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Frederik Pruijn
Frederik Pruijn
Frederik Pruijn obtained his PhD in Pharmacochemistry at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Since 1992 he has been affiliated with the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and is a Senior Research Fellow in the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre.
 

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Posted in Medicine / Medical Conditions / Cancer

Cell Phones and Cancer

Dec. 27, 2011 5:41 pm
Categories: cancer prevention

Many articles have been written about this (e.g. see the Trending Topic Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?) and many millions of dollars have been spent on researching this connection. As we all know, the jury is still out but does it matter?

image

Public Domain

Sigmund Freud

The closest analogy to cell phones and cancer is, of course, smoking and cancer. It had been known since the 1930s that smoking causes cancer (e.g. pg. 67 of this free article from 1931). Long before that in 1775 chimney sweeps’ carcinoma (soot wart) was identified, which showed that environmental carcinogens (i.e. coal soot) could cause cancer. Many famous people have died from cancer caused by smoking and one of the most poignant cases is Sigmund Freud. Freud eventually committed suicide because of his cancer but kept smoking to the end. Despite this knowledge millions of people all over the world took up or continued smoking. The tobacco industry played a big and dubious role in this but perhaps also important was the belief that cancer could be cured one day; many medical doctors smoked, which perpetuated the mixed messages about the ill effects of smoking.

Cell phones have now permeated and gained a hold in all societies like smoking once did. Even primary school kids have at least one cell phone nowadays. Whole economies thrive on cell phone manufacturing and telecoms and software firms all over the world make billions thanks to this new gadget (not too dissimilar from the tobacco firms that also made and are still making huge profits). Cell phones often become an extension of the user’s personality and are treated as a fashion item; many people buy a new phone once or even twice a year as if they were a pair of shoes (NB shoes and cell phone alike should be more durable than this). There is a plethora of brands, types, and models and a myriad of call plans, which feed the consumer-driven demand (and confusion). As with smoking cell phone possession and use have become an important part of one’s image and we all know that image is everything nowadays. Interestingly, people can become addicted to their cell phone, which makes another interesting link to smoking, for example.

One of the main suggested health hazards of cell phone use is the possible carcinogenic effect of cell phone radiation. The problem with researching this causative connection is many-fold. Firstly, how to standardise the tests? What is representative of the average usage? How to control for frequency and intensity of exposure? No two phones are the same; distance from cell phone towers (and thus signal strength and energy output) varies enormously, particularly for mobile (as in moving) users. Are animal models representative or even predictive of humans in this context? How to separate the effects of cell phone radiation from other radiation (e.g. from wireless networks, radio & TV transmitters, etc.)? There are so many factors that it is almost impossible to conclusively answer the question (i.e. do cell phones cause cancer?).

So far, the scientific evidence has been pretty thin and conflicting; the smoking gun has not yet been found. A possible reason for this is that it is highly likely that there will be a lag time between cause and effect (if any) as there is with smoking and cancer. Cancer takes time to develop, from the first driver mutations to the full-blown stage IV fatal disease. If/when the smoking gun is found we can expect the full might of the PR machine to generate a counter force as happened with smoking and man-made climate change (global warming), for example. Inevitably, this will be followed on the heels by its sibling the litigation behemoth. Science and scientists will be portrayed in the same ways as before during such wars of multinational corporates versus the ‘opponents’. Misconceptions, false beliefs, distrusts, and confusions will be clouding scientific evidence and delaying the cause for change. After all that, it will still be up to the individuals to change their behaviour and based on previous experiences with smoking people will not give up their cell phones because it causes cancer (if that turns out to be the case). Let’s face it, cell phones are here to stay till they get surpassed by the next technical revolution gadget.

My view is that most of the efforts and money spent on finding the smoking gun are futile if it is supposed to change anything (e.g. law change, educate people about the risks, etc.) and only time will tell what can and needs to be done although that might be a little too late for some.

Finally, I don’t have a cell phone and Santa Claus was smart enough not to waste any money on giving me one. Instead, I got a bottle of whiskey, which is fatal if consumed in one go, and that says it all I believe.

 
Dennis Lendrem
January 23, 2012 at 2:47 pm
The Counsel of Despair?

Q. Will establishing data to demonstrate a link between cell phones and cancer lead to behavioural change?

A. By itself, no.

Q. Does this mean we should abandon the search?

A. I think not.

People are often unwilling to change their behaviour unless they see a need to change. Good science provides the data to support that need. It doesn't mean that people will change. But they do now have information and can choose to change - or not.

To abandon a rational, scientific, data driven approach simply because the search for data is difficult is the counsel of despair. If difficulty were our yardstick then we might be forced to abandon evidence based, data driven medicine altogether.

Do I believe we should? Not a chance.

 

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