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Cell phone cancer risks: Can you fear me now?

There's something distinctly uncomfortable about a product that might cause cancer being used, often avidly, by 5 billion people worldwide.

Because if it turned out to be true — dang! — we could be heading for a global spike in brain tumors, especially among a younger generation that grew up with wireless phones glued to their ears since they were teenagers.

That's why this week's report from the World Health Organization is causing another stir, even though the actual vague conclusion of the WHO study put cell phones with stuff like coffee and pickled vegetables that might contain carcinogenic material.

For the cellular phone industry, the WHO study is a royal pain but one that must be handled delicately. Cell phone behemoths like Verizon and AT&T don't want to kill the goose — wireless mobile technology that emits electromagnetic fields — that lays ever bigger golden eggs.

Take my family, whose modest cell phone habits generate nearly $2,500 in annual revenue to our wireless service provider. That bill could go up a lot if we eventually added more smart phones, tablets and other mobile devices and premium layers of services.

All this talk of increased risk of brain cancer possibly linked to pressing a cell phone to the side of your head is, well, just bad for business.

I called Verizon Wireless spokesman Chuck Hamby in Tampa just to get local input on a touchy subject. "It's an industry issue," he said, referring me to the wireless phone industry trade association that debunks the WHO study as nothing new. But, Hamby added, headsets that keep cell phones away from the head have been around for some time. They were recently promoted not to reduce concerns over the threat of cancer but to reduce the risk of driving while talking on cell phones. Using headsets makes sense.

Still, the Verizon Wireless web site devotes an entire page to answering questions about "radio frequency emissions." Cell phone companies know people still worry, despite the lack of conclusive proof: Is this gonna give me (or my kids) cancer?

For nearly 20 years, this newspaper has run stories about the public's worry that using cell phones might lead to cancer. One early story detailed a St. Petersburg man whose wife died of a brain tumor. He sued the maker of the phone, though a brain cancer specialist quoted in that 1993 story said "Poppycock" to the man's concern. And a National Institute of Health study that year found cell phone radiation fell within "national safety" levels.

The issue resurfaces regularly in the news. In 2002, an epidemiologist argued that low-level radiation from cell phones might cause cancer. Until scientists can prove or disprove this, he suggested, users should use headsets to keep a cell phone at least 6 inches away from their heads.

In 2009, a report called "Cellphones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern" was presented by researchers with this message: "Exposure to cell phone radiation is the largest human health experiment ever undertaken, without informed consent, and has some 4 billion (in 2011 that's now 5 billion) participants enrolled."

It won't stop with the new WHO report. A Time magazine story already asks, "If Cell Phones Cause Brain Cancer, What About Laptops?" That, too, is a dang good question.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Cell phone cancer risks: Can you fear me now? 06/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 3, 2011 5:34pm]
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