Amy Gehrt: Cellphone warning falls on deaf ears

Amy Gehrt

Cellphones may cause cancer, according to a respected international panel of scientists, but their warning seems to be experiencing a disconnect with the public.

After reviewing dozens of published studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer — an arm of the World Health Organization — determined that cellphones might raise the risk of brain cancer, and the agency put the popular communication device on its list of possible carcinogens that also includes lead, the pesticide DDT, gasoline engine exhaust and chloroform.

Like millions of others, hearing the news gave me brief pause. After all, half-a-century ago the connection between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer was the subject of similar debate.

Other experts were quick to weigh in on the IARC’s warning about cellphones and cancer, with some medical researchers dismissing the idea as an “urban myth.” However, many took a more cautious approach, saying the data so far is inconclusive and further study is needed.

The cellphone industry also jumped into the fray, pointing out the cellphone classification appears on the lowest of the IARC’s carcinogenic classes and received the same score as both coffee and pickled vegetables.  

Until more is definitively known, there was one tip many offered to the estimated 5 billion cellphone users — three-quarters of the world’s population — to protect themselves: use a headset. Headsets, even wireless Bluetooth devices, reduce radiation exposure, and the radio signals they emit are far weaker than those from cellphones.

That might not be such an easy switch, though. The once-popular hands-free devices have seen sales dwindle in recent years. Chris Schreiner, an analyst with research firm Strategy Analytics, says fashion is the driving factor in the decline, but for me, functionality is the main sticking point.

I am fairly style-conscious, but when I bought a Bluetooth wireless device several years ago having the small gadget in my ear didn’t bother me. It didn’t mess up my hair, or require me to remove an earring to chat comfortably. And anyone who happened to see my Bluetooth would know I was actually talking to someone, rather than just rambling to myself.

It also allowed me to get stuff done around the house during my marathon catch-up sessions with friends and, best of all, helped me avoid the neck pain that always accompanies long phone conversations. The only problem was that the people on the other end couldn’t actually hear me. Friends and family who had Bluetooths also reported similar problems, regardless of the brand, so I resignedly put the device in a drawer and left it there.

Unless the technology has improved substantially since then, which does not seem to be the case (based on Google searches and my own recent experiences), I can’t imagine too many people will see that as a viable option — I certainly don’t.

Giving up my cellphone or drastically reducing my usage is not an idea I am ready to entertain, either, based on such a tenuous link. Like a number of my fellow cash-strapped Americans, I labeled my landline a needless expense years ago and opted for the cellphone-only route. So changing my habits now likely wouldn’t make much difference, anyway.

I have also come to realize one can’t ever hope to avoid every possible carcinogen in life, so there is no point in driving myself crazy with worry about something that may or may not happen. Journalists are taught to deal in facts, and there simply isn’t enough hard evidence to draw a definitive link between cellphones and cancer right now. There are plenty of known carcinogens, however, so perhaps we’d all be better off focusing on avoiding or limiting our exposure to those until the experts conduct the research needed to give us “just the facts.”

Amy Gehrt may be reached at agehrt@pekin?