Today we have received the one bit of news I had hoped never to hear. It is the one blog story I most hoped never to have to write. But also, I have promised to be vigilant of the research into cancer and mobile phones, and have promised to be open about any credible research findings that show a link with mobile phone use and cancer.
Today the various press have started to report on the giant Interphone research into whether mobile phone use can cause brain tumors (cancer). The international study in 13 countries over 10 years covered 13,000 people including 5,000 who had one of two types of brain cancer. The study was sponsored by the World Health Organization with partial funding from the mobile telecoms industry. Its very credible major research. The press stories seem bizarrely wild about the findings, where some very major press sources like Reuters say that one of the findings is that prolonged phone use does increase chance of brain cancer, and other equally reputable major press like CNN report on the same study that it found no cause at all and others like the BBC said the findings were 'inconclusive'.
Understand how much the world has changed today. Up to now, all major research into cancer and mobile phones ended very un-ambigiously with 'no evidence of a cause'. This same 10 year old interphone running study of cancer effects which has published some dozen separate findings since 2004 has consistently - up to now - reported no data to support a cause. This time, while there are conflicting findings in the study, the director of the study run by 21 scientists, Dr Elisabeth Cardis of the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona, Spain, said:
"There are indications of a possible increase. We're not sure that it is correct. It could be due to bias, but the indications are sufficiently strong... to be concerned." She was referring to that part of the participants who had used mobile phones for 'very long' on a daily basis.
So my interest? I am a consultant and author on the mobile industry and I have openly advocated increased use of mobile phones and reported on them and various ways mobile phones can be used. I have been one of the most vocal advocates of the mobile industry and have celebrated various services that make money in this business. When a client (or perhaps a random question from the audience after one of my public presentations) has asked me - Tomi, what do you think is the biggest threat to the mobile industry? I have always said, the number 1 biggest threat to the long-term viability of the mobile industry is if any link is found between mobile use and cancer.
My reply has always continued with the comments that - first of all - so far with several dozen international studies on this very topic all around the world - not one has yet found any link between cancer and mobile phone use. And I have always ended my answer saying that I am actively monitoring this space, and should any such research be published, I will be among the first to report it. Today is that sad day, that I do have bad news for our readers. The first international health study has concluded a clear increased risk of brain cancer due to mobile phone use by humans.
Now, I am not a doctor. I also have not read the full study, the Interphone Report by the WHO (I hope to get to read the full text). I have read several press reports (so far over three dozen) with direct quotes from the study. This is my first blog article on this topic and it is only based on those press stories. I will return to this blog if I find that some early press stories were mis-quoted, and then correct this blog. Also, obviously, I may have misunderstood some parts of the story - and will come here to correct any misunderstandings.
MY UNDERSTANDING OF STUDY
This is what I believe is the newsworthy major health finding from the WHO Interphone study. The research across many countries and thousands of brain cancer patients has run for many years, reporting on national and cross-country findings as part of the International Agency for Cancer Research. The interphone study has released previous findings and reports at least since 2004 and so far found no evidence of a link to cancer. But that has changed now. For the first time they have found clear evidence of one link - that those with 'heavy use' of mobile phones daily - will find an increased risk of brain cancer. The threshold for 'heavy use' was 30 minutes of mobile phone calling per day (normal use of mobile phones today is an average of about 10-12 minutes per day). The effects would show after years of such levels of use (according to the study results).
Please do not panic. Remember that there had been some 30 major international studies into mobile phones and cancer, and every previous international study found no link. And the findings in this study according to its authors are not definite, they are inconclusive. So even in the worst case, if there is a true causal effect, that was now for the first time discovered, that is likely to be reasonably 'rare' and one that only shows up after prolonged exposure, and not in everyone. You don't have to stop using your phone today. Lets not over-react. There are several major studies already going on, and we'll find out in the coming months when the next studies report, whether there is any supporting data to verify this first finding.
Also please understand, it is possible - but I am not holding very much hope, but it is certainly possible - that the research was faulty in some ways. The findings are not perfectly clear and some are already disputing the methodology etc. Again, I am not a doctor, and I am not an expert on radiation. But the research data findings have a bizarre and very unusual conclusions as well this time, which does lend credibility to think it may be an error in their methodology - as they found that at the low end of use, the research data does suggest that a little amount of mobile phone use daily decreases the chance of cancer.
This really cannot be. If mobile phone radiation somehow increases cancer risk, then the data should be consistent, a little amount of exposure causes a tiny tiny increase in cancer, then added exposure caused more cancer. It cannot possibly be that 'little amounts of radiation is good for you but only in moderation' haha like with many food products. It has been proven (in vastly greater dosages of radiation than typically exposed to in mobile phone use) that radiation does cause cancer. This strange finding at the low-usage level of this same study gives at least some reason to hope that perhaps the study itself is an anomaly, and follow-up studies come up with the same finding as the approx 30 major international studies so far, that all have found no link with mobile phone use and cancer.
But I am not about to sugar-coat this for you, and I am not going to hide from the facts. The fact is, that for the first time now in May 2010, a major international health study, by a most unbiased and irreproachable source, the World Health Organization, has indeed found a significant link between heavy use of mobile phones and brain cancer. I can hope that future follow-up studies come with opposite results, but am afraid, that there will be more that fit in this pattern. And either way, I will be reporting on them here on the blog and in my upcoming books. I am not an expert on cancer but at least I owe it to my readers to hear what sources have studied the health risks where such risks have been found. And then, I want to use my knowledge of mobile to point out some facts and give some "layman's advice" on how you should consider proceeding (and on how to advise your loved ones, your children etc)
YOUR PHONE IS FAR WORSE THAN THOSE 30 MINUTES
This study was about mobile phone exposure and causes of brain tumors. So it was a study of brain cancer. That means obviously that the cancer has to be inside the head. For that, the study had examined which side of the head the cancer patient held the phone primarily and whether that side was also the side where brain tumors had appeared, etc. With this focus, it made sense, that they measured the 'time' of how long a phone was at the ear, near the brain.
And if we speak on the phone, the phone is as near to the ear as is physically possible. If we use the same phone to surf the web or send an SMS message or select a song from our play list, then we are 'looking' at the phone, holding it in our hand in front of us, not touching our ear/head, and the phone is far away from the head. Generally, the amount of radiation received decreases in the square of the increase in distance. If your phone is twice as far, the amount of radiation is not one half, it is one fourth. Etc. So it is in our interest to keep the phone as much as possible away from areas where cancer has risk of occuring.
So far so good. Now the bad part. We have far more types of cancer than brain tumors. If it really is true, that prolonged exposure to mobile phone radiation increases occurance of cancer in the brain, then very likely that will also be true of most other forms of cancer. Now we get to the problem. For most people they carry the phone upon their body all waking hours. It is in a pocket. In our jeans or the shirt pocket or perhaps hanging on a string around our neck, etc. The phone is very likely always in the same pocket regardless of what clothes we wear. Even if its a ladies' handbag, that is often with the woman or right next to her.
And for those who are not very familiar with the operation of the cellular mobile phone - it may feel like you only use it when you speak on the phone. The natural assumption is that its 'dangerous' only when you talk on it. No, the cellular telecoms network is designed so, that your phone is continuously sending a signal (literally your phone transmits a signal thousands of times per second) - it is emitting a radio contact (ie it transmits radiation) to the antenna of the nearest cellular tower. So even if you never make calls on your phone, it will generate a steady flow of radiation 24 hours a day. I understand (but am not a radio engineer, so this may be faulty and I will correct if I had it wrong) that the amount of radiation from the phone is roughly speaking the same whether you are speaking on the phone, or if there is no active phone call and the phone only maintains a steady connection.
Correction - I have now heard from several radio engineers who tell me that a phone does not transmit as much when it is inidle mode. But it does still send out a signal (ie creates radiation). And also a bit of good news here, modern 3G phones are dramatically more efficienbt, and use far less power than older 2G mobile phones.
I do know that the phone will make attempts to discover a network if the phone is on the edge of radio coverage. And I understand (but am not a radio engineer, blah-blah-blah) that when seeking a network, the phone radio output (its amount of radiation) is greatest. So for example if you are driving a car in poor radio coverage, the phone will emit a lot of power attempting to contact the network - occasionally lose contact - and then try very hard to re-establish contact, time and again. This drains the battery rapidly, and that is due to heavy radio activity (ie more radiation).
Regardless, understand that the mobile phone you now have, whether a brand new Google Nexus One or a six year old well-worn basic Nokia - every second you have it turned on and connected, it will produce radiation. You are exposed 24 hours a day to radiation from your phone, not only the 12 minutes you spend talking on the phone.
SIMPLE ADVICE THAT MAKES SENSE AT THIS POINT
So, up to now, I could honestly say that no study ever had proven a link with phones and cancer. I could convince myself not to 'worry' about cancer and my phones. I have that luxury no more. Now, the rational person will make decisions on the level of risk, but also will monitor if further such evidence appears from future health studies - you can be sure the number of phone-cancer studies will now increase. I would suggest that until perhaps a lot of conclusive research comes in the future to prove that there is no link to cancer, that you consider the following steps in you phone use.
First, consider where you carry your phone(s). The studies of prolonged exposure to various forms of radiation (at far heavier dosages than mobile phones) on rats, etc, have been rather clear to show that cancer effects are increased with repeated or prolonged local application of radiation, and therfore your risks are lessened if the radiation is spread over wider areas of your body. So, where do you regularly carry your phone? If you carry it in your left shirt pocket, consider switching from the left pocket to the right pocket, give the phone location more variance, reduce the amount of radiation to the left breast side of your body (near your heart and lungs). If possible, try to rotate your phone location often to other places, perhaps a pocket in your pants, or if you wear a sports jacket or suit, then move the phone to one of the coat pockets etc. If you wear a pouch for the phone, consider moving the pouch to the other side of your pants/belt. Please consider the most sensitive parts of your body in terms of cancer (heart, sexual organs, brain etc) and try to keep the phone as far from those as possible.
Then consider how you speak on the phone. You probably have a primary 'ear' ie I am right-handed and always tend to use my right ear. Now swap ears, and try to make a habit for the next year to never use your primary ear to answer your phone, always try to start with the 'other ear'.
If you have a hands-free kit, a wired headset or bluetooth wireless headset, try to use that often - it keeps the actual phone further away from your brain. When you do use the hands-free kit, try to keep your phone as far away from your body as is practical - ie if you're a woman and carry a purse, try to keep your phone in the purse as much as possible when you speak. If you are a man with a briefcase, perhaps you can try to keep the phone in the briefcase (especially with bluetooth). If you are sitting at your desk or at home watching TV, then keep the phone at arm's length on the desk etc rather than in your hand for example, and again use the hands-free kit.
(UPDATE - note this following advice may be useless or even counter-productive) If you were thinking of getting some external case for your phone - many iPhone users for example seem to love them - then please do that. Whether leather or plastic or whatever material, there is now more of a barrier to radiation between the phone and your body. If you already have one, but have stopped using it, now's a good time to bring it back to use.
In your pocket if its practical, use some such barriers too - in my case I always have to carry my passport wherever I go, and as I tend to carry my phone in my breast pocket of my suit, I have for years already learned to keep my passport on my 'body side' with the phone on the 'outside' of the pocket. I don't know how much of an added 'radiation barrier' the 42 pages plus heavier covers of a standard EU passport add to my protection but it does add something. It can't hurt.
A totally McGuyver gimmick - that I thought of but have no idea if this really helps at all - I will try to find out from radio engineers - is aluminum foil. I understand (but am not radio engineer blah blah blah) that aluminum foil blocks all cellular frequency signals. If so, then that seems to me to be the logical 'lining' to that part of your phone case which is near your face when you hold the phone at your ear. And in my case of my passport, I will now add a single sheet of aluminum foil to my passport haha - I am sure some passport control people will freak out, but yeah, I have a good story now haha.. But yeah, this is totally McGuyver - so I will also go explore if this gimmick has any chance of blocking radiation and will return to this blog to verify or dismiss that solution.
Any readers - if you have any ideas, please submit in comments.
TWO PHONES, IN BED, 3G LAPTOPS, WIFI
So, then more of Tomi's insights? If you are like increasingly popular among young employed adults - if you carry two phones with you - then of course both phones radiate just as much. Same rules for both phones - try to rotate them to different pockets, etc.
If you are like most people and you use your phone as your alarm and thus have the phone in your bedroom - now's a good reason to move it away from your bed and pillow. I know its a drag to put it on the bedside table, but think - those 8 hours under your pillow are awefully close to your brain - and 30 minutes of contact-level exposure to your head are a cancer risk. That phone in bed with you is potentially very close to your brain too - but far longer exposure. Yes, do move it to the bedside table, that's close enough for late-night messages etc and your alarm clock, but then you won't sleep right on the device.
And then the 3G connection to your laptop. This really hit me. Where do we like to keep our laptop? In our lap. Thats awefully close to some very sensitive body parts in terms of radiation. If you have a 3G data card/modem/dongle and it is turned on/connected - (and you use your laptop) it will radiate even if you are not currently surfing. Many 3G data connections have a flashing light when it is connected (or seeking connection) and that now means cancer risk.. Same rules as the above. If you can, turn off the data card.
And WiFi ? Well, if cellular connection causes a cancer risk, then your WiFi connection is likely in the same class. Better safe than sorry. Keep your WiFi turned off when its not needed, and when you use your laptop (or PSP or iPod Touch or iPad or any kind of smartphone) with WiFi, remember - same precautions as with phones. The problem with WiFi on especially on a laptop is that we often do sit for hours on end doing our surfing etc.
At work, if your job requires you to speak on a cellular mobile phone at length on a daily basis, ie if you're in sales or tech support or whatever kind of job that you regularly clock conversations that run an hour or more, several per day, on your mobile phone - then be extra careful. Get yourself some hands-free kit and use it religiously for work calls.
And obviously, whenever possible, try to use SMS if a text message can deliver the same communication that a voice call would have done. For both you the potential caller, and the person you'd talk with - if a text message is used, both of you will avoid bringing the phone to your ears (heads) and will keep it a good distance from your body when composing or reading the text message. Oh yeah, obviously, if you are one of those who has resisted SMS text messages up to now - now is the real time - today - for you to learn this communication tool - if retired Norwegians can use it, you can use SMS haha.
PLEASE CONSIDER YOUR KIDS
And lastly - up to now I said any press hysteria stories of some weirdo journalist mis-representing some past study (when the actual study in that case said no cause was proven between phones and cancer) obviously had been no cause to change behavior. That changed today. I am changing my behavior now. But even if you don't think you are at risk yourself, please consider very closely how to advise your kids. Its a bit now like cigarettes and alcohol and drugs etc.
If the industry starts to recommend protective cases for phones, get one for each of your kids for their phones and urge your kids to use them. Teach your kids to be cautious with phone radiation. We have only been exposed to mobile phone radiation personally for 10-20 years or so in most cases (first customers in Tokyo Japan have had the maximum prolonged exposure of 31 years). But your kid will live the next 60 years or more with a mobile phone, very likely 50 years of those with two phones and one laptop/netbook/notebook/iPad type of PC as well so they will have 3 radiation devices upon their body most of the time in their lifetime.
And when we started using our phones, we still tried to put most of our telecoms traffic on the fixed landline. So our early telecoms use was not particularly mobile phone-intensive. Kids today don't even know what a fixed landline phone is. Their total cumulative exposure will be easily 100 times more in their lifetimes than we have experienced so far into our bodies. If there is ANY harmful effect of radiation - they will experience it severely much more than we have so far. Its a bit like sun block and skin cancer haha, now that we know about it, we are also wise about sunbathing and the use of sun blockers. I don't mean you should try to tell your kids to stop using a mobile phone - but please do teach them about the risks and how to minimize exposure.
I WILL MONITOR AND REPORT MORE
I will be launching a discussion thread on Forum Oxford about this issue today (there may be one there already). I will seek the opinions of people I trust including doctors and including radio engineers. I invite experts to comment here on this blog to help our readers. I will of course report on any news I find, one way or the other (or most likely both).
But yes, the mobile world changed today. Please do go read articles about the Interphone study by the World Health Organization and please seek articles on 'both sides' of the story and then decide for yourself how seriously you should take this first bit of bad news about our fave gadget and our health. I don't think its any cause for alarm, but I can tell you, today I am revising all my behavior relating to my two phones and my data connections on my other devices including my laptop. On any related news, I will keep you posted.
PS thank you all who submitted comments here, on Twitter, at Forum Oxford and sent private email messages helping me with the details on this blog. I will consider this still a draft document and will return to revise and correct it as per the advice I receive from people I trust.