Normally I try to come up with some kind of pithy title for my posts, often including a pun or a lot of swear words because I’m pissed off about whatever it is that’s happening. Not today. And why, you ask? Because today I am sad.
I am sad because the World Health Organization has declared that CELL PHONES DEFINITELY CAUSE CANCER AND YOU WILL ALMOST CERTAINLY DIE A SWIFT AND IRREVERSIBLE DEATH (which I’m pretty sure is the only kind). Or so you’d think from the way this story has spread. And dear god has it spread. Google News has 43,400 results for “WHO cell phone” in the last week alone, most of them sensationalized at least a little. I am going to explain this very clearly, and with real science, and with sources and links and so on, and if you want people to know what’s actually happening then you can spread it around. If not, move along.
I want to say that I’ve already covered this before. I wrote a post on August 24 of last year entitled “Something Else You’re Probably Wrong About” in which I explained exactly how the physics of cell phone radiation works and why they’re not dangerous and so on. The link for that post is
If you want to know about the science, read that. If you read this and make some ignorant comment on the science that is already addressed in that post, so help me I will backtrace you into oblivion. This one is not about the physics. I did that. This post is about several things, mostly how the story you keep hearing—unless you try really hard to find the origins of your scientific stories—is being grossly misrepresented to imply something that is not true. Moving on.
1. THE PRESS RELEASE
First, let’s look at what the WHO actually said. This is taken directly from their press release, found here. What they actually said was this:
The WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.
Now, the part that people keep quoting is the “possibly carcinogenic” part, and it’s true that that sounds scary. But let’s examine it further. I feel I should issue a warning here. I’m now doing more research than any of the professional, eight-figure-budgeted news outlets I found seem to have done. This is called journalism [jur-nl-iz-uhm], and it is a strange and frightening concept. Hang in there.
What the WHO press release says in the “results” section (probably the section people should have looked at) is the following:
The evidence was reviewed critically, and overall evaluated as being limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers.
The reason I put those two words in italics is that there are formal definitions for those things in the same press release, defined thusly.
‘Limited evidence of carcinogenicity’: A positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer for which a causal interpretation is considered by the Working Group to be credible, but chance, bias or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence.
‘Inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity’: The available studies are of insufficient quality, consistency or statistical power to permit a conclusion regarding the presence or absence of a causal association between exposure and cancer, or no data on cancer in humans are available.
Now I know this has been a fairly complicated series of nested explanations, but if you read back through it, what you’ll eventually piece together is that the most extreme explanation you could conceivably muster for “possible carcinogen” is basically “We found something in the numbers that could plausibly be a genuine causal relationship, but could just as easily be a statistical anomaly.”
2. OTHER CANCER-Y THINGS
The next thing to address is what Group 2B means. If you’ve already forgotten where “Group 2B” came from and are wondering what I’m talking about, congratulations. You’re a part of the problem. The more astute among you will recall that the press release said “possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B),” at which point you should have immediately wondered what that means. Here’s how the classification works for carcinogenic chemicals.
Group 1: carcinogenic to humans. This category contains stuff like asbestos, plutonium, and UV radiation. Interestingly, it also contains stuff like alcoholic beverages and wood dust, but most of the stuff in this category is stuff you wouldn’t put in your mouth even if you hadn’t seen this list.
Group 2A: probably carcinogenic to humans. Some sample items in this category include creosote tar and literally nothing else you’ve ever heard of unless you’re a chemistry major, and maybe not even then.
If you want to look up what each of those things are, go for it. The information’s available, and just because you can’t pronounce it doesn’t mean it’s dangerous necessarily.
Group 2B: possibly carcinogenic to humans. This is the category we’re dealing with, and I’ll address it in more detail in a second.
Group 3: not classifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans. This list has over 500 items, and that’s just stuff they’ve tested. It includes stuff like fluorescent lighting, magnetic fields, penicillin, baby powder, and tea. Basically it’s a list of really uninteresting things.
Group 4: probably not carcinogenic to humans. I can’t link to that because there’s no list, and by that I mean that there’s only one thing that’s ever been ruled Group 4. It’s called caprolactam, and it’s used to make nylon. It also happens to be only slightly less toxic than arsenic, so don’t go sprinkling it on your baked potato or anything. But that brings me to my next point.
Everyone’s been saying that Group 2B means that cell phones are in the same category as lead and gasoline, and that’s true. They’re on the list if you care to find them. That freaks people out, because we know that gasoline and lead are bad and apparently people are making the mental connection that using your cell phone is as dangerous as drinking gasoline.
Take a step back. You’ve heard the phrase “lead poisoning,” right? That’s because that’s what lead does. It poisons you. It does not give you cancer. Specifically, lead inhibits porphobilinogen synthase and ferrochelatase, preventing both porphobilinogen formation and the incorporation of iron into protoporphyrin IX, the final step in heme synthesis. I don’t have a fucking clue what that means either, I got it off Wikipedia. But just as ethanol (drinking alcohol) is carcinogenic (group A, in fact), that is not the biggest threat from alcohol. Alcohol is a toxin. It’s toxic enough that were I to take shots of Everclear, I’d cross the line from “probably going to live” to “probably going to die” in only 17 shots. At that point, cancer is not high on my list of concerns.
The same goes for gasoline. Gasoline is not a good choice of beverages not because it’s a carcinogen, but because the fumes will melt your brain cells and the chemicals will literally dissolve your digestive system. Sure it’s a carcinogen, but not an especially dangerous one, and the same goes for the other scary examples that have been brought up. DDT is a toxin. Carbon black is a lung irritant. Uramustine, ironically, is actually a chemotherapy drug. You know, to fix cancer.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that this is journalistic cherry-picking. You may think they just picked two examples of stuff people will understand, rather than the weird chemicals. Wrong. They picked the ones that sound dangerous, because they want to scare you. We as a society like to be scared, not in the sense that we like scary movies but in the sense that we like to think we’re in the loop on some hidden danger that a massive corporation wants to hide. How many times have you heard an ad that offers to tell you “the [whatever] that [whoever] DOESN’T WANT YOU TO KNOW”? The answer is all of the goddamn times. And why? Because you instinctively bristle when you think you’ve been lied to, and thus instinctively trust the whistle-blower. You know what they could have put on the screen after “same category as”? Nickel. The stuff in nickels. Chloroform, which actual trained doctors put in your face on purpose, sometimes even in a surgical setting. I even clicked four random chemicals I’d never heard of and got artificial vanilla flavoring, another chemo drug, an active ingredient in anti-fungal pills, and a PMS pill. Also coffee, which I believe is used to make coffee-based beverages, and also pickles. Pickles are basically the least exciting thing in the universe. What I’m trying to say to you is that news outlets intentionally picked the scariest-sounding things on that list, rather than did I mention that cell phones are less dangerous than pickles because I feel like that’s important.
3. THE GOOD SIDE
In the interest of giving credit where credit’s due, I decided to link you to several organizations that reported this with appropriate background, explanation, and science.
The New York Times did a 5,000-word article about this issue two months ago. In case you don’t remember, that’s long, so buckle on your big boy boots before you read it.
Phil Plait—also known as the Bad Astronomer—did an excellent follow-up to all the other articles he’s written about this. Good layman’s language there if you’re not the science-y type.
Livescience—which you should definitely read more of—explained this all in a handy-dandy FAQ format.
Cancer Research UK did a great write-up as well. It’s worth reading the comments underneath as well, just as further evidence that people will always trust their gut first and Ph.D.-having scientists second.
4. THE FEAR-MONGERS
On the other end of the helpful-moronic scale is CNN’s medical column, which is riddled with misleading horseshit. It actually likens cell phone use to “leaning [one’s] face on a low-powered microwave” as a precursor to their list of “6 tips for minimizing cell phone radiation,” which were apparently thought up by some woman whose sole job is to make people who know actual science (me) want to punch my computer in a fruitless attempt to hurt her stupid face. I’ll just dispatch a few of those real quick.
Get wired: It’s no coincidence that most cell phones come with a wired ear piece.A wired headset will automatically decrease your radiation exposure because the phone is away from the body. Every inch you can get away from the body reduces the amount of radiation you are absorbing.A wired headset may still transmit radiation through the wire – but it is a very low level. If that is a concern, you can buy a ferrite bead for just a few bucks at most electronic stores. It attaches to the wire and it absorbs any radiation traveling through the wire, reducing how much enters your body.
Most phones do not come with wired ear pieces, it will not limit your exposure because you’re still going to put it in your pocket unless you want to hold it at arm’s length like a fucking lunatic, it does not transmit radiation through the wire (I don’t even know how to explain how incorrect that is), and ferrite beads are to shield wires from external magnetic fields, not internal radiation because THAT IS NOT HOW ELECTRICITY WORKS.
Use the speakerphone: Experts say that using the speakerphone function is helpful because you’re keeping the phone away from your brain. Every inch you can get the phone away from your body reduces the radiation. For example, holding out the cell phone by two inches drops the radiation by a factor of four.
Technically this is true, though they pulled that math out of their asses. That doesn’t change the fact that you’re protecting yourself from a danger that doesn’t exist and that people who talk on their speakerphones when they have both hands free are insufferable douchebags.
Don’t wear Bluetooth all the time: Bluetooth wireless earpieces will expose you to some radiation. However, it would be much less radiation than a cell phone. The problem is that most people wear their Bluetooth all the time. And this isn’t a good look on anyone. If you use a Bluetooth device, switch it from ear to ear so you don’t have too much exposure on one side. Just take it out of your ear when you aren’t on the phone.
Well those first two sentences are just a lie, seeing as how Bluetooth has a wavelength of 12 cm and cell phone radiation has a wavelength of 33 cm, making Bluetooth roughly twice as powerful as the phone itself (though still millions of times weaker than, say, the radiation from the heat coming off your face right now). And switching from ear to ear to . . . even out the cancer I guess . . . would be almost precious if it wasn’t such a stupid idea.
And the comments on this post—my god, you have never seen the like. There are hundreds of them if you want a laugh, punctuated by the occasional angry person like me, but the majority are along these lines:
I’m not going to address the rest of their “tips,” but suffice it to say they’re not better. If you really desperately need an explanation, leave a comment. I’ll answer it there.
5. THE FINAL VERDICT
It turns out, actually, that this whole debate is moot (HA, you already read the whole thing). You need examine one number and one number only to settle this. Allow me to explain. Cell phone use in 1980 was essentially zero. Now, there are roughly four billion cell phones in use across the planet, and that number is rising. If there was anything to this concern at all, then, we should have expected to see at least a slight rise in brain cancer rates across the globe. We could then argue about what was causing it and the correlation/causation issue and so on, but I think we can agree that in order to prove that cell phones are causing brain cancer, people have to be actually getting more brain cancer. And they’re not. A study published in January examined brain cancer incidence from 1998-2007 based on cell phone use from 1985-2003, and would you like to see what they found? This is a direct quote, and I made it bold because it’s important.
“Given the widespread use and nearly two decades elapsing since mobile phones were introduced, an association should have produced a noticeable increase in the incidence of brain cancer by now. Trends in rates of newly diagnosed brain cancer cases between 1998 and 2007 were examined. There were no time trends in overall incidence of brain cancers for either gender, or any specific age group.”
Are you getting that? Not only are cell phones not causing an uptick in brain cancer, NOTHING IS. BRAIN CANCER RATES ARE NOT RISING FOR ANY REASON. MORE PEOPLE ARE NOT GETTING BRAIN CANCER. IT IS NOT HAPPENING, AND THEREFORE NOTHING CAN BE CAUSING IT.
CHECK. FUCKING. MATE.