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Technophobes and cell phones
Scripps Howard News Service


December 09, 2006
Tuesday AM

Cell phones can ring annoyingly during speeches and cause people to drive like drunks, and there's more bad news on top of that for trial lawyers planning to siphon off some of the wireless industry's billions through liability lawsuits.

The fresh and persuasive evidence is that phones don't cause brain cancer.

Of course, most of the 219 million users in the United States will be happy to learn of a Danish study of 420,000 cell-phone customers who have been making and receiving calls on the instruments for as long as a decade with no above-average incidence of various kinds of tumors - brain, eye or salivary gland.

This was an exhaustive piece of work, vastly diminishing any credence of vaguely worrisome but far from thorough studies while buttressing a number of other studies finding no health peril or even a reason to suspect one. By the testimony of physicists, the frequencies of cell phones are simply incapable of the molecular damage alleged by alarmists.

But never mind the sound science, some lawyers have as much as said - and will likely still say - while pursuing lawsuits against cell-phone companies supposedly disguising the dangers of their products. The legal fights in progress - although shown to be laughable by the Danish scientists - will probably cost the companies enormous legal fees at a minimum, and may well drive up your cell-phone bills in the cause of rank injustice.

They will do something else, too - underline that in this high-tech, industrialized society of ours, we still have endless fear of whatever is new, some of it emanating from honest mistakes of people doing worthwhile investigation, some of it deriving from opportunists or superstitious, anti-modernist ideologues, and much of it far more than just a little bit harmful.

Remember the Alar scare? You have to go back to 1989 for that one. It was alleged on a "60 Minutes" show that this chemical used in apples would cause childhood cancer, which in fact it would not. The truth emerged and the scare died out in time, but not until the apple industry had suffered a pointless, stupid $375 million setback.

A New York Times article reminding me of this bugaboo recounted others - the concern that two cups of coffee a day, electric blankets and asbestos insulation in schools could cause cancer. Baloney, baloney, baloney is what all of these were, the American Council on Science and Health has noted. That last piece of baloney - the one on asbestos - led Congress to mandate that schools get rid of the insulation, the article notes. In the act of tearing down walls, the safe asbestos was stirred up and got in the air, and then you had a real danger, one costing an incredible $6 billion to create.

Pretty awful, but not so awful as the wacko opposition to genetically modified foods that could be the salvation of literally hundreds of millions of people in the Third World, or the thunderously idiotic opposition to using DDT to fight malaria in Africa. Spraying this pesticide inside huts does not endanger wildlife or human health, but could have saved the lives of millions - yes, millions - from agonizing death.

In these last two cases, those standing in the way have been environmental extremists who might cite science but are actually basing their claims on a kind of semi-religious dogma as well as what Henry Miller, a physician-scientist at the Hoover Institution, has called "technophobia," an irrational fear of technological progress that has been with us a long time. In the 19th century, he said in an interview found on the Internet, technophobes worried that trains going 60 miles per hour would cause chest cavities to cave in.

Not all the worries about cell phones - now so dominant a feature of our lives - are of that nature. Psychologists at the University of Utah contend in a study that auto drivers talking on cell phones are typically as out of control as drunken drivers, and from what I myself have witnessed on the road, I believe them. For your own sake and the sake of others, you should save those calls for emergencies or for when you pull over and stop. But don't let the technophobes or lawyers scare you about brain cancer.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

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Ketchikan, Alaska