Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cell Phones & Cancer

This is an extremely important news story, and it deserves further attention. For your own sake, please not only read the article, but click on the link that can help you determine how much radiation your cell phone emits.

My friend Jake Yeston had a very interesting observation about this article, and I thought it worthy of being posted in its entirety here:

"I think this story is much more alarmist than necessary. This is one of those issues that tends to get blown out of proportion because the technology is comparatively new, so it's clearly the case that we won't know for 10 years what the effect of using it for 10 years is if it was roughly speaking just invented. But the point is that the researchers are on the case, and so far are relatively unconcerned.

It's important when you think about epidemiological cancer studies to consider 2 things:

1) The media has a frustrating tendency to report relative risks in a way that completely masks absolute risk. So let's say they do a study of 1000 people, and 10 of them get cancer. Of those 10, let's say 6 used cell phones and 4 didn't. That means there's still only around a 1% chance of getting the cancer. But what the story will say is something like "Cell phones make it 50% more likely to get cancer." That's technically an accurate statement, because 6 is 50 % bigger than 4, but a lot of people think "Yikes! If I use a cell phone I have a 1 in 2 chance of getting cancer!" which is not what the study says at all.

2) Cancer risks tend to be scarier precisely because they're so unpredictable. Riding in a car is far more dangerous than using a cell phone will ever be. But when you ride in a car, you know that once you're out of the car, you're safe. When you use a cell phone, you have that nagging question of whether it will have some consequence many years down the road. This may or may not be a useful distinction in terms of emotional well-being, but again, it greatly distorts the absolute risks involved. If we wanted to keep people safer, we'd do much better to rigorously enforce speed limits than to ban cell phones.

There's nothing wrong per se with the research they're doing, and I'm all in favor of having them keep doing it (though another thing I'd prefer is if they didn't use words like radiation that make people think of nuclear bombs when what they're really talking about is the same stuff that hits your car antenna to let you listen to the radio). But I think it's important to keep things in perspective. Like the saccharine in diet coke, chances are if you're on the cell phone long enough for this to be a serious threat, there are other problems with time budgeting worth considering. And again, opting to text instead of talking to avoid a small risk of future cancer is awfully short-sighted if it causes you to absent-mindedly walk out into traffic.

Just my point of view."

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