It was in 1826 when the pure form of nicotine is finally extracted from tobacco. Soon after, scientists conclude that nicotine is a dangerous poison. But it wasn't until June 12, 1957, when Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney declared it the official position of the U.S. Public Health Service that the evidence pointed to a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer.
In between discovering nicotine was dangerous and the Surgeon General's proclamation, the US Army gave out cigarettes to soldiers with their C-rations and doctors would appear, complete with their white coats, in print and TV commercials to advertise the health benefits of smoking.
So after 20 to 30 years of the cellular phone, can we say with certainty that it causes cancer? No more than we can say it does not cause cancer. So despite studies showing both sides of the argument, the official stance of the National Cancer Institute is that "to date there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer."
That hardly settles the matter.
For example, last October, Italy's Supreme Court ruled that a business executive's brain tumor was linked to his heavy use of a mobile phone. It based its ruling on studies by a single group in Sweden, which stand out from the totality of studies on the question.
Even the scientific community is at each other's throats. The Scientist recently ran an opinion piece that attacked the British Medical Journal for publishing a large Danish study that found no association between cell phone use and cancer.
This has spawned a cottage industry of radiation protection devices, like Pong Research, which produces a radiation-reducing case, and Bodywell chip, which makes a chip that you stick on the phone to absorb radiation.
Because the issue has been polarized, there is a good deal of misinformation out there, said Jack Gold, president of J.Gold Associates. "People are taking selected bits and pieces and blowing them up to support their argument," he said.
It doesn't help that many people don't take the time to read both sides and figure it out. That's because this is a technical problem and a techie argument, which is complicated and not a simple, black-and-white problem.
"There are a lot of alarmists out there. In my town there was a vocal group objecting to put a cell tower near a local school. The question I would have asked them is how many of your kids have cell phones? You're holding that right up to your head, which is an order of magnitude worse than towers hundreds of yards away," said Gold.
Unlike smoking, the cell phone radiation argument may prove harder to verify because there is so much radiation in our surroundings. We have microwave machines and Wi-Fi now surrounding us. Is it only cell phone-induced cancer if the tumor is on the right side of your skull near the ear?
Other tests he's seen have been poorly done. In one case, rats were bombarded with radiation and then the exposure was extrapolated out to one-tenth the radiation over 10 times the period of time, which doesn't work for a study of radiation exposure. In another study, it only used 100 candidates. "A lot of these studies are worthless," said Gold.
Lately, scientists are looking at the connection between cell phones and cancer in a different way. They are looking at using the phone to detect cancer. Smartphones have tremendous processing power and a very sharp camera. So why not scan that mole and see if it might be cancerous?
In recent months there have been reports on using smartphones to test for Kaposi's sarcoma, a form of pneumonia usually associated with AIDS, testing lung health, oral cancer screening and ear infections. In many cases, an adapter is snapped on to the phone at the ear piece port.
That kind of future is already here, said Gold. "There are shirts that can detect a heart attack now. The military's been looking at that stuff. It's not that hard to detect a heart attack if you know what you're looking for. It's just they are expensive and not being mass produced," he said. Plus, they would have to survive a trip through the wash.
In ten years, your cell phone is going to be the center of your health care system because of all of the sensors it will have, Gold added. "The phone will use cameras to be another sensor to figure out what's going on with us. Should people be relying on that as the only means to detect health problems? No, it's another tool, but it will help," he said.
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