Last week, three prominent neurosurgeons told the CNN interviewer Larry King that they did not hold cell phones next to their ears. “I think the safe practice,” said Dr. Keith Black, a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, “is to use an earpiece so you keep the microwave antenna away from your brain.”
Dr. Vini Khurana, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the Australian National University who is an outspoken critic of cell phones, said: “I use it on the speaker-phone mode. I do not hold it to my ear.”
And CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon at Emory University Hospital, said that like Black he used an earpiece.
Along with Senator Edward Kennedy’s recent diagnosis of a glioma, a type of tumor that critics have long associated with cell phone use, the doctors’ remarks have helped reignite a long-simmering debate about cell phones and cancer.
That supposed link has been largely dismissed by many experts, including the American Cancer Society. The theory that cell phones cause brain tumors “defies credulity,” said Dr. Eugene Flamm, chairman of neurosurgery at Montefiore Medical Center.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, three large epidemiology studies since 2000 have shown no harmful effects. CTIA (the Wireless Association), the leading industry trade group, said in a statement, “The overwhelming majority of studies that have been published in scientific journals around the globe show that wireless phones do not pose a health risk.”
The FDA notes, however, that the average period of phone use in the studies it cites was about three years, so the research doesn’t answer questions about long-term exposures.
Cell phones emit non-ionizing radiation, waves of energy that are too weak to break chemical bonds or to set off the DNA damage known to cause cancer. There is no known biological mechanism to explain how non-ionizing radiation might lead to cancer.
But researchers who have raised concerns say that just because science can’t explain the mechanism doesn’t mean one does not exist. Concerns have focused on the heat generated by cell phones and the fact that the radio frequencies are absorbed mostly by the head and neck. In recent studies that suggest a risk, the tumors tend to occur on the same side of the head where the patient typically holds the phone.
Like most research on the subject, the studies are observational, showing only an association between cell phone use and cancer, not a causal relationship. The most important of these studies is called Interphone, a vast research effort in 13 countries, including Canada, Israel and several in Europe.
Some of the research suggests a link between cell phone use and three types of tumors: glioma; cancer of the parotid, a salivary gland near the ear; and acoustic neuroma, a tumor that essentially occurs where the ear meets the brain. All these cancers are rare.
Last year, The American Journal of Epidemiology published data from Israel finding a 58 percent higher risk of parotid gland tumors among heavy cell phone users. Also last year, a Swedish analysis of 16 studies in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed a doubling of risk for acoustic neuroma and glioma after 10 years of heavy cell phone use.
Some doctors say the real concern is not older cell phone users, who began using phones as adults, but children who are beginning to use phones today and face a lifetime of exposure.
The fear is that even if the individual risk of using a cell phone is low, with three billion users worldwide, even a minuscule risk would translate into a major public health concern.