PITTSBURGH – The head of a prominent cancer research institute issued an unprecedented warning to his faculty and staff Wednesday: Limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer.
The warning from Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, is contrary to numerous studies that don’t find a link between cancer and cell phone use, and a public lack of worry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Herberman is basing his alarm on early unpublished data. He says it takes too long to get answers from science and he believes people should take action now – especially when it comes to children.
“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 later,” Herberman said.
No other major academic cancer research institutions have sounded such an alarm about cell phone use. But Herberman’s advice is sure to raise concern among many cell phone users and especially parents.
In the memo he sent to about 3,000 faculty and staff Wednesday, he says children should use cell phones only for emergencies because their brains are still developing. Adults should keep the phone away from the head and use the speakerphone or a wireless headset, he says. He even warns against using cell phones in public places like a bus because it exposes others to the phone’s electromagnetic fields.
The issue that concerns some scientists – though nowhere near a consensus – is electromagnetic radiation, especially its possible effects on children. It is not a major topic in conferences of brain specialists.
A 2008 University of Utah analysis looked at nine studies – including some Herberman cites – with thousands of brain tumor patients and concludes “we found no overall increased risk of brain tumors among cellular phone users. The potential elevated risk of brain tumors after long-term cellular phone use awaits confirmation by future studies.”
Studies last year in France and Norway concluded the same thing.
“If there is a risk from these products – and at this point we do not know that there is – it is probably very small,” the Food and Drug Administration says on an agency Web site.
Still, Herberman cites a “growing body of literature linking long-term cell phone use to possible adverse health effects including cancer.”
“Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use,” he wrote.
A driving force behind the memo was Devra Lee Davis, the director of the university’s center for environmental oncology.
“The question is do you want to play Russian roulette with your brain,” she said. “I don’t know that cell phones are dangerous. But I don’t know that they are safe.”
Herberman and Davis point to a massive ongoing research project known as Interphone, involving scientists in 13 nations, mostly in Europe. Results already published in peer-reviewed journals from this project aren’t so alarming, but Herberman is citing work not yet published.
The published research focuses on more than 5,000 cases of brain tumors. The National Research Council in the U.S., which isn’t participating in the Interphone project, reported in January that the brain tumor research had “selection bias.” It relied on people with cancer to remember how often they used cell phones.
The largest published study, which appeared in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2006, tracked 420,000 Danish cell phone users, including thousands that had used the phones for more than 10 years. It found no increased risk of cancer among those using cell phones.