Over and over, the health of an industry has collided with the health of its employees or those who use its products. From coal mining (black lung) to asbestos (asbestosis and mesothelioma) to hormone replacement therapy (uterine cancer, breast cancer) to exposure to electromagnetic fields, industry insisted that none of these exposures had any harmful effects on health.
Usually the battles were of the David and Goliath variety: billion-dollar industries successfully fought worker and citizen claims for many years before David prevailed. Eventually the tide turned, but many people were injured by noxious exposures long after good quality science had shown them be harmful.
If a product definitely causes high rates of cancer, you ban or severely restrict its use. Johns Manville, an asbestos producer, filed for bankruptcy as a result, but was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway in 2001 and continues to manufacture (safer) insulation.
But what if a product might cause cancer, especially in children exposed over a long period? Because a long exposure is needed to cause damage, an appropriate intervention could have significant positive effects. The science is very suggestive that the most malignant brain cancer (glioblastoma) and a benign brain tumor of the auditory nerve (acoustic neuroma) increase in cell phone users after 10 years of use, and the effect is more pronounced in children’s brains. But the science isn’t absolutely positive, and research in this area is continuing.
It is not appropriate to ban cell phones. But since proven ways to reduce exposure to cell phone emissions exist — and by taking advantage of these measures any cancer risk will be reduced — it is appropriate to warn and educate the public about this matter. Some would say that knowledgeable scientists and physicians have a professional duty to warn consumers.
An added benefit is that cell phone reception can be improved by using headsets that keep phone transmitters further from the brain.
Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, has introduced a bill to require cell phone manufacturers to include a warning label on packaging of cell phones designed for sale to children in Maine. Passage of the bill would not cost the state or consumers a penny, but will, in the best sense, embody the goals of the Precautionary Principle to inform and empower the public about an important health concern for which the data are suggestive, but not absolute.
Meryl Nass, M.D., is an internist at Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor and chairman of the Commission to Protect the Lives and Health of Members of the Maine National Guard.