Beam Me Up, Scotty—Or is That Too Dangerous?

Dear Readers: A few weeks ago I devoted a column to the issue of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) generated by cell phones and other electronic devices that many people worry are causing an increase in a variety of cancers as well as a host of other health risks. That column generated a huge response from readers. Some of you were thrilled to see your fears validated in print. Many others, though, took issue with the claims of the two book authors I’d quoted. Being a big believer in intellectual honesty, I decided to dig a little deeper into the “other side” of the story. Here’s what I found:

A number of studies—including ones done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), several European countries, and the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancers—have found no correlation between cell phone use and increased incidence of cancers. A study by the Cancer Institute (which is a part of NIH) found “no increase in the age-adjusted incidence of brain and other nervous system cancers between 1987 and 2007, despite the dramatic increase in the use of cell phones.” Earlier studies found no difference in brain tumor risk between people who used cell phones and those who didn’t. And the risk didn’t change with increased usage (number of minutes per day, years of use, etc.). There’s also plenty of research that indicates that fears about power lines, wi-fi, and big-screen TVs are completely unfounded.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for a civil debate on the issue. Those who claim that EMFs are a problem are sometimes incredibly shrill in presenting their case. And their claims that research showing EMF-related health risks is being censored and that researchers who have identified those health risks are being fired for taking politically incorrect positions, make them sound a bit wacky.

On the other hand, people on the EMFs-are-harmless side can be just as shrill. And their knee-jerk dismissing of any opposing views, and nasty personal insults makes it hard to take them completely seriously. Personally, I take statements like, “100 percent of legitimate researchers have found….” with a huge grain of salt.

Having 100 percent agreement on any topic is, in my view, a big red flag. We need scientific debate (a polite exchange of ideas would be nice, but that may be too much to hope for). If researchers had been content to go with the prevailing views of tobacco in the 1969s, we’d still have doctors recommending that their patients smoke. And if no one had looked into trans fats, people everywhere would still be looking at “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” as a healthy alternative to butter and lard (after all, if it has vegetables in it, how bad could it be?).

So who’s right? Well, as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out. If you look hard enough, you can always find a piece of research that will support just about any position you could ever want to take on anything. (As Mark Twain reportedly wrote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”)

That said, I strongly recommend that you do some research of your own—before you chuck your cell phone out a window or install a high-voltage tower in your back yard. Look for reputable sources from organizations you trust. And wherever possible, try to get ahold of the actual research. The headlines you read on line or in print, and the nightly news teasers rarely the whole story.