Cell Phones Giving You Cancer: A History


Each week, Death by Science combs the dark world of science and technology to find out what’s most likely to kill you. Often terrifying, sometimes humbling, our discoveries will make you scratch your noggin until you reach brain. This week, we go back to the ’80s to examine where all this cellphone-cancer hubbub began.

The World Health Organization’s press release Tuesday regarding cell-phone usage and a type of brain cancer provoked a calm, measured response from the American media. By “calm” and “measured,” we mean they didn’t run personalized obituaries for everyone in the country. They came close, though!

Rhetorical headlines of “Do Cellphones Cause Cancer?” were popular, as were proclamations of a new-found “link” between mobile devices and malignant tumors.

The WHO’s press release announced that exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic waves has been put in the 2b category of “possible” carcinogens. Also in this ghoulish subset of cancer-causing evils: coffee and dry cleaning.

If this all seems like déjà vu, it’s not because déjà vu is a symptom of the brain cancer you developed from talking on your iPhone and sipping free trade macchiatos while waiting to pick up your starched shirts. It’s because the media has repeatedly run this story since the late ’80s.

The origin of this news cycle staple seems to sprout sometime around a March 22, 1988, Toronto Star article. It chronicles the American Cancer Society seminar in Daytona Beach and a speech given by Dr. Ross Adey alerting his colleagues to a possible connection between car phones and tumors. His peers likely responded by asking, “What is a car phone?” and, “Why are we having our seminar in Daytona Beach during spring break?”

At the time of Dr. Adey’s announcement, there were about 800,000 cell-phone users in the United States. They were all too busy buying up shares of Anacott Steel and fighting AC Slater for the hand of Kelly Kapowski to pay Dr. Adey any mind, however.

Dr. Adey also relayed the dangers of electric blankets and microwaves during the seminar. His reasoning was based on a series of studies that charted higher leukemia rates in children raised near power lines. He figured that the electromagnetic waves were similar enough in these items to be cause for concern.

Since Dr. Adey brought the issue to light, independent, corporate, and government-run studies have been conducted to determine the link between cell phones and cancer. The overwhelming majority of these studies, including the ones cited in Tuesday’s WHO press release, haven’t found any evidence that proves the connection.

Despite this, cell phones’ supposed link to cancer enters the news cycle repeatedly and sparks mild panic and about 1,000 man-on-the-street interviews revealing that some schmuck at an outdoor mall will probably “only use the phone for emergencies.”

The biggest media scare in this sensationalist oeuvre occurred in 1993, one day after President Clinton’s inauguration. Viewers tuned into CNN to see coverage of this momentous event, but apparently nobody told Larry King why D.C. was having that big parade. His guest that evening wasn’t a political strategist or presidential historian but Florida resident David Reynard.

Reynard had filed a lawsuit against cell-phone manufacturer NEC, as well as service provider GTE Mobilnet. The suit purported that the phone he gave his wife for her birthday in 1988 caused the brain cancer she tragically died from four years later.

Unlike Dr. Adey’s speech, this appeared on national television. Also unlike the seminar in Daytona Beach, by the time David Reynard told Larry King that his wife’s cancer not only appeared on the side of the brain where she held her NEC mobile phone but that it also looked exactly like its antenna, cellphones had become less of a niche gadget and began to resemble the future of communication.

A Chicago Tribune article printed a week after Reynard’s appearance on Larry King Live noted that trading shares in manufacturers and service providers like Motorola and McCaw Cellular took a massive hit, largely because of the fear created from the broadcast.

Later that year, Motorola researcher Robert Kane sued the company alleging that testing their new cellular antenna gave him a brain tumor. The suit claimed he “was asked to walk around in a field near Motorola’s headquarters with the prototype phone and antenna being tested for a total of about 90 minutes over a period of a week.”

An appellate court in 2002 found the testimony of the two doctors used by Kane’s team “was not based on scientific evidence.” In 1995, David Reynard’s claim was rejected because the court found his evidence to be uncertain and his hypothesis to be merely speculative.

So far, no lawsuits alleging that cell-phone manufacturers are culpable in the development of cancer have proved successful. Still, every couple of years there will be another suit or study and another news week wondering if maybe this is the time cell phones will be proven to cause cancer.

Tuesday’s press release from the WHO and the fervor surrounding it mark just the latest chapter in a very long book. The WHO merely put cell phones in a category of things that could one day possibly be found to cause cancer, a list so vague that it includes pickles. In fact, there is only one substance in the entire world that has been deemed by the organization to “probably not” cause cancer.

It’s a chemical called caprolactam and it is a mildly toxic irritant. Feel free to go nuts with it!

The five most terrifying things in science this week (in a very particular order):

5. Mini black holes:
Not to be confused with mini donut holes, or “munchkins,” which are fun and delicious. Scientists speculate mini black holes are “roughly the mass of a thousand sedans,” but “would be smaller than an atom” and they travel through and around us daily. Physicists insist they are harmless, but they’re probably thinking of mini donut holes.
[National Geographic]

4. Caffeine pants:
A company claims their leggings laced with caffeine are a weight-loss miracle that can cut inches from your hips and thighs. There is something self-destructive about a pair of pants that administers a diarrhetic to its wearer.

3. Bad memory drug:
Metyrapone is a drug that has shown in tests to reduce the “brain’s ability to re-record the negative emotions associated with painful memories.” While eliminating bad memories seems like a good development for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, Yelp will be thrown into disarray when no one can remember how lazy the waiter was at that new fondue place.

2. Hell worms!
Researchers have found “complex, multi-celled creatures living a mile and more below the planet’s surface.” These roundworms were found in South African goldmines and they are currently burrowing up from Satan’s lair to ruin your day. Scientists are optimistic that these organisms give reason to think that life may be living under other planets’ surfaces, which is great because alien hell worms are so much better.
[Washington Post]

1. Giant, carnivorous shrimp
Archaeologists in Morocco discovered a fossil of a three-foot-long prehistoric crustacean that marauded the ocean floor while eating other, less monstrous sea creatures. This is terrifying not because of the rows of teeth that shoveled prey into its trash-disposal-like mouth, but because it has inspired sentences like the following: “This newly-discovered, prehistoric shellfish gives whole new meaning to the term jumbo shrimp.”

Nick Greene isn’t a professional scientist, but he tries really hard. Follow him on Twitter!

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