Cancer Controversy Causes Consumer Confusion

Will scientist's warning about a cancer-cell phone link change buyers' minds?


July 24, 2008— -- As a nation, we might tune out science lectures in the classroom, but we're pretty savvy about science in the marketplace, especially when we learn about research that could potentially affect our health.

Whether it is banning smoking in restaurants or avoiding salmonella-laced chilies at the supermarket, Americans process what researchers tell them and make decisions based on the newest findings.

But often studies contradict each other, confusing consumers and making it difficult to know what to do.

This week, a prominent cancer researcher at the University of Pittsburgh contradicted years of research in a memo to 3,000 colleagues warning them of a connection between cell phone usage and brain cancer and cautioning them to keep phones away from children.

The memo by Dr. Ronald Herberman, director of the university's Cancer Institute, contradicts numerous studies and information disseminated by the Cancer Society of America and the Food and Drug Administration.

Herberman has yet to officially publish his still ongoing research, but believes his initial findings warrant taking early action, especially in regard to children.

"Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use," he wrote. "Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn't wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later."

He recommends adults use headsets or speakerphones when speaking on cell phones and children use phones only in emergencies.

No other research institution has so stringently argued that a link exists and Herberman's advice is sure to concern many consumers -- especially parents.

Several consumers interviewed by ABC said they had heard rumors of a cancer link for years, but the new information raised additional concerns even if the entire scientific community had yet to reach a consensus.

"I guess because this is a technology that hasn't been around for so long -- with trial and error we might find out we'll have cancer in our brains pretty soon," said Gabriella Pinto, a mother of a young son who lives in New York. "I think it's ridiculous that young kids have cell phones to begin with, so I would definitely be cautious of children using cell phones if doctors say they're dangerous."

Another mother, Auri Lall, said she was confused by conflicting reports but would consider using a headset both for herself and her young son in light of Herberman's warning.

"Maybe the earpieces would be a little safer than having the phone on your ear," she said. "No one is really clear of how much danger we're in or how safe we are because they're back and forth. Who should we trust?"

"I have to think about it and see," she said. "Maybe if my son gets a cell phone, he should use a headset."

Eighty-four percent of the population, or some 255 million Americans, use cell phones according to industry statistics. And some 15 percent of Americans only use cell phones and have no landlines in their homes.

CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, said it did not believe that Herberman's memo would prevent people from buying or using cell phones and deferred to previous scientific research on the topic.

"Look to the consensus in the scientific community. Look to trusted sources like the FDA," said Joe Ferran, spokesman for the CTIA. "When you listen to those folks and see what's been published, it is clear there is no link."

The FDA says it has no reason to believe that cell phones pose a real risk to safety.

"If there is a risk from these products -- and at this point we do not know that there is -- it is probably very small," the Food and Drug Administration says on its Web site.

In 2006, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published the largest study to date on the correlation between cancer and phone usage. The study, which followed 420,000 Danish users, many of whom had used phones for more than a decade, found no risk of cancer among them.

Analysts told ABC that the memo would make little impact on the market.

"[Herberman's] theory would have to be seriously corroborated before people began to abandon a technology they are so closely wedded to," said Robert Enderle, a technology analyst and president of the Enderle Group.

"Even if a conclusive link was discovered, I doubt it would make much difference," he said. "People know cigarettes are bad, but they continue to smoke. There are laws requiring people to use headsets while driving because of the danger, but you see people talking on their phones when they're driving all the time."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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