Cell phones and cancer: Is it all talk?

Michael Morton

Sandra Guzman's already-present tendency to send a text message rather than call was reinforced recently after the director of a prominent cancer institute warned his staff that cell phone use could cause brain tumors.

"It does give out radiation, so I think it might do it," Guzman, a Framingham resident, said of the suspected link. "(But) that's for people that are always, always on the phone."

Guzman said she had read news reports about a memo that Dr. Ronald Herberman sent to staff at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, a move likely to bring new attention to a long-debated and still unproven theory.

Citing as-yet-unpublished data and the perceived threat of electromagnetic radiation, Herberman advised employees to keep their cell phones away from their heads and to use speaker phones or separate headsets. He also cautioned against letting children use cell phones because their brains are not fully developed.

At the Weston office of the American Cancer Society yesterday, regional spokeswoman Jessica Saporetti said the connection between cell phones and brain cancer has not been definitively proven either way, with several studies expected to be released over the next several years.

"At this point, there is no conclusive information to prove that cell phone usage leads to brain cancer," she said. Still, given the ubiquity of cell phones, Saporetti said she understood why news of the memo might grab people's attention.

"I think it's reasonable for people to be concerned," she said. While the American Cancer Society has not issued an advisory on cell phones, Saporetti pointed out that newer, digital models emit less radiation than older, analog versions.

At MetroWest Medical Center, Dr. Kala Seetharaman noted that the public was already speculating about the cause of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy's brain cancer and said the Pittsburgh memo would likely lead to more cell phone queries from patients and more requests for brain scans.

"We will be getting more questions," said Seetharaman, the director of medical oncology at the hospital's cancer center. "People will be more cautious and concerned about cell phone use."

Assessing the suspected cancer link, Seetharaman cited two studies released last year: one from Israel that showed an association between prolonged cell phone use and salivary gland tumors and one from Sweden that showed an association between heavy cell phone use for 10 years and two types of central nervous system tumors.

But, Seetharaman cautioned, the results did not demonstrate a direct causal relationship. As such, she and her colleagues decided not to start warning patients.

"We felt at the time the data was not adequate," she said.

Still, Seetharaman said she encourages patients to be cautious, perhaps by using a headset or speakerphone when possible and limiting children's cell phone use. She said she would likely follow suit following the Pittsburgh memo.

"When I heard this, I asked myself, 'What am I going to do?' And I have a teenager."

At Natick Collection yesterday, a brief survey revealed extensive use of headsets and speaker phones already, though for reasons of convenience rather than health.

Framingham State College student Brendan Harper seemed to summarize the views of the younger crowd when he asked, "Why change my habits for something that's not even proven yet?"

But for Guzman, she said she would rely on her headset more when she does make her occasional call.

"I'll try to use it more, I guess," she said. "As you get older, you tend to pay more attention to those kinds of things."

Michael Morton can be reached at or 508-626-4338.