SHIFT: What if cellphones cause cancer?

The concern that there may be a connection between cellphones and cancer has been around for years — the first lawsuits that tried to make the connection were filed in the mid-1990s. There are many studies out there that have found no correlation between the two, and some more recent ones that have.

Additionally, many people criticize the studies that let cellphones off the hook, as it were, arguing that the technology has just not been around long enough for us to know for sure either way. After all, we don't expect people who have smoked for only a few years to have developed lung cancer. Yet.

I'm not here to argue that cellphones cause cancer. I have no evidence to contribute, just an ardent hope that scientists will continue to study the subject rigorously. Instead, I want to ask the question that I haven't seen addressed anywhere else: What if cellphones do indeed put us at risk for cancer? What if some years from now it's shown that using a cellphone for 35 years doubles, triples or quadruples your risk for brain cancer (or cancer of the salivary gland, perhaps)? If the results were concrete, but the government didn't intervene, would you stop using your cellphone? Could we live without mobile phones and, even given some risk, would we want to? Is it possible to go back to landlines, or are cellphones so important now (already!) to our quality of life that we'd be willing to take enormous risks to continue to use them? Click Continue to follow my thought experiment through to a few troubling conclusions.

We Don't Know — Really
On technology websites, where the bent is usually pro-product (iPhone!), critics can get especially harsh when anyone mentions the word "cancer." But even our government, which is under pressure from an enormous pro-cellphone industry lobby, maintains that not enough is known to debunk the connection. Here's what the National Cancer Institute has to say on the subject of the possible cellphone/cancer connection:

"Brain tumors develop over many years. Scientists have been unable to follow cellular-telephone users consistently for the amount of time it might take for a brain tumor to develop. Although research has not consistently demonstrated a link between cellular telephone use and cancer, scientists still caution that more research needs to be done before conclusions can be drawn."

The FDA has not gone so far as to make any recommendations about your cellphone use, though it does note that if it's something you're concerned about, you might want to keep conversations short and get an earpiece. Other governments have gone further: in 2000 the British government recommended that parents limit their children's cellphone use.

But What If We Did?
As with everything, if cellphones carried with them an increased risk for cancer, it would be along a spectrum of risk. At its most extreme, we might discover that everyone who uses a cellphone heavily for more than X years will die. Period. In that case, cellphones would be outlawed.

But few things in life are shown to have that sort of correlation with death — some people even survive long-term heroin use, which is illegal, never mind risks that the government allows us to take (or can't regulate) like drinking, sun exposure, obesity, smoking, motorcycle driving and unprotected sex with strangers. Given our government's current attitude towards science (it can't even agree about global warming or evolution), it's unlikely that even a slew of fairly convincing studies would persuade the government to rip phones away from our at-risk skulls. The onus would be on us to make a decision about whether the risk of giving up our landlines for the convenience of cellphones (as I have) is worth taking.

Yes, more studies would probably make us upset, but upset enough to hand in our BlackBerries, Treos, RAZRs and iPhones? I wouldn't bet on it, though perhaps soon cellphones, like cigarettes, will be for the 18+ crowd only — those old enough to know what risk-taking is.

If there were a known risk, I would probably still keep my phone. Is it my inability to think in the long term, or have I just let go of any organizational skills that would make it possible for me to function without a cellphone? Probably the latter. I find this knowledge upsetting, but if it were shown that cellphones increased your risk for brain cancer by five times (instead of, say, doubling a risk for something that's already very rare), I might just be able to get an address book and landline up and running again.

Headsets: Not a Panacea
My editor encouraged me to say that one easy way to solve the whole cellphone/cancer problem — should it exist — would be for everyone to use a headset. Since Bluetooth technology may pose risks similar to those present in cellphones, the headsets that would help you sleep best at night would be of the kind that attaches to your phone via a long, dorky wire. Those wires would be helpful, and might help to stave off a move from society away from mobile and back to landline technology.

But let's say that cellphones were shown to triple your risk of brain cancer. Would you really want to carry one around in your pants pocket, even with a headset attached? In addition to worrying about problems with your brain, you might have to worry about the phone's effect on your sperm count. If something is shown to cause cancer in your head, it no longer becomes quite as fun to carry around in your pocket, or as convenient to give to your children.

Cellphones: Force of Good
When we think of cellphones in society, it's easy to just think of the negatives — loud chiming in movie theaters, overhearing inappropriate conversations in buses, the new tendency of our friends avoid making plans until the very last minute (and when they do, not to bother to look up directions until they're on their way) and mobile phone-related car crashes. But if cellphones were just a nuisance, they wouldn't be as popular as they are.

Even if it’s eventually shown that the phones clearly increase our risk for cancer, there are some strong arguments to keep them around. In emergencies, they're invaluable. If a car hits you, strangers with cellphones can call an ambulance immediately. Assuming that you're knocked out but your phone has survived, they can also contact your family for you. Even given a proven risk, it would be tempting to continue using a cellphone since though it may kill you slowly; it's the easiest way for you to contact 911. But unless you had one of those phones with a very cheap plan that can only call 911, it would always be tempting to use the "emergency" phone for less-than-critical calls.

What Would It Take to Make You Change?
What about you? Do you avoid holding a phone up to your ear, like these prominent neurosurgeons do? How much proven risk would push you to give up your cellphone entirely? What if instead of doubling your chance for cancer, the phone only increased it by 20%? Is that an acceptable risk? Or in that case would you expect to die from lung cancer or in a car crash long before other health problems kick in? All this writing has convinced me to go out and find a headset good enough that I might actually use it. And to up the amount of texts I can send a month. Not that there's necessarily a good reason to do either. That I know about. Yet.