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Off Target in the War on Cancer
In fact, our growing dependence on many unstudied modern conveniences makes us the subjects of vast, uncontrolled experiments to which none of us ever consents. Consider cellphones, whose long-term health consequences could prove disastrous. Experimental findings show that cellphone radiation damages living cells and can penetrate the skull. Widely publicized research on cellphone use in the early 1990s indicates that the phones are safe, but those studies did not include any children and excluded all business users. While exposure levels are much lower on newer phones, the effects of gadgets that have increasingly become part of our children's lives remain unstudied.
That's unwise. Recent reports from Sweden and France, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reveal that adults who have used cellphones for 10 years or more have twice as much brain cancer on the side of their heads most frequently exposed to the phone. The Swiss and Chinese governments have set official exposure limits for cellphone microwave emissions that are 500 times lower than those the United States mandates. In Bangalore, India, it is illegal to sell a cellphone to a child younger than 16. As a basic precaution, people should use the phones with earpieces or speakers, and young children should not use them at all -- consistent with warnings recently issued by the German and British governments. Because brain cancer can take 10 years or longer to develop, national statistics cannot be expected to show the health impact of today's skyrocketing cellphone use. But we shouldn't wait for the cases to roll in before acting.
True, there are many uncertainties about environmental cancer hazards. But these doubts should not be confused with proof that environmental factors are harmless. The confusion arises for three different reasons. First, studying the ways that our surroundings affect our cancers is genuinely hard. Second, public and private funding levels for research and control of environmental cancer are scandalously low. Finally, those who profit from the continued use of some risky technologies have devised well-financed efforts to sow doubt about many modern hazards, taking their cue from the machinations of the tobacco industry. The best crafted public relations campaigns masquerade as independent scientific information from unimpeachable authorities.
No matter how much our efforts to treat cancer may advance, the best way to reduce cancer's toll is to keep people from getting it. We need to join the rest of the industrialized world by issuing a national ban on asbestos and forbidding smoking in the workplace and other public spaces. We must reduce the hazards faced by those working to build our homes, transport our goods and make the products we consume. We should restrict CT scans of children to medical emergencies, limit the use of diagnostic radiation in general, ban young children from using cellphones and keep the rest of us from using tanning beds. And we must recognize that pollutants do not need passports. Controlling cancer, like controlling global warming, can take place only on an international scale. We can -- and must -- do better.
Devra Davis, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, directs the Center for Environmental Oncology. Her most recent book is "The Secret History
of the War on Cancer."