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Soumyadip Choudhury
Thursday , June 02, 2011 at 16 : 40

If cellphones can cause cancer, so can pickles


If mobile phones can cause cancer so can pickles, talcum powder and coffee.

There was a time before the advent of satellite television and the Internet, when "heard it on BBC" was the ultimate stamp of authenticity for a news item in India. And in today's era of information overdose and associated abuse, there are some organisations that, in the minds of the general public, have that aura of authenticity. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is one such organisation.

When the WHO comes up with a report that associates cancer to mobile phone usage, there is bound to be worldwide excitement. And for good reason. There is an estimated five billion mobile phone connections around the world. If mobile phones do indeed cause cancer, it is something to be actually worried about.

There have been a plethora of research reports, some stating that mobile phone usage causes cancer, and others concluding in the contrary. One would have expected that a report from an organisation of the stature of the WHO, will for once and for all, provide an answer to this vexing question. But the fact is that the WHO report is also inconclusive. What the WHO/International Agency for Research (IARC) on Cancer says is radiofrequency electromagnetic fields are "possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use."

The world "possibly" can go either way. It is like the classic example of the half-filled glass, you see what you want to see. The media has already blown up this issue, complete with the dos and don'ts of mobile phone usage (you can find a few towards the end of this post too). They "may" or "could" in the headlines get overlooked and the fear spreads. Fear is not a good emotion to have, but it is a good emotion to milk.

Mobile phone manufacturers and industry bodies have taken umbrage to the WHO report. This is expected, they need to defend their turf. Others are trying to make the best of the confusion. Bluetooth, the wireless technology used to transfer data over short distances and almost a standard in all mid and high-end mobile phones, is now touting itself as a cancer-free option. "Bluetooth wireless headsets offer a safer solution. Why not err on the side of caution and go blue?" says a post on the official Bluetooth blog.

To put things in the right perspective, we also need to know what other commonly used products are listed under the same Group 2B of the IARC's classification that lists items that are "possibly carcinogenic to humans." Coffee, diesel, petrol, napthalene, dry cleaning, talcum powder and also pickled vegetables (aachar).

The 2B category is used when there is limited (or inadequate) evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient (or less than sufficient evidence) evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. Which essentially means that while it can be concluded that such items can cause cancer in animals used to conduct the experiments, nothing can be conclusively said about the effect on humans.

This isn't the first time that a WHO announcement has stirred a controversy. There were allegations that the organisation had overreacted in declaring a bird flu pandemic in 2009 and that the WHO's action had enriched the pharmaceutical companies.

In case you are overtly concerned about the threat from your phone. A few handy tips from the US-based Environmental Working Group (EWG):

According to EWG, the LG Quantum (C900) is the safest phone to use and the Motorola Bravo (MB520) is the most dangerous. The iPhone 4 is ranked somewhere in the middle. You can consider using a phone with lower radiation levels.

Using a headset and speaker keeps you away from radiation and so does texting instead of calling. This will keep the radiation away from your head.

Use the phone only when you have a strong signal. Weaker signals make phones emit more radiation. Since phones emit radiation when sending messages and not when it is receiving, you can try to talk less and listen more (not sure how practical a solution this is). Stay away from the so-called commercially sold 'radiation shields'. The only reduce the signal strength forcing the phone to emit even more radiation.

While it is always good to be cautious, the mobile phone and cancer connect should still be treated as a hypothesis.


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More about Soumyadip Choudhury

Soumyadip Choudhury aka Somu aka Chaiwallah is an internet addict. His wife and family suspect that he is secretly married to his laptop. The electric shock that he got while trying to fix a neighbour's TV set as a kid, perhaps ignited his interest in everything tech. A do-it-yourself guy, he doesn't believe in hiring electricians, plumbers or carpenters. But often ends paying the professionals more to fix his botched jobs. Somu secretly wishes he knew how to code better and also grumbles a lot. He also tweets a bit as @soumyadip and you can find him on Facebook here.