation. Our innate fear of DDT has much more to do our modern social perception of danger than anything medical science behind carcinogens. (Editor's Note: particularly with respect to malaria outbreaks and death tolls following the elimination of the use of DDT in 3rd world countries - a sad exposé on the law of unintended consequences).

Noted skeptic Brian Dunning has a very good story explaining the controversy and evidence behind DDT in his essay and audio-podcast. See: DDT: Secret Life of a Pesticide.

Cell phone use is also in the same company as coffee. Few of us would gape in horror at a morning cup of Joe like we would a fog-emitting tank emblazed with the title DDT. Our emotions just aren’t very good at risk assessment, real dangers is often counter-intuitive.

So, is Coffee a Carcinogen?

Cup of Joe

Coffee is cited as carcinogenic because it contains compound called acrylamide. The chemical compound produced from over-cooking food has been known to cause cancer in laboratory rats. But you’re at risk to exposure to acrylamide anytime you eat slightly burned toast or consume golden brown (well-done) french fries. The substance is found at its highest levels in starchy white foods. 

The new study puts DDT, coffee and cell phone in the same category but according to the experts, this is no cause for alarm. Other so-called dangers in the possibly carcinogenic category include alcoholic beverages and night-shift work.

“Anything is a possible carcinogen” Says Donald Berry who is a professor of biostatistics at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. “This is not something to worry about and it will not in any way change how I use my cell-phone,” He said – speaking on his cell-phone, of course.

“The WHO’s verdict means there is some evidence linking mobile phones to cancer but it is still too weak to draw strong conclusions.” Says Ed Yong, head of health information at Cancer Research U.K. “But if such a link exists, it is unlikely to be a large one.”

Cell-phones generate signals sent to nearby towers through radio frequency. This form of energy is similar to FM radio waves which we are literally bathed in every day. This type of radiation does not directly damage DNA because it’s different than stronger forms of radiation like ultraviolet light or X-rays.

Electromagnetic Brain Tumor Connection

The cell-phone / cancer connection is a subset of the long-standing EMF / brain tumor connection - a highly controversial area of study to be sure. But the week-long IARC meeting on the correlation between electromagnetic radiation from cell-phones, microwaves and radar found limited evidence that cell-phone use was linked to brain tumors. The study also found inadequate evidence to draw the same conclusions for other types of cancer.

But there is no way to squash the connection between cell-phone use and cancer since cancerous tumors take decades to develop. Most experts agree that it’s impossible to conclude that cell-phones have no long-term health risks because no study has ever tracked people for that long.

Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society says that if there is any real connection between cell-phone use and tumors children would be at particular risk. This is because children’s brains are still developing so they should have cell-phone use limited and concerned adults could use a wireless headset to limit their exposure to EMF.

However, Brawley adds that even if cell-phones cause brain tumors, they will still kill far more people through automobile accidents than cancer. Distracted driving remains one of those counter-intuitive dangers that loom larger for habitual cell-phone users than the health risks of cancer.

Distracted driving statistics reveal some alarming facts about the tangible dangers of cell-phone use.

About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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