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Cell phones and cancer

Readers of my other online endeavor, The Santa Fe Review, know that one of my frequent interests has been a psychiatric condition in which otherwise intelligent people become fixated on the idea that cell phones cause brain tumors. I also wrote about the phenomenon last year for Slate (please see On Top of Microwave Mountain) and described my experiments with a microwave meter to John Horgan on

A disproportionate number of electro worriers seem to live in Santa Fe where they write letters to the editor of the New Mexican speaking with mock authority of hundreds — even thousands — of studies supposedly linking cell phones with cancer and other neurological disorders. A couple of them proudly point to their credentials as holistic medical practitioners, which gives them no more expertise on the subject than on Egyptian archaeology or the effect of gamma rays on Man in the Moon marigolds. In the Electromania Archives you can find pointers to a large body of genuine, peer-reviewed research, concurring that it is extremely unlikely that the feeble emissions from cellphones are carcinogenic. These are dismissed by the true believers as part of a secret coverup.

Measuring microwaves on Sandia Crest in New Mexico

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist and author of an excellent new book about cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, has written the best overview I have read on the issue. Or rather nonissue. Among thousands of presentations at the international cancer research meeting I described in my previous post, there was precisely one that touched on the subject, a poster entitled Low-dose radiation exposure and the risk of developing acoustic neuroma. For cell phones it was zero.

As someone who considers cell phones a social abomination (private, nonlocal conversations should take place inside booths) and whose annual cell phone bill is way less than $100, I perversely wish that the devices would be found dangereous. For that to happen new laws of physics would have to be discovered or a new understanding of the fundamentals of cancer. Either way it would be a scientific breakthrough of the first magnitude and something fascinating to write about. Cold fusion seemed like that for awhile.

George Johnson



  1. Dan wrote:

    It’s not just cell phones! Aaaagghhhhh! What alarms me is not that there are people who believe they are affected by em. There are people who believe all sorts of outrageous things. It’s the attention they receive from journalists that worries. Likewise the attention the anti em folks get from the City of Santa Fe and the New Mexican lends the subject an importance it does not deserve.

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  2. Dan wrote:

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink