Cell Phones and Cancer: A Scientist’s Persuasive New Book

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REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Dr. Devra Davis’s new book Disconnect — the result of an investigation into the data on cell phones and cancer, as well as the wireless industry’s efforts to stave off regulation — is convincing enough to give you pause before you fire up that iPhone.

Over on Ecocentric today, I wrote about Davis’s new book. The author is an epidemiologist and toxicologist and an expert in environmental health, who has made a career out of the idea that cancer often has more to do with what’s happening to us than what’s going on inside our genes. Her 2007 book The Secret History of the War on Cancer demonstrated how some of the best medical minds in the U.S. played down the environmental factors behind cancer — from cigarette smoke to chemical exposure — for far too long, in part because of deception and delay from industry. (More on Time.com: Want Good Health? There Are 10 Apps for That)

Davis now makes the case that the same thing is happening with cell phones:

She found evidence of studies, some decades old, showing that the radio-frequency radiation used by cell phones could indeed have biological effects — enough to damage DNA and potentially contribute to brain tumors. She found that other countries — like France and Israel — had already acted, discouraging the use of cell phones by children and even putting warning signs on handsets. She found evidence of dramatic increases in certain kinds of brain tumors among unusually young patients who were heavy users of cell phones. And, just as she saw with tobacco and lung cancer, Davis discovered that the wireless industry — often with the help of governments — had discouraged independent scientists who studied cell phones, and helped produced questionable science that effectively clouded the issue. “This is about the most important and unrecognized public health issues of our time,” says Davis. “We could avert a global catastrophe.”

Taken together, however, the connections between cell phones and cancer, which I’ve covered in depth here and here, are confusing and inconclusive. Or, at least they are to anyone who’s not the wireless industry, which offers this easy answer: “To date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use.”

This is where Davis’s book gets really compelling. Davis argues that scientists haven’t “established” the dangers of cell phone use because they haven’t asked the right questions — possibly on purpose. Davis shows that independent studies on cell-phone radiation found dangers at more than twice the rate of industry-funded studies — but because the cell-phone industry underwrites so much of the research into the biologic effects of cell phones, there are far more of the latter. (More on Time.com: Why Hearing Half of a Cell-Phone Conversation Drives You Nuts)

The author further shows how industry has been able to twist science just enough to stave off the possibility of any regulation — and demonstrates that researchers are justly afraid of challenging the status quo, lest they find themselves bullied by the industry and suddenly out of a job, denied the lifeblood of research money. “If you don’t want to know the answer,” Davis says, “don’t ask the question.”

Ultimately, she makes a strong case that we’ve underplayed the possible threat from cell phones. We’re disconnected — even as worrying studies have begun to pile up, however quietly, the message has been slow to reach public health experts and even slower to reach the government. “The fact that we don’t know everything about the subject doesn’t mean that everything is fine,” she says. “I can’t tell you that cell phones are dangerous, but I can tell you that I’m not sure they’re safe.”

Click here for more detail on what Davis’s investigations uncovered.