“This is your brain on cell phone radiation.”

Current Job Listings

Another group of "prominent" doctors and public health researchers have issued the latest warning that cell phone use possibly might increase the chances you get brain cancer.

One of them, Dr. Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, went so far as to write a memo to 3,000 faculty and staff encouraging them to use cell phones less, to keep them as far from their head as possible, and only let children use them in emergencies.

Good luck with that.

So. Legislators and what I would guess are called traffic safety advocates are saying cell phones (or at least the deadly hand-held cell phone) lead to traffic accidents; doctors and public health folks are saying they might lead to brain tumors. Kind of a public policy dilemma here: if you allow phones in cars, users end up dead long before debilitating brain cancer can kill them; but if you ban them in cars, users are exposed to radiation longer, and develop brain cancer.

In the face of such danger, perhaps the responsible solution is to BAN CELL PHONES outright. The precedent is already being established with the bans on trans fat in New York City and Boston. Then there's the move to ban second-hand smoke...outdoors, as ABC's 20/20 correspondent John Stossel enumerated in a story on Nanny State intrusions.

That may be the next step: according to one account Dr. Herberman "warns against using cell phone in public places, like a bus, because it exposes others to the phone's electromagnetic fields." I can see it now: "A subway user was roughed up, verbally abused and his cell phone ground under foot by angry fellow riders when he refused to stop using his cell phone, despite the city's ban on second-hand radiation. ‘Your brains are already fried, what difference does it make," was his comment, according to several witnesses...."

I read three accounts on the newest radiation warning, one in the Washington Post, which ran the lengthy Associated Press story, one by the Baltimore Sun, and one from eSchool News, which rewrote some wire stores.

As is often the case, reading them side by side just adds to the fear, uncertainty and doubt that is the point of such stories, and often of the people featured in them. eSchool News captured this perfectly: the new warning "has rekindled fears about the possible health risks associated with extensive cell-phone use." The "rekindled" is a nice touch: those persistent, banked and smoldering embers of fears flaring up...again!

The eSchool story refers to the possible risks due to "extensive...use" yet when it quotes Dr. Herberman, he uses the term "longterm...use." From what I can see, those are two very different things biologically: one implies bathing your brain in electromagnetic radiation by mashing your cell phone to your ear for hours a day; the other giving your brain a few zaps daily or weekly between now and your retirement.

The ad hoc group which issued the new cell phone radiation warning says that "the most recent studies...show a possible association between certain benign tumors and some brain cancers on the side [of the head where] the device is used."

That's more than enough for Dr. Herberman. "Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn't wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry," he says. (This, by the way, is the basic argument made by advocates of sexual abstinence: don't do it, and you can't get sick or pregnant.)

But my favorite quote is from Devra Lee Davis, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Environmental Oncology, and author of "When Smoke Ran Like Water: tales of environmental deception and the battle against pollution." She's described in one story as "a driving force behind Herberman's memo" and in the other as "the key architect of the warning." We get it: she's a player.

Here it is: "The question is do you want to play Russian roulette with your brain. I don't know that cell phones are dangerous. But I don't know that they are safe."

So keep your calls short, and keep the phone away from your head. I'm not sure that the people most concerned about cell phone dangers will be reassured by this second bit of advice: keeping the phone in your pocket or purse, with a cable or Bluetooth (CAUTION! More radiation!) headset shifts the organs being irradiated from your head to your Naughty Bits.

What neither Davis nor the reporters address is the nature of safety, which cannot be absolute. Are cars safe? Is coffee safe? Are backyard swingsets safe? Is wood-grilled beefsteak safe? Greenpeace charged last year that the Apple iPhone, quite apart from the radiation "danger," was environmentally unsafe

People make decisions about safety based on a range of evaluations and values, that is on what is prudent - what is careful, sensible, based on sound judgement. Russian roulette, one could argue, is the opposite of prudent, but there is not the slightest evidence that pressing a cell phone to your head in any way, even metaphorically, is equivalent to pressing a six-shot revolver, loaded with one bullet, to your head and pulling the trigger.

Instead, Davis and Herberman offer as sensible and sane a principle that is clearly the opposite of both: that the absence of absolute proof of safety means that an activity or object must be treated as absolutely unsafe. People who actually live like that are regarded rightly as paranoid delusional.

I need to stop here: I have an incoming call on my cell phone....

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Now read: Getting grounded in IoT