Cell phones and cancer again

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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.