About 300 million Americans have a cell phone. Most use them without much thought about possible long-term health consequences. That should change following Tuesday's announcement from the World Health Organization that radiation from cell phones "is possibly carcinogenic to humans." Though some scientists have long suspected that was the case, the WHO report that suggests a possible connection between cancer and the use of cell phones is the first highly public confirmation that such a risk might exist.
WHO officials were careful to say that evidence of such a connection is limited and that it is based on still inconclusive research, The agency, in fact, said additional long-term study is needed to definitively prove or disprove the possible connection between cancer and cell phone use. Such caveats, however, should not be used to minimize the importance of the warning.
There was enough evidence available for the panel of 31 international scientists who reviewed studies related to the devices' electromagnetic fields to conclude a risk was present - and for WHO to place the devices on the agency's list of items that potentially can cause cancer in humans. The decision to do so provides a meaningful public health service.
It is a wake-up call for cell phone users, who can no longer blithely ignore concerns about possible health risks. Even in the absence of conclusive evidence, the possible tie between heavy cell phone use and an increased risk of a rare brain tumor called a glioma is worrisome. It suggests that cell phone radiation, mainly from the antenna, can prompt changes in the brain. Whether or not it does or can cause other brain tumors or illnesses requires more study. Such research should move forward fronts quickly.
A real concern is that the use of cell phones is still a recent phenomenon and that it could take decades for health consequences attached to that use to become manifest. That's the case with many other environmental carcinogens. A smoker, for example, can get hooked at 15 but is unlikely to get cancer at 25. It's more likely that the cancer will appear when he or she is 45 or 55.
If there is a a similarly conclusive connection between cell phone use and cancer, it's possible that the consequences of heavy phone use now won't appear until near mid-century. That possibility is a personal and public health nightmare, particularly since teens currently are among the heaviest users of cell phones.
Clearly, additional study is needed to properly assess the risks of cell phone use. It is equally obvious that taking steps now to limit exposure to cell phone radiation is a sensible precaution. The best counsel: Keep the phones away from the head by using the speaker feature, by using wired earpieces or by texting. That counsel could save your life.