COLUMN: Warning over wireless worth a look

Despite this week’s report suggesting a link from cellphones to cancer, I don’t expect a mass movement to shun mobile communication devices.

Nor should there be.

The news, from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, is hardly a definitive link between cancer and cellphones, and in fact offers little more than we already know.

The WHO’s press release identifies radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” and urges more research and “pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices or texting.”

It’s a warning that should be taken seriously, but should also be considered within context.

On the multi-level scale of cancer risks, cellphones are several rungs down from the ‘known carcinogens’, obvious ones such as tobacco and asbestos, that populate the top rung. Below that are substances that ‘probably’ cause cancer and further down from that are things that might cause cancer.

In truth, just about anything could fall into that category.

And although there are plenty of studies suggesting a link, there are plenty of others disputing it.

In short, nothing is proven yet. The jury remains out.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t heed the WHO advice for more research.

Without question, there are plenty of unknowns about cellular technology, and as we’ve seen recently around Nanaimo, plenty of concern regarding the communication towers that enable mobile communication.

While many people minimize those concerns as unfounded, often pointing to the proliferation of both cell towers and cellphones as evidence there is no harm, the Luddites’ own arguments do have some merit.

Perhaps foremost among them is the fact the technology became universal and ubiquitous so fast (how many of us had a cellphone 15 years ago? how many of us don’t have one now?) that long-term study has simply not been possible. The technology hasn’t been around and widely available long enough to know the potential long-term effects.

That’s not to say there even are any long-term effects. But the WHO’s latest warning is a healthy reminder that as technology and our use of it changes, so does the need for study into how those changes affect us.

Few can deny that cellphones and wireless Internet – or even the Internet itself, which only became widely available to the public in the mid-1990s – have been a tremendous boon to how we live and how we share information.

Just because we deem them a great leap forward for society, however, doesn’t mean we can ignore the impacts (or potential impacts) of how those great leaps are achieved.

Just think of how much we’re still learning about the countless changes we’ve made in our food supply and how they’re affecting us.

From hormones and pesticides to preservatives and packaging materials, everything we do or change has some sort of effect. Not all are negative and not all show up right away, but we do owe it to ourselves to keep track of what the effects are and do what we can to address, minimize or eliminate them.

The fact we continue learning a myriad of new things about so many different aspects of our world (we’re still identifying new species every year) and how we live in it is proof enough for me that we should never declare any case closed.

Facts, even scientific facts, are facts only until they’re proven wrong. We should always have an open mind to new information.

I’m not tossing my cellphone in the trash, but I am keen to see what further independent scientific study might discover.