How Scared Should You Be of Cell Phones?

A couple days ago, the World Health Organization put the heavy use of cell phones on its list of things that can cause cancer. Yesterday, Congressman Ed Markey demanded more research of mobile phones, asking the Government Accountability Office for a “thorough review” of the long-term health risks associated with cell phone use, in all its forms.

Great. A review, thorough or otherwise, is needed at this point: I’ve already been distracted twice by my buzzing phone while trying to write this post. But there are problems worse than cell phones.

The New Republic this morning has a fascinating piece from Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. His basic conclusion is that, yes, cell phones may — with an emphasis on the “may” — pose an increased risk of cancer, but even then it’s a slight one. The math works out to about 0.000008 deaths per user per year. If you figure that the nation has 150 million chronic cell phone users, that’s 1,200 people. No small number of deaths.

But this number is also a far lower total than the deaths posed from other health risks, risks over which politicians like Congressman Markey have a great deal of control. Take it away Professor Pollack:

Right now, efforts to provide basic public health services are being cut at every level of government. Surveys conducted by the National Association of County and City Health Officials indicate that local health departments lost 16,000 jobs in 2009 alone. Congressional Republicans have made several efforts to zero out the Affordable Care Act’s prevention and public health fund. (One aide called this a “slush fund for jungle gyms.”) The budget proposed by House Republicans would cut discretionary programs to prevent or diagnose diabetes and cancer, reduce the spread of blood-borne and sexually transmitted infections, provide basic reproductive health services, and treat substance use and mental health disorders. Many in Congress would also curb regulation of particulate pollution and other efforts to address environmental health concerns. Then, there is tobacco control. The ACA requires all states to provide smoking cessation services to all pregnant Medicaid recipients, yet the law does not require states to provide the same benefits to other Medicaid recipients, one-third of whom are cigarette smokers. What’s more, state smoking cessation phone lines are highly cost-effective, but these services face significant challenges due to the state and local budget crisis.

In other words, I remain much more concerned about myriad public health risks than I about whether my Verizon guy sold me a carcinogen.

Last year in Harper’s, Nathanial Rich published a damning but still even-handed portrait of the risks posed by heavy cell phone use. It is well worth a read if you wonder what the various academic and governmental studies say on the topic. But Rich reached a similar conclusion to Pollack. Here’s Rich:

Brain cancer is one of the rarest forms of cancer. Sage’s worst-case- scenario figures may be terrifying, but they lose some of their impact when considered alongside all the other things we do every day to hasten our own deaths. One’s odds of developing a brain tumor are about 1 in 165. By comparison, prostate cancer afflicts 1 in 6 men; breast cancer, 1 in 8 women; 1 out of 85 people dies in a car crash. A person would still be more likely to die from the common flu (1 in 63), and almost as likely to be murdered. And considering the technology’s prodigious benefits — not just for iPhone users in the States but also for people in the developing world, many of whose cell phones serve as their only link to health care, banks, even education — does the risk really outweigh the reward?

Despite all the evidence, and maybe because of it, Rich has a hard time answering that question. Cell phones may increase the likelihood of people dying. But so do a lot of other things.