Jerome Christenson: Cancer’s New Carcinogen: Cellphones

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It seems we’re talking each other to death. The latest scaremaking the rounds — really, it’s just an old bugaboo revived andrefurbished — is the theory that talking on a cell phone will giveyou brain cancer.

Now, I’ve involuntarily heard enough cell phone conversations tofully believe that too much time on the cell can rot the brain — atleast the brains of the folks who discuss their intimate lives inthe checkout lanes at WalMart.
Still, the loquacious manifestation of cerebral insufficiency isa long, long stretch from glioma. one is annoying. The other isdownright scary.

Rightfully so.
Cancer can kill you.
And given half a chance, it will.
So when the New York Times starts running stories that implythat time on the phone with your brother-in-law could do more thanjust bore you to death, folks notice. and when the organizationmaking the claim advises the World Health Organization, peoplestart thinking about reinstalling land lines and writingletters.

But this is a case where reading the whole story goes a long waytoward untying the knots in your stomach. The International Agencyfor Research on Cancer has classified cell phone use as a“possible” cancer cause.

Also on that list are fuel oil, gasoline, coffee, pickledvegetables and talcum powder.
“Possible” means just that — they can’t rule it out but there’snot enough evidence to say it will, or even that it’s likely to. Inshort, it ain’t necessarily so.

Still, in a lot of ways, possibility is more frightening thancertainty. The verdict is in on cigarettes and asbestos, so we knowwell enough to avoid them. But baby powder?
That’s the spooky thing about cancer. On film, Ingmar Bergmanfamously depicted Death as a chess player. Cancer, I would venture,is closer to playing the slots: Hit on a certain combination offactors and claim the jackpot no one wants to collect.

Some diseases are easy — dodge the bug, kill the bug and you’rehome-free. keep your cholesterol down and your arteries clean andthe ticker keeps ticking. If we know the cause and can predict theeffect, we feel we understand, that we have some control, even whenthere’s little or nothing to be done.

So when the phone rings we can’t help but wonder if there isn’ta better reason not to answer than to avoid an unpleasant talk withanother bill collector. We eat broccoli and drink green tea with anappetite fueled by hope and fear in equal parts. We get scoped andprobed, irradiated and examined, hoping to tilt the scale just atad in our favor.
And just when we think we have things figured out, we read thatsomething else is “possible.”

Something else to make that daily wager more complicated. Anagging reminder that nothing in life is a sure bet.

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