Scientist: Cell Phone Use May Increase Cancer Risk

The head of a cancer research center in Pittsburgh is urging his faculty and staff to limit their use of cell phones. Another scientist, Daniel Wartenberg, a professor at the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, says it may be better to be safe than sorry.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A warning this week about the potential health risks of cell phone use. It came in an advisory sent to faculty and staff by the head of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. The advisory acknowledges that evidence linking cell phone use to health effects including cancer is controversial. Nonetheless, it lays out ten steps to limit exposure to electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell phones, including keeping children away from cell phones entirely.

Dan Wartenberg is among the scientists who signed on to the advisory. He's chief of the division of environmental epidemiology at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. I asked him how he reconciles the advisory's warning with the lack of conclusive evidence.

Dr. DAN WARTENBERG (Environmental Epidemiology, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School): To do the studies is very complicated, and we don't have really good conclusive studies at one way or the other. But I think it's better to be safe than sorry, and the easy precautions one can take in using cell phones that would reduce one's exposure to the radiation that is the concern and that's one's risk.

BLOCK: Let's tick through some of the precautions that are - that have been issued that you signed on to. And one of them is to keep the cell phone away from your body and to use either speakerphone mode or a wireless headset. Why don't you explain, why do you think that would be a good idea?

Dr. WARTENBERG: As the source of this radiation moves away from you, the strength of it decreases. And it's not just even linear. In other words, if you move twice as far away, it's actually one quarter the amount that you would have if it was right up against - you know, if it was much closer. So it reduces it and that's a useful thing to do, because then your exposure is lower and if there's any risk on virtually all instances, the higher your exposure the greater your risk.

BLOCK: And is any headset as good as any other?

Dr. WARTENBERG: The ones that are connected by a cord are a little bit better than the Bluetooth ones, the ones that actually transmit, but ideally, you use a speaker phone or the ones corded to your phones. Again, one of the concerns is when you put it up against your ear, you're sort of touching your skull and right on the other side of that bone is brain tissue, which is very sensitive.

BLOCK: The very first recommendation on this list flat out says do not allow children to use a cell phone. Is that really necessary or is that a really extreme version of what needs to be done here?

Dr. WARTERNBERG: It's probably more extreme than I would say. As I would say, again, limit, reduce the degree possible. It's - I don't think we can tell people not to use cell phones and I don't think we can really tell children to. Children are probably more sensitive than adults because if there is anything done, any adverse effect on the tissue, children's cells are - they're growing, so they change much more quickly, so any sort of problem is likely to be multiplied much more quickly in a child than in an adult.

BLOCK: Were you concerned when you were signing off on these recommendations that these were things that may be overly alarmist, with so much that's not known at this point? It's not like there's any risk that has been approved definitely, that you could be carving a lot of concern among people who may not have any reason to be concerned?

Dr. WARTENBERG: Well, I'm a public health scientist, a public health researcher. As such, I try and look at ways of preventing disease, and this is just another way of trying to do that. I think one tries to keep it in balance, as you're saying, so we don't frighten people unnecessarily. But in this case, they're relatively simple things people can do and still use their cell phones. So I don't think that's alarmist.

BLOCK: I wonder, in your field of environmental epidemiology, when you think about potential risks and things we can do to minimize risk, you could probably stay up all night thinking of things that one could do without and be safer. How do you narrow it down to things that actually make sense?

Dr. WARTENBERG: That's a tough question. And I think different people make the decision in different ways. I think we try and - at least I try and look at things were I think there is a potential risk. I think I'm more concerned about children as it can affect a larger part of their life. And I look at remedies that we might be able to suggest that are relatively easy to do, so that they're palatable and people actually might take the advice as opposed to saying something like, we should ban cell phones. That's not just going to happen.

BLOCK: Dan Wartenberg, thanks so much for talking with us.

Dr. WARTENBERG: Thank you.

BLOCK: Dan Wartenberg is head of the division of environmental epidemiology at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey.

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