Cell Phones and Cancer

CNN, reporting a finding by the World Health Organization:

Radiation from cell phones can possibly cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization. The agency now lists mobile phone use in the same “carcinogenic hazard” category as lead, engine exhaust and chloroform.

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber:

I think it’s quite possible that this issue could be the single greatest long-term threat to Apple. I’d hate to see today’s handset makers turn into yesterday’s tobacco companies.

Gruber has since updated his post, but his initial thought seems to be along the lines of my initial thought: Here come the lawsuits. 

With that said, there really aren’t very many similarities between the tobacco companies then and cell phone manufacturers now, from a legal perspective. I happen to know more about lawsuits against tobacco companies than most — but because I value my job, I won’t be going into any real detail. I think I can get this out without doing so:

The primary similarities are 1) cancer and 2) a period of time in which the scientific community seems to be divided on whether or not a causative factor can be attributed to a specific product. That’s pretty much it.

The primary differences:

  1. There’s no evidence that any cell phone manufacturer, let alone Apple, is outright ignoring the threat. Indeed, the CNN report I’ve linked specifically mentions that Apple recommends against holding an iPhone within 5/8 of an inch from your face while it’s in use. RIM’s user manual includes a similar warning. There goes the “failure to warn” claim.
  2. There’s no real evidence of either a public or private coverup of the risks of using a cell phone. No one is on record denying or even downplaying the risks, as far as I’m aware. Is a private coverup possible? Sure. Given the lack of existing scientific knowledge, though, it can’t be a very compelling coverup. EDIT: There has been some effort from lobbying groups — including Apple, apparently — to avoid having to list absorption rates of radiation from cell phones. The argument seems to be that they already comply with FCC regulations and listing absorption rates would imply health risks that the FCC says do not exist. (These efforts will come up in future lawsuits.) The cell phone industry is also saying that there is no “conclusive evidence” that cell phones cause cancer and that remains true today. The WHO report doesn’t seem to say otherwise.
  3. What aspect of cell phone use is analogous to nicotine in cigarettes? This is a big one. There’s no addiction component, let alone any way to claim that a cell phone manufacturer (Apple or otherwise) tampered with the product to make it next to impossible to give up, even when faced with a cancer risk. Does vendor lock-in count as an addiction? Nah. Bye bye, punitive damages.
  4. Apple provides a headphone/mic combo with every new iPhone, mitigating whatever actual risk there is — if there is any at all — assuming the mic is used. 
  5. There’s no reason Apple or RIM or whoever couldn’t simply innovate the risk away, without harming their bottom line. Even if the risk was undeniable, holding a phone next to your brain certainly isn’t a vital component of a handset, assuming they couldn’t figure out a way to make it “safe” to do so.

And, of course, the update Gruber provides indicates that the scientific evidence still isn’t there to show that cell phone radiation can cause DNA mutation. In fact, there seems to be scientific evidence that it’s not even possible:

All cancers are caused by mutant strands of DNA. Electromagnetic radiation can’t create mutant strands of DNA unless the frequency is at or higher than the blue limit of the visible spectrum the near-ultraviolet. The frequency of cell phone radiation is about 1 million times too low.

That’s not the case with cigarette smoking and hasn’t been for a long time.

Ultimately, the only thing Apple and other cell phone manufacturers should probably do, at this point, is make mention of the WHO report within their safety manuals and perhaps recommend that those with concerns utilize a hands-free headset whenever possible. Addressing the issue rationally is the best bet to head off future litigation.

All of that aside, nothing I’ve said has anything to do with whether or not Plaintiff lawyers are seeing dollar signs. I suspect people with brain cancer and a history of cell phone use will probably be in high demand, very soon. Key piece of evidence? Today’s overly-sensational news headlines.

This report from WHO, though, shouldn’t be compared against the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report, because it’s not anywhere near as strong in its conclusions.

Read the WHO report here.

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  1. brianericford posted this

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