… And I Can’t Shut Up

Remember those commercials from 20 years ago with senior citizens using their electronic buzzers to summon help? “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” was the tag line. A friend of mine used to parody that commercial at parties. “I’m talking and I can’t shut up,” she’d say.

My friend has more self-awareness than many of our fellow citizens. How often are we subjected to someone on a street corner braying into his or her cell phone like a homeless jackass?

Remember when cell phones came out and everyone got one “just for emergencies”? Do you just use your cell phone only for emergencies? Have you EVER used your cell phone for an emergency? It was a contrived justification, like the line about driving an SUV: “I just feel safer.”

This week Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, sent a memo to 3,000 members of the staff, advising them to limit their cell phone use. If they must use a cell phone, Dr. Herberman said, they should use a wireless headset or the speaker phone option. He strongly advised that children not be allowed to use cell phones.

Dr. Herberman admits there is a dearth of peer-reviewed studies to back his position, which is why he issued a memo, rather than a press release. He made news nonetheless. In many cases of carcinogenicity, there’s a latency period between exposure and the onset of cancer. Smoking can cause cancer, but not the morning after your first cigarette. The latency period for many carcinogens is estimated at 20 years. It’s now 20 years since cell phones first came into common use, so if there’s a connection, we may soon start to see epidemiological evidence.

Senator Ted Kennedy’s brain tumor – a glioma – is the type of cancer that can be expected from heavy cell phone use. If cell phone related-cancer begins to emerge, it will first manifest itself among politicians, lobbyists and PR professionals. (For one thing, it would be the rarest form of industrial disease, because usually the cancerous burden falls on the poor and powerless.)

If an adult can cook one’s brain with two decades of cell phone use, the danger is greater for children, whose brains are still developing, which is why Dr. Herberman is so intent on discouraging cell phone use by youngsters. (Fortunately, one does not hold a cell phone up to one’s head when one is texting, which may be the saving grace for the youth.)

What kind of a doctor is this Ronald Herberman anyhow? He doesn’t have any proof cell phones cause cancer – and he admits that – yet here he is warning people not to use them because they MIGHT be harmful.

What if other doctors behaved that way and warned people to avoid things that might harm their health? What if doctors and – heaven forbid, government regulators who are supposed to protect our health – demanded to know if products are safe before they’re put on the market? What if the 6,000 chemicals in common use had to be tested for safety (and for potential interaction with the other 5,999 chemicals)?

OK, OK, let me get off my high horse for a minute and let’s talk (perhaps by cell phone). Now that you’ve heard Dr. Herberman’s warning, are you going to give it up or cut down your use or use a wireless headset or use the speaker phone option? I don’t think the cell phone makers are too worried about this. As soon as I read the article, I started thinking up excuses – “I didn’t own a cell phone until six years ago and I didn’t use one often until two years ago….” So what? So I’ve got 18 years before I worry about brain cancer?

We’re all hooked and the phone companies know we’re hooked. We don’t really like our cell phones – I don’t like mine – but 20 years on, the social latency period has expired, we’ve integrated them into our lives and we’d have a hard time getting along without them.

That much has already been proved by the enormous cell phone bills we pay every month.

© Mark Floegel, 2008

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