Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the acclaimed The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, asks do cellphones cause brain cancer? Mukherjee does a good job laying out different research designs–experimental, epidemiological, retrospective and prospective case-control studies–and their potential confounds. The best extant studies find little, no, or even a small beneficial effect, and thus Mukherjee concludes that as of now the evidence remains “far from convincing.”
What he doesn’t do, however, is put the risk of cell phone use and brain cancer in context; that’s a real failing because the fact of the matter is that cell phones do cause brain damage. Cell phones cause brain (and body) damage when people use them while driving. Cell phones distract, whether we measure in the lab or on the road, and they distract enough to make cell phone use not all that different from driving under the influence of alcohol (at the illegal level). In marked contrast to the studies on cell phones and brain cancer the studies on cell phones and driving are broadly consistent and suggestive of a small but significant increase in death (your own and that of others). Here’s a review:
In sum, there is a growing body of evidence, including methodologically sound studies of crash risks, that drivers’ cell phone use substantially increases crash risk. Crash risk increases for men and women, young and old, and for hands-free as well as hand-held phones.
Thus, if you want to avoid brain damage from using a cell phone, wear a seat belt. Or better yet, don’t talk and drive. Of course, that is a message people don’t want to hear which is why we focus on brain cancer and turning cell phones off in airplanes.