Elgan: Is your cell phone trying to kill you?

Don't look now, but your cell phone is out to get you. This deadly device can cause accidents, give you cancer or even kill you, according to a rising chorus of alarmist reports.

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) said this week that emergency room doctors are reporting an increase in both injuries and deaths caused by text messaging. People are apparently wandering into traffic and losing control of their cars because they're sending text messages instead of paying attention. The ACEP singled out text messaging while rollerblading as a risk.

According to a survey-based report this week by the Danish National Birth Cohort, "Children with exposure to cell phones (prenatally, postnatally or both), tended to have higher percentages of borderline or abnormal scores for emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity and peer problems."

Director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, sent a memo to about 3,000 faculty and staff members last week advising that they keep children away from cell phones, except for emergency calls -- for example, if mommy rollerblades into a pole while text messaging.

States are increasingly banning cell phones for drivers. The laws are based on the belief that using a cell phone while driving a car increases the risk of accidents.

Officials in Russia say that cell phones are to blame for a rise in death by lightning; more than a dozen people were killed there in the past few weeks by lightning. The theory goes that if you're using a mobile phone during a storm, the chances of you being struck and/or killed by lightning is greater than if you're, say, just sitting under a tree.

So let me get this straight: Cell phones cause cancer, injuries and death.

This is horrible news because in the past 18 years, cell phone use in the U.S. has risen from under 5 million to over 260 million.

The use of these dangerous devices has gone from zero to almost everybody. Surely cancer, injuries and deaths must have risen just as dramatically -- only, it turns out they really haven't.

Inside the ER

You'll notice that the warning from emergency room doctors about the dangers of text messaging is "anecdotal," and includes no numbers, percentages or rates. That's because the numbers are so small, they're probably statistically irrelevant. ERs keep detailed records about why people are injured. Why did they choose to not quantify this "trend"?

A whopping 31 million emergency rooms visits each year result from "accidental injuries." These injuries are caused by (in order of frequency) car accidents, falls (mostly elderly people and young children), drowning, fires, bicycle accidents, playground accidents, poisoning and work-related injuries. The number of visits related to text messaging is probably dwarfed by all these other causes.

Some 1.7 million of the visits in 2003 were related to something going wrong with medical treatment. Visiting a doctor is probably several orders of magnitude more dangerous than text messaging.

It's probably true that some people are being distracted by text messaging. But why are cell phones being singled out as a major cause of injury when in fact they are not?

Do phones really cause hyperactivity?

The authors of the Danish National Birth Cohort study say very clearly that other factors besides cell phone radiation may account for behavioral differences. For example, lower socioeconomic status may contribute to both increased cell phone use by mothers and behavioral problems in children. Also, families where parents are on the phone all the time may be paying less attention to their kids.

The assumption of a causal relationship is made mostly by the press. Why are they so eager to blame phones?

Dr. Herberman's misguided memo

Dr. Herberman, who sent the memo to his staff saying kids shouldn't use phones, admits his fears are not based on published studies, but on a belief about what future studies will discover.

Actual published research is extensive but inconclusive, and mostly favors the idea that cell phones don't cause cancer.

Researchers at the University of Utah this year analyzed nine studies on the use of cell phones by brain tumor patients and found "no overall increased risk of brain tumors among cellular phone users." Other studies conducted in the past two years in Europe determined the same thing -- that using cell phones doesn't significantly increase the likelihood of cancer.

However, other studies have found some link between cell phones and cancer. The euphemism is "inconclusive," but in fact the studies are contradictory. After all the research, we can say only that cell phone exposure over several decades might -- just might -- increase the risk of cancer.

Look at it this way: You can place everything into one of three categories: 1) known to cause cancer, 2) might cause cancer, and 3) is not even suspected of causing cancer.

Items in category 1 -- things that science has proved increase the likelihood of cancer -- are too many in number to list here, but include things like foods cooked above 248 degrees, some common food colorings, popular children's bath products, red meat and processed meat, dairy products, alcohol, some soft drinks and others.

So here's my question: Why does Dr. Herberman ignore the hundreds of things known to cause cancer -- items that are used daily by staffers and some of which I'll bet are served in the University of Pittsburgh's cafeterias -- and focus on one item from the list of things that might cause cancer?

What is it about cell phones that inspires a prominent scientist to ignore published scientific research and focus instead on what is essentially a hunch?

The accidental conclusion

I believe the majority of car accidents blamed on cell phones in fact have nothing to do with cell phones. Here's why.

Anytime there's a car accident that happens while somebody is using a cell phone, the cell phone is blamed for the accident. That's just common sense, right? Well, not so fast.

In the U.S., roughly 5% of the people driving cars at any given moment are using their cell phones. Unless using a cell phone actually prevents car accidents, you would expect that about 5% of the people who get into car accidents happen to be on the phone at the time of the accident. This 5% represents chance, not causation.

In other words, you can expect, statistically speaking, that 5% of all accidents will have a cell phone driver just by chance; the cell phone didn't cause the accident.

There are about 6 million car accidents per year (and about 43,000 car accident fatalities). That means there should be about 300,000 car accidents per year where the driver was talking on the phone, but where that cell phone use did not cause the accident. Yet nearly all of those accidents are blamed on the cell phone. Sure, some unknown percentage of cell phone-related accidents are caused by the phone call, but the rest of the accidents involve a driver talking on the cell phone without that call actually causing the accident. Despite that, close to 100% of these will be blamed on the phone call.

In fact, investigators can't prove that a cell phone caused a driver to be distracted enough to cause an accident. (Nor can they prove that a driver distracted by daydreaming, listening to the radio or talking to another person inside the car caused an accident.) They can, however, prove that a driver was or was not talking on the phone at the time of a crash. And when they do, they assert cause, not coincidence, in almost every case.

Statistics prove that the number of crashes involving a cell phone talker has risen dramatically in the past 10 years. And why wouldn't it? Nobody used to use cell phones, and now everybody does.

Have all these accidents blamed on cell phones been added to previous causes for accidents, creating an ever-higher total number of accidents?

On the contrary, the rate of accidents, injuries and deaths from car accidents have all declined, this during a time of radical rise in cell phone use.

So why are cell phones singled out as the cause of car accidents, when an increase in the number of people using cell phones while driving has not increased the total number of accidents?

Shocking conclusion

While at least one Russian official claims that cell phones' electromagnetic radiation attracts lightning, a more plausible attractor is the metal in cell phones. Yes, metal can attract lightning. So it's possible that with more people walking around in thunderstorms with metal next to their heads, more people are getting zapped by lightning.

But the number of people killed by lightning is very low. Only about 50 people per year die in the U.S. from lightning, and only a small percentage (often zero percent) of these involved a cell phone.

You're more likely to be mauled by an ill-tempered badger. So why are cell phone-related lightning strikes making the news?

Here's what's really going on

In many of these cases, we're transferring blame for behavior from the people responsible to their cell phones. So a careless pedestrian is now careless with a cell phone as she walks into traffic. We know some foods cause cancer, but choose to eat them anyway -- then focus on cell phones as a cancer risk. A neglectful mother now has a cell phone in hand as she neglects her child. A distracted driver -- always dangerous -- is now using a cell phone to distract himself, and so on.

Of course, cell phones are involved in some accidents, injuries or maladies. But so far, it appears that the numbers are very small compared to other causes.

Banning or avoiding cell phones wouldn't make a noticeable dent in rates of accidents, diseases or behavioral problems in children. By all means, take reasonable precautions with cell phones. But what would really make a difference in your health and welfare is: Eat healthy foods, pay attention when you're driving, walking or rollerblading -- and be a good parent.

What we really need, in other words, is a return to personal responsibility. What we don't need is an electronic scapegoat.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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