Cell Phones: How Precautionary Should Our Principles Be?

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From left: Don Farrall / Getty Images; Nick Veasey / Untitled X-Ray / Getty Images

TIME is endeavoring to give you every angle you need on the possible connection between cell-phone use and brain cancer. (Speaking of which: five ways to reduce your exposure to cell-phone radiation.) But as I’ve followed the story and spoken with experts on both sides of the issue, something else struck me.

It relates to a line from yesterday’s press conference with the researchers from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The officials noted that while the World Health Organization (WHO) — the IARC is part of the WHO — had up until now regarded cell phones as safe, apparently they hadn’t really looked at it. “This is an important first look by IARC at an exposure which is transforming the world,” said Dr. Jonathan Samet, the chairperson of the IARC working group and a member of President Obama’s National Cancer Advisory Board.

At which point you might wonder, as I did, exactly what took them so long. Cell phones have been around in the U.S. since 1983 — longer in other countries — and they’ve certainly been in wide use since the start of the 21st century. And yet, it’s only now that the international body tasked with researching potential carcinogens has reviewed the existing research and come down with a ruling — and one that’s surprisingly tough, however vague it is worded. Doesn’t that seem a little … late?

Of course, it’s not as if there weren’t any safety studies carried out as cell phones gained market share. There’s a reason that there are restrictions on how much radiation a cell-phone can emit, known as the specific absorption rate, for instance. (But skeptics have doubts about how those limits were calculated and note that they were designed for full-grown males — not smaller women, and certainly not children.)

And the essential argument for the safety of cell-phone radiation rests on the physical evidence that non-ionizing radiation, of the sort emitted by phones, is not capable of damaging cells to the point of causing cancer. (Physicist Bernard Leikind has a good piece from the Skeptic running down that data.)

But now, at least a decade after many of us have been using cell phones, the IARC comes out and says they’re “possibly carcinogenic.” Why did it take so long to come to this conclusion? And, perhaps more importantly, why wasn’t this work done before we all started spending 19 minutes a day talking on our cell phones?

The truth is that for most technologies, we don’t wait around to see what the long-term effects will be. We don’t put cell phones on the shelf for a decade or so while epidemiologists carry out controlled studies on their potential carcinogenicity. Most of us — Americans especially, as native early adopters — want the new, and we worry about the potential consequences later.

That’s true widely, not just for technology. Take industrial chemicals. Though thousands of new chemicals are introduced into the marketplace each year, the Environmental Protection Agency investigates only a handful of them, at most. (Regulations handcuff the agency.) Generally, the government depends on safety studies completed and submitted by the companies themselves. And if it turns out that something might be harmful — as may be the case with the endocrine disruptor BPA — any investigations take place after the exposure. We’re the guinea pigs.

Of course, not every product is treated as innocent until proven guilty (with a very high standard for guilt). Drugs have to go through several layers of testing before they’re released to the public — guilty until proven innocent, like a Soviet court case. But they’re the exception, not the rule. When it comes to cell phones, as the environmental epidemiologist and activist Devra Davis argues, “we’ve been conducting a global experiment on our children and ourselves.”

Is there any other way? There’s the precautionary principle, which is just a fancy way of saying a new technology is guilty until proven innocent. We don’t use it much in the U.S. — although it comes up repeatedly in Europe, especially in regard to genetically modified food — in part because we love the new. And that’s the deal we’ve struck, even if not all of us are on board or are even aware of it. We value the benefits of new technologies more than the precaution of ensuring they are absolutely safe.

The good news for the cell phone question in all of this is that we really can have both. Cell phones have made an incredible difference for the world, mostly positive. Cell phones are not cigarettes — they are not purely toxic products — and they can be employed in ways that minimize whatever risks exist. (By the way, it is absolutely true that the riskiest thing you can do with a cell phone is text on it while you’re driving, but that has zero bearing on any cancer risk.) We can have precaution and technology in this case. But that question is one that will turn up again and again in the future — and we’ll all need to choose our level of perceived risk.