Can mobile phones cause brain tumors?
- Published: 14 May 2011
- Hits: 13912
15 May 2011
Can’t fall asleep? Can’t stay awake? Dizzy? Feeling fogged or stoned without pot or drugs? Blurred vision and dulled hearing? Jumping thoughts? Buzzing brain? Moving fast and forgetting where you are going? Stuttering and losing your train of thought? Misplaced your ATM card? Can’t find the remote control again? Forgot to pick up your dry cleaning and where you parked your car? Don’t know why you keep yelling at your wife? Lost your bike lock key inside the laundry bag?
Perhaps you are simply a bit stressed. We all know that the modern world is jam-packed with so much happening all at once that many of us lose it from time to time. When a person is affl icted with what could simply be the result of too much work and too little sleep, the last thing onewonders is whether our brains have stopped working well because something is growing inside our heads that does not belong.
Brain tumors sleep within our bodies, growing slowly until they announce themselves in an irrefutable manner—often through a major epileptic seizure or a sudden clot of blood in the brain that produces a stroke. A brain tumor is a hypochondriac’s worst fear and everyone’s absolute nightmare.
Even those who know little about their bodies understand that cancer and the brain simply do not mix. Our thick skulls are not made to expand. Tumors of the head are usually fatal and horrible.
How can you predict a tumor?
Solving the puzzle of why any particular person gets brain cancer is not something that can easily be done today. The study of what causes brain tumors is one of the toughest jobs in epidemiology.
As one of the core fields of study in public health, epidemiology studies the past in an attempt to make the future healthier. Epidemiologists look at patterns of disease as they occur in many
people over time in an effort to identify things that can be done to change those patterns in the future. Brain cancer can take several decades to develop. We know this today, because of studies that have been carried out over the past half century.
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that ended World War II killed around two hundred thousand people within a few months. But studies of the thousands who survived the atomic bombing in 1945 have left little doubt about another tragic consequence. Forty years after the single blast of ionizing radiation from the bomb, people who survived have double the risk of brain tumors compared to those who did not experience that exposure.
Alan Marks’s world crashed at two in the morning the night before he and his wife, Ellie, were set to go to their youngest child’s college graduation.
“At first I thought he was having a very bad dream. I tried to shake him. I shouted, ‘Alan!! Alan?? Alan??’ I couldn’t wake him up,” said Ellie.
Alan was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where a scan of his head revealed what had triggered this convulsive seizure of the brain. Inside the right side of his forehead sat a golfball-size tumor. He had a cancerous mass (oligodendroglioma).
Doctors told the Marks family the grim news. His children were dumbstruck but also in a strange way relieved. Suddenly years of baffl ing behavior made sense. He had not in fact stopped loving them, even though he had treated them insufferably. The tumor had invaded the part of his brain that controls affection and tenderness.
“We had entered a living nightmare. Alan had always been pretty healthy. But for several years his behavior had become stranger and stranger. When you love someone your entire life and he begins to become another person, to act strangely against those they hold dear, you try with all your heart to fi nd ways to help.”
Fast, smart, and driven, with an ironic sense of humor and timing, Alan had become cruel and forgetful, lashing out at those around him without provocation. Psychiatrists had declared Alan bipolar and prescribed various medications, and intense family therapy. For a while that diagnosis seemed to make sense.
After all, Alan certainly had huge mood swings and could sometimes get by on little sleep. He could still be utterly charming or astonishingly vicious. The family resigned themselves to working through the diagnosis, despite the outbursts and unpredictable actions.
When the tumor was finally diagnosed, Ellie began to grasp what lay behind some of Alan’s awful behavior. “The right frontal lobe where his tumor originated is the core of empathy, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and many other personality and cognitive functions.”
As the family struggled with the bleak prospects, they learned that Alan was not alone. Just ten days after Alan got the devastating news, Senator Ted Kennedy had a major convulsive seizure and faced the very same diagnosis—a glioma of the brain.
The Markses’ son Zack had just finished interning with the senator. He remembered the hours he had seen the senator with his cell phone held next to his head. Zack had a sinking feeling that there might be some connection between his dad’s diagnosis and that of Senator Kennedy. He soon learned that the Kennedy family had strong suspicions that the senator’s tumor was in some way connected to his cell phone use.
When Ellie heard this, suddenly it all made sense. “For years, we used to joke about Alan and his cell phones. He had one of the first car phones, and then one of the first bag phones. As he worked deals around the area, he could not be separated from his phone. At one point, we drove back home several hours from a planned family vacation to pick up his phone that he had left behind. He was never, never away from one of those phones.
He probably used various phones for at least ten thousand hours. My husband was and is one of the top real estate brokers in our region. The phone was his lifeline for his work.”
Like Ellie, Mindy Brown and her husband, Dan, a defensive line coach for California State University at Fresno, the couple had been high school sweethearts. Their house was command central for their own children, many friends, football players, and wannabes. Their six children included two who played for the Bulldogs, the Fresno team.
Dan would be on the phone sometimes for four hours at a stretch when he traveled to Southern California to check out new recruits. Coach Brown’s seizure occurred when he was talking on his phone in May 2007.
Mindy recalls, “There was one phone in particular that he complained would make his head and ear hurt when he spoke on it for more than several minutes. His right ear would be bright red where he had held his phone and his eye might hurt. He complained so much about his cell phone that I took it to Sprint to trade it for a different model, but because it was assigned to the university I was unable to do so. . . .Within a few months my husband went from knocking two-hundred-fi fty-pound linebackers on their fannies during practice drills to patting them on their heads to console them as they knelt by his deathbed.”
Who killed my husband?
The first thing a person asks after being told he or she has cancer is, “Why me?” All the publicity about brain tumors and cell phones has led many to grasp, and tightly hold, this explanation of the loss or misfortune of their loved one. Ah, the cell phone did it. I’ll hate cell phones for the rest of my life. Simple. Even comforting.
Cancer patients’ lives are taken over by medical appointments. They spend a lot of time waiting. Some folks cannot bear to talk. Mindy Brown got tired of hearing that her husband’s doctors just were not sure why her once strong, healthy husband had developed such a deadly tumor. She began doing what she thought of as research.
Mindy is one of those people with a straightforward smile and direct manner whom you could imagine going into the lion’s den and managing to make such amiable small talk the beasts would be charmed. Mindy and her son had traveled to Augusta, Maine, in the late winter of 2010, because they wanted the legislature to hear and see what brain cancer looked and felt like to those who had lost the center of their family.
As they sat in clinics waiting for reports and doctors’ visits, she would notice lots of things. In the days and weeks after surgery, those who have had their heads shaved and drilled to remove tumors wear stretch caps to cover it all up. Opening with her warm smile, Mindy would quietly begin the conversation, “Hello. We’re waiting to fi nd out about Dan’s tumor. It was right next to his ear where he used his cell phone.
Did you use a cell phone very often?” “Every single person I asked had the same answer.” Mindy remembered all this when we talked at the hearings in Augusta to consider putting labels on cell phones. “Yes. . . .”
After a while Dan got tired of this routine. “Look, honey, just stop. You know what the answer will be. Of course it’s the phones.”
But is there really any proof that cell phones cause brain tumors?
This could all just be a coincidence created when saddened people desperately look for answers to questions that few are asking.
Mindy and Ellie do not pretend to be scientists. They are angry. When representatives of the cell phone industry point to the absence of an epidemic of brain tumors as proof of safety, they become livid. They have learned a lot about brain tumors and know that tumors only occur after decades when exposures to agents like cigarette smoke, asbestos, vinyl chloride, or benzene have been very, very high.
The fact that any increase in tumor risk has shown up in heavy cell phone users after only one decade should be setting off alarm bells. Because their husbands were such heavy users and
fi rst adopters of the technology, they used older phones that operated at different levels of radio frequency radiation with different types of signals. They also appreciate how unusual their husbands were ten or fifteen years ago, when they began their heavy cell phone habits.
And they know that just ten years ago fewer than one in three Americans used a cell phone and even fewer used phones as heavily as their husbands did then or as growing numbers of us do today. “Are we supposed to wait for more and more people to die like my Danny?” Mindy asks. “I just can’t do that.”
Dan made her promise to tell people why he and she and so many others became convinced that his brain tumor was not just bad luck, but the result of his thousands of hours of cell phone use. Mindy understands that because so few people have used cell phones for as long as her husband did, there could not possibly be a general epidemic of brain tumors now.
“Is that really what we have to have happen? Have we learned nothing from tobacco?” she asked me when we talked about this during a break in the hearings in Maine, where she tried to tell people what had happened to Dan.
Mindy’s subjective survey is not science. She knows that. Cell phones cannot be studied like drugs in a controlled trial. Given that brain cancer can take decades to develop, and that cell phone technology today is quite different from what it was a decade ago, how do we know if today’s phones are better or worse?
The Food and Drug Administration does not test cell phones for safety before they are marketed and does not monitor them for safety afterward but relies on the advice of the industry and proddings from consumer groups.
This is an edited extract from Disconnect: The truth about mobile-phone radiation, what the industry has done to hide it, and how to protect your family. Published by Scribe and reproduced here with the publisher’s permission.
Devra Davis PHD, MPH, is a scientist, professor, speaker, and acclaimed author, and recently testified before a United States Senate committee panel about the dangers of mobile-phone use. Her first book, When Smoke Ran Like Water, was a National Book Award finalist. She is a visiting professor at Harvard University and Georgetown University. She lives with her husband in Washington, DC, and Jackson, Wyoming.