Cellphones May Raise Risk Of Developing Cancer

The World Health Organization recently announced that radio frequency electromagnetic fields, like the ones produced by billions of cellphones worldwide, could be carcinogenic. Scientists still have not pinpointed a clear link, but the research indicates our cellphones might be putting us at risk of developing cancer. NPR's health blogger Eliza Barclay explains the recent research on the issue.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now we want to go a little deeper on news that broke earlier this week that the World Health Organization has added cell phones to its long list of possible causes of cancer. Now, cell phones are so much a part of people's lives that we just had to ask NPR's Eliza Barclay to talk to us about what she wrote regarding the WHO conclusions. She wrote about this for NPR's health blog, called "Shots." She's a web producer on NPR's science desk, and she's with us now in our Washington, D.C., studio. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ELIZA BARCLAY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, obviously, this is a cause of great concern to people. It's very attention-getting. Cell phones, I mean, are ubiquitous these days. In fact, many people use a cell phone who don't even have a landline anymore. So you can see why people are very concerned about this. So could you just, as briefly as you can, tell us what's the recommendation?

BARCLAY: Well, what the WHO is saying is that based on some very limited scientific evidence that they have, there may be some cause for concern that cell phones could cause cancer. But they don't really know.

MARTIN: What is the reason behind this concern?

BARCLAY: They've looked at a couple of recent studies, and while none of these studies actually proved that cell phones cause cancer, there were a couple of groups and in particular, these are people who are long-term, heavy users of cell phones; people who talk on their phone 30 minutes a day for more than 10 years. Within that particular group, there was some increased risk for certain kinds of brain tumors, specifically.

MARTIN: What exactly was the data that they looked at?

BARCLAY: Well, what they did was, they talked to people who had brain tumors, and then they asked them about their cell phone use. But the thing is, with this kind of research it's very hard to prove that it was the cell phones in people's lives that had actually caused the cancer, right?

There are so many environmental factors that can contribute to cancer. And a lot of scientists said that these studies were, in fact, flawed and inconclusive because how can you really know that it was the cell phone?

MARTIN: I mean, I think everybody knows that the use of cell phones has increased exponentially, you know, worldwide in recent years. Has the incidents of brain cancer also increased?

BARCLAY: No. It hasn't, really. And so that should be a pretty clear indication that it's hard to draw a strong correlation between cell phones and brain cancer.

MARTIN: What would be the possible link?

BARCLAY: Well, cell phones emit a kind of radiation. It's a low-level type of radiation. But the thing is, this radiation is not the kind of radiation that damages DNA and causes mutations that can lead to cancer. It's not the same as radiation, for example, from X-rays. It's closer to radiation from microwaves.

MARTIN: If the data on this is as ambiguous as it seems to be, or is incomplete or is inconclusive, why would the WHO issue this pronouncement now?

BARCLAY: Well, they really want more research on this topic and fortunately, there are a couple of big studies under way right now - in the United States and Europe - that could help them get to the bottom of this. Remember, this is a really hard thing to study. People haven't been using cell phones for that long. And health researchers like to have a lot of data - years and years; decades, if they can get it - before they are really confident about a health trend. Just think about how long it took them to prove that smoking causes cancer.

MARTIN: Is there a specific recommendation that flows from this even if this information is inconclusive?

BARCLAY: Well, you could use your wireless, or wired, headset because the cell phone's antenna - that way, it wouldn't be next to your head. You - it would be somewhere else in the body. So that's one possible thing to do. But in general, you know, a lot of researchers are not that concerned about this.

And the other thing is that there are billions of people today using cell phones, and they really haven't seen an increase in the type of brain tumor that they're concerned about - anywhere.

MARTIN: So what would be the point of announcing this now if the information is as ambiguous as it seems to be?

BARCLAY: Well, they want to be cautious. They're saying, we don't yet know enough about this, but we should take a precaution anyway and we'll consider this as a possible carcinogen - possible being the key word.

MARTIN: So I'm going to put you on the spot: Are you still using your cell phone? Are you going for the - your hands-free listening device? I don't want to use a trade name here. Are you biasing toward your hands-free listening device?

BARCLAY: Well, it's definitely made me think about it a little bit more. But I am still using my cell phone just as much as everybody. It's pretty hard to even cut down.

MARTIN: Eliza Barclay is a web producer for NPR science desk. She writes for NPR's health blog, called "Shots." And if you want to read the piece that she wrote about this issue, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the programs tab, and then on TELL ME MORE.

Eliza, thanks so much for joining us.

BARCLAY: Thank you for having me.

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