Just before midnight Tuesday on a business trip to Belarus, Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society’s chief medical officer, was on a cellphone beginning his umpteenth media interview of the week.
“Is this about coffee or cellphones?” he asked The Star.
This was about cellphones. Specifically, cellphones and some kinds of cancer, or at least what a recent report warned about a possible link.
Brawley stressed this possible link isn’t known to exist in humans, not even those who press their glowing screens flat to their ears. Understand that the focus here is on rats who were exposed to two years of cellphone-like radio frequencies from their whiskers to their toes.
Reigniting an old debate about the health risks of cellphone use, scientists with the publicly funded National Toxicology Program in late May disclosed that brain tumors developed in 2 to 3 percent of male rats exposed. About 6 percent of male rats getting the highest level or radio waves, rare heart tumors called schwannomas developed.
For reasons unknown, female rats didn’t seem affected by these prolonged doses of radiation, which is just one reason many experts question the findings.
The $25 million study will continue into next year. Researchers opted to release partial results, however, given that 9 out of 10 Americans today use cellphones.
Incidentally, since Brawley brought it up, what is the latest on coffee and cancer?
“I’ve given a half-dozen interviews today on coffee” because of a World Health Organization finding released at midweek, said Brawley. WHO, having reviewed more than 1,000 studies, reversed a 25-year stand that coffee could cause bladder cancer.
The organization now says that java itself isn’t carcinogenic, but piping hot liquids can be.
It’s not the coffee that causes cancer, Brawley explained: “It’s the temperature of the brew.”
The takeaway? What science tells us about everyday habits that may raise cancer risks is ever-evolving and typically riddled with caveats.
Especially when it comes to cellphone radiation.
It’s a real deal, experts acknowledge. But they say that the low-level emissions penetrating a caller’s cheek are nothing compared to the more dangerous radiation coming from the sun.
“Sunshine puts about 10 watts of energy on top of your head while a cellphone to your face delivers two-tenths of a watt,” said Jonathan I. Katz, a professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis.
Consider also that the radioactivity of the sun — and of things like the granite on your kitchen tabletop or cracks in your basement wall — is of a more serious variety than the radio frequencies pulsing around a cellphone.
Heavy doses of so-called “ionizing” radiation will damage DNA and living tissue; a phone’s non-ionizing radiation isn’t supposed to do that.
(Where the line is drawn between the two types of radition isn’t precise, but basically ionizing messes with molecules.)
Such was the understanding, at least, until those lab rats exposed to non-ionizing radiation in the current research developed tumors. Brawley said that finding alone “marks a paradigm shift in our understanding of radiation and cancer risk,” and is worthy of further study.
Brawley said researchers at the National Toxicology Program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, have so far gone “the extra distance to ensure the best science is used.”
The preliminary findings echoed a WHO declaration in 2011 that cellphone radiation was a “possible carcinogen in humans.”
But physicist Katz and Michael Salacz, a neuro-oncologist at the University of Kansas Hospital, are among the dubious.
In an age in which the threat of cellphone cancer could create a global scare, “I think this study got spun a little more than what’s really there,” Salacz said.
Reason 1: Despite cellphones being widely used for about 20 years now, rates of the type of cancer of most concern — malignant gliomas in the brain — have not increased.
Reason 2: The group of rats exposed to non-ionizing radiation on the whole lived longer than a control group of 90 rats that weren’t exposed.
The report doesn’t offer an explanation. “But that would be a reason we should all put cellphones to our heads,” said Katz.
Reason 3: The scientific community is in some agreement that the area of the human body absorbing the most cellphone radiation (besides the hands and fingers) is the side of the face. Yet the rats got a full-body dose, nine hours everyday, meaning their rear ends and chests were exposed in equal measure as their skulls.
Another group unconvinced by the findings appears to be cellphone users themselves, according to random interviews this week in Kansas City.
In town on a vacation, M.J. Archer and her husband toured the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum on rented Segway scooters. They said they’re not that much into their cellphones, nor will they avoid them based on incomplete research.
“They’ve got to prove something,” said Archer, from Nevada. “Just to put something out there that scares people doesn’t help.”
Woyneab Habte, a summer intern working for the Kauffman Foundation, said on a lunch break: “Standing here in the grass can cause cancer.” And science would agree if you’re overexposed to the sun.
One sunny afternoon at the fountains outside Crown Center, 12 round tables were occupied. Cellphones were in use at all 12, including at the table where Isaiah Shobe, 17, sat with his family.
“If cellphones caused cancer, we’d be seeing it already,” said Shobe of Overland Park.
Possibly true or maybe not.
Salacz of the University of Kansas Hospital said cancers likely caused by blasts of ionized radiation — such as the two nuclear bomb strikes on Japan in 1945 and the 1986 Chernobyl power plant disaster in the then-Soviet Ukraine — often took decades to develop.
He said science may not be certain of health threats in cellphone use for another 30 years.
One health risk, however, is already clear. “Distraction,” Salacz said. “Distraction in driving. Distraction in walking.”
Brawley of the American Cancer Society says cellphone users may find comfort because today’s fanciest smartphones emit less radiation than the basic flip-phones of the 1990s.
More efficiency built into mobile devices means less radioactivity. But better technology also means more of us spend longer hours with our phones.
If you’re worried about cellphone radio waves, federal regulators and safety groups suggest all sorts of steps to limit your exposure:
▪ Text instead of talk. Except when driving.
▪ Avoid weak signals. Your phone works harder, emitting more radiation, when the connection is poor.
▪ A little-known federal measure called the “specific absorption rate,” or SAR, allows you to check maximum amounts of radiation that various phone models put out. You can go to a Federal Communications Commission website and type in model numbers, located on the phone’s battery or on the packaging.
While the ratings ensure that mobile devices are within emission compliance, the FCC and other online sites attach an array of caveats and conditions on what SAR values mean. The government advises you not rely on them to comparison shop for phones.
▪ Youngsters are thought to be most susceptible to potential effects of radiation exposure. Limit their time on cellphones and keep devices at a distance from where they sleep.
▪ When you’re talking, tilt the phone away from your head and bring it back to your ear when you’re listening, says the Federal Trade Commission.
▪ Better still, use wired earpieces or put the phone on speaker mode during calls.
Yes, it has been a busy week for Brawley when it comes to media interviews.
“But it’s also been one of my easiest weeks,” he said, “because the solutions here are so simple...
“Use a wired earpiece. And if you drink coffee, just chill it down.”