Posted Bill Couzens, Founder
Doctor plans study of cell users, cancer risks
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

By Joe Fahy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Courtesy of UPMC

Dr. Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and UPMC Cancer Centers.

Following his groundbreaking advisory on the potential risks of cell phone use, Dr. Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and UPMC Cancer Centers, plans to develop a research project focusing on long-term cell phone users.

Dr. Herberman said he is holding discussions with others about the project, including a researcher at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and Dr. Devra Davis, director of the Pitt cancer institute’s Center for Environmental Oncology.

“We don’t want to frighten people. We want them to take precautions,” Dr. Davis said last night during a discussion on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

Dr. Herberman hopes to obtain cell phone records from companies or customers to try to better identify long-term users who might especially be at risk for health problems like brain tumors. He noted that some other studies have tended to rely on users’ recollections about their cell phone habits.

He said he plans to seek funding, probably from the National Cancer Institute, once a proposal is developed.

Dr. Herberman made worldwide news last week when he apparently became the first U.S. cancer center director to issue an advisory to staff and faculty about the potential health risks of cell phone use.

In an interview yesterday, he said he was surprised by the media attention generated by his release of the memorandum, first reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Recently I have become aware of the growing body of literature linking long-term cell phone use to possible adverse health effects including cancer,” he said in the memo. “Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use.”

The advisory suggested measures to limit exposure to electromagnetic radiation emitted by the devices, including shortening the length of conversations and keeping the phones away from the head by text messaging or using headsets or speakerphone options. It also recommended that children not use cell phones except in emergencies.

News organizations around the world reported on the release of the document, and Dr. Herberman’s office received a flood of e-mail messages, many from cell phone users.

He acknowledged that some colleagues questioned the scientific basis for linking cell phone use with cancer risk.

Some leading groups also remain unconvinced. The American Cancer Society, for example, emphasizes there is no firm evidence tying cell phone use to brain cancer.

Dr. Herberman said studies brought to his attention, and the issuing of precautions on cell phone use by other countries and Toronto public health officials, prompted him to act.

With Dr. Davis, he drafted the memorandum that was sent to about 3,000 personnel at the institute and the cancer centers. The pair also revised and issued portions of a document, endorsed by them and other members of an international expert panel, that urged precautions.

Dr. Herberman said he had no financial incentive to step forward. And he objected to suggestions in some of the news coverage, particularly a widely circulated Associated Press story, that he based his concerns on unpublished data.

The published studies cited by him and others who advocate precautions suggest possible health problems associated with long-term cell phone use, though the findings are far from definitive.

For example, one recent analysis of studies of people using the phones for 10 years or more, led by a Swedish researcher, found a “consistent pattern of increased risk” for certain tumors, particularly on the side of the head where the phone was used. Other studies from northern European countries and Germany, part of a 13-country study yet to be released, suggest possible increased risk among long-term users, but also indicate that more study is needed.

With more than 200 million cell users in the United States and more than 2 billion worldwide, proponents argue that caution is needed until more evidence becomes available.

Dr. Herberman said he hoped the existing findings would help convince skeptics.

“My own take on all the available reports is that they suggest a problem to be concerned about,” he said. Simple precautions, he added, would be “prudent to adopt in order to reduce potential risk.”

Dr. Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, which tracks research related to cell phone safety, said Dr. Herberman’s advisory was important because study information is often slow in coming. The issue is further complicated, he said, by the fact that cell phone technology continues to evolve.

Independent, long-term studies that are adequately funded are needed, he said.

Dr. Herberman said his actions would come as no surprise to those who know about his strong interest, particularly in recent years, in prevention and early detection of cancer.