Last week I posted a note deploring sloppy and alarmist scientific journalism. My point was about the journalism, but along the way I indicated that the lack of a bump up in brain cancers while cell phone use has been exploding at least suggested a very minimal risk.
The science on this is still contradictory and changing, with responsible scientists finding (but mostly not finding) some association. [Like most scientific journals, these are behind paywalls that you can pierce only by going through a university or library computer system.] The risk is in any case small: typical numbers for the positive associations double the risk of cancers that affect about 5 in 100,000 people. On the other hand, a long latency period after exposure is typical of many cancers, and it may well take ten years for evidence to show itself.
Is a cell phone worth any risk of a deadly illness? Of course it is. How much risk? That depends on your own tastes and values. People who just can’t bear worrying about cancer will stop using their cell phones (or just use a wired earpiece (a wireless earpiece is itself a radio, though a really feeble one)); people who think this is a reasonable risk to bear for convenience will go right on chatting and both groups will be right.
Remember that the intensity of the radiation falls with the distance of the phone to you when you’re within one or two wavelengths (about six inches), so getting it from right up against your head to a pocket or a tabletop brings the risk way down [the inverse square law applies when you get further out, about three feet according to a reader, who also points out that the phone pumps out more RF in a weak signal area, so you can reduce risk by trying to talk mostly when you have lots of bars]. And most cancer seems to have a linear dose-response curve, so you can halve your risk just by using the phone half as much.
Finally, remember as the scientific papers zip past, that out of every twenty studies of situations in which A has absolutely nothing to do with B, one will show a statistically significant (p = .05) association. [corrected by a reader, thanks]
The go-to site for all issues of electromagnetic radiation health risks is here, and I’m pleased to note that it’s run by my first or second PhD student – I forget now – Louis Slesin. I think Louis’ overall judgment is that we’re not doing enough to reduce the hazards of non-ionizing radiation from electric power lines, cell phones, and all the other stuff that’s bathing us in these waves, but his site is a model of balanced and scientifically aware reporting. He will not lead you to flaky stuff from alchemists and kooks.