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Cellphones don't scare this doctor

  • Article by: Maura Lerner
  • Star Tribune
  • June 2, 2011 - 8:16 PM

For years, we've been hearing rumors that cellphones might cause brain tumors.

This week, for the first time, the World Health Organization classified cellphone radiation as a "possible carcinogen."

So why was Dr. Christopher Moertel, director of the pediatric brain tumor program at the University of Minnesota, so unmoved?

Moertel says he has followed the debate more closely than most. This week, when he fielded phone calls from anxious reporters, he took pains to explain why he wasn't worried.

"When I look at my kids, and decide what I need to do to protect their health," said the father of seven, the risk of cancer from cellphones doesn't even make the list.

He worries "a lot" about alcohol. And exposure to the sun. And don't get him started on texting while driving.

But to him, we have our priorities out of whack when we obsess about a "theoretical risk" more than the prosaic dangers that threaten children daily.

Moertel uses the word "theoretical," because studies have show no "consistent link" between cellphone radiation and cancer. Nor is there evidence of a surge in brain tumors, he says, even though cellphones have been ubiquitous for years.

The WHO, however, decided to err on the side of caution, citing "accumulating" evidence of a possible tie to two rare brain cancers. As the panel's chairman, Dr. Jonathan Samet, said, "there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link."

The panel said, we should reduce exposure, for example, by using hands-free devices.

The WHO report has notched up the concerns. One neurologist, interviewed by CNN, suggested cellphones were in effect "cooking the brain." A newsletter called it "a wake-up call" for the cellphone industry.

At some level, it's hard to shake the notion that we may be inadvertently experimenting on ourselves and our children with our cellphone culture -- and that the true price may not be known for years.

But, Moertel said, "I think we need to keep an eye on what's really important for the public health and our children's health. You're not going to get rid of cellphones."

maura.lerner@startribune.com

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