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Cellphones as carcinogenic as coffee

Gentlemen... start your panic

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Comment Tuesday's classification of mobiles as potentially carcinogenic produced some great headlines, despite being based on no additional research or statistical findings and putting phones into the same danger category as coffee.

"Cellphone radiation can cause cancer" read one headline, while "Cellphone, cancer link confirmed" was another. Most news outlets were more circumspect, preferring to plant the seeds of uncertainty with questions such as "Could your cellphone be making you sick?", and "Is your cellphone lethal?" which is like reporting the news only much more exciting.

Especially when the news is quite dull. The World Health Organisation categorises loads of things as "potential carcinogens" including lead, bracken fern, the printing process, and working in a dry cleaners, but we live with all of those things and a whole lot more that are harder to spell (25-page PDF/98.3KB). But more annoying was the fact that the classification doesn't result from any additional data, its just a reaction to what we already know.

The WHO has admitted its reclassification is largely down to the Interphone study, a 10-year analysis which did seem to indicate that using a phone more than 30 minutes a day increased the chances of cancer (on which finding the WHO based its classification). But Interphone also discovered that using a phone for less than 30 minutes a day reduced the incidence of cancer – so the WHO should really be recommending that we all make a few calls daily.

But let's ignore the contradictory evidence for a moment, and take the Interphone study at its worst by assuming everyone gets their chances of head cancer bumped by 40 per cent. Let's furthermore assume that everyone in the UK (including babies and children) spends an hour a day with a phone clamped to their ear: if we make both those assumption then we should see just over a thousand additional deaths from brain cancer annually.

That's to be lamented, but let's be clear: we already kill almost three times that number for the pleasure and productivity of being able to drive our cars around the place. That's not a theoretical risk – in the UK we kill around eight people a day on our roads. That is the level of death we'll accept for the joy of driving, and we have some of the safest roads in the world.

We could no more switch off our mobile networks than we could stop driving cars, and thankfully few people are suggesting either.

People aren't frightened of driving because they (probably erroneously) believe they have some level of control, while poisonous rays from a mobile phone are to be feared. That fear sells newspapers, and just as public fear prompted the Japanese authorities to upgrade the Fukushima reactor to "Level 7" despite no change in the conditions there so the WHO lists cellphones as potentially cancerous despite the lack of empirical evidence.

What's worse is that by doing so the WHO provides fodder for the Campaigners Against Stuff who are delighted to see such an august body apparently endorsing their view. The WHO release was only minutes old when we got a following release from the Council of Europe, who approved their own scaremongering report last week and could hardly conceal their glee:

"The information from the WHO confirms the contents of my report," said the trick-cyclist-entertaining author of the report, despite the fact that the WHO said nothing of the sort; "Awareness-raising campaigns targeting teachers and parents should be implemented rapidly," he continues before falling into a self-congratulatory stupor.

The WHO has just added cellphones to a list that includes coffee and carpentry*, saying that it is possible, perhaps, that heavy use is a contributory factor in cancer rates.

But even if there is a risk from using mobile phones then that risk is vanishingly small – there are many things which will kill you, but your mobile phone won't unless it hits you really hard (most likely to happen, ironically, during a car accident).

So what we have is a risk that almost certainly doesn't exist, and even if it does then it is a small risk – a fine reason to embark on another hugely expensive (25-year!) study of the effects.

There were thousands of yuppies who spent the 1980s with phones clamped to their ears, and hundreds of thousands who do today. When they start dropping dead in significant numbers then it will be time for the rest of us to panic... once we've celebrated the final demise of the yuppie of course. ®

* And joinery, just in case all you joiners thought you were off the hook.

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