One question that invariably comes up when people learn about the environmental and health impact of media and communication technologies is whether cell phones cause brain cancer.

We tell them not to worry, as long as they don’t travel to France.

Before we explain that quip, let’s review some findings about cell phones and their environmental record.

Social scientists give mixed reviews to the devices. On the one hand, cell phones can broaden channels of communication, secure personal safety, integrate family life, improve peer groups, speed up rendezvous, and allow users to produce content, create their own languages, and add special features like customized cases and ring tones—all of which makes people feel important.

On the flip side, these phones may deepen rather than diminish already existing social fragmentation and cause a novel form of inequality, because without one you lack access to the new sociality. They are also biased toward young eyes and dexterous fingers, can spread rumors quickly, distract drivers and pedestrians, and cause interpersonal conflicts between callers.

Whatever allure or dread may be associated with cell phones, we keep buying them. About 96 percent of Americans own one, and they replace them every year. There are over five billion subscribers worldwide. As Nielsen, the world’s leading media ratings company, crassly reports, “more Africans have access to mobile phones than to clean drinking water"

The spread of cell phones ahead of drinking water is only one of the environmental issues raised by these developments.

Cell phones contain enough toxic elements to make a toxicologist’s head spin—half the periodic table is only a slight exaggeration. These include lead, mercury, chromium, nickel, beryllium, antimony, arsenic, and tantalum, the mining of which has caused social and environmental harm in Africa. All need batteries, which contain poisonous components.

Over 130 million of the toxin-laden devices are trashed each year in the US alone. As a growing part of the global electronic waste business (e-waste), cell phone salvage and recycling pose serious health and safety risks for the workers involved: brain damage, headaches, vertigo, nausea, birth defects, diseases of the bones, stomach, lungs, and other vital organs, and disrupted biological development in children.

These conditions result from exposure to heavy metals, dioxin emitted by burning wires insulated with polyvinyl chloride, flame-retardants in circuit boards and plastic casings, and poisonous fumes emitted while melting electronic parts for precious metals.

Cell phones also imperil wildlife. Phone masts kill tens of millions of birds annually in the US, affecting over two hundred species, and erode animals’ natural defenses, health, reproduction and habitat.

On top of all this, cell phones emit radiation. But do they cause cancer or other health risks to their owners?

The answer brings us back to our half-joking travel advisory about France.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which certifies cell phone safety in the US, says there is no “conclusive evidence” or scientific agreement about the links of cancer to cell phone use. This is true in the sense that some studies say yes, some say no, to the question of cell phone cancer risk

But take your phone to France and the risk becomes real. Why?

Because health agencies throughout the European Union have issued warnings based on the scientific studies that say we should worry about cell phone risks: not just two kinds of brain cancer, but also salivary gland tumors, migraines, vertigo, impaired cognitive ability, and behavioral problems in children.

This “better safe than sorry” guideline is known as the precautionary principle. In essence, it means that a lack of scientific consensus is not a sufficient argument against better consumer protection. We won’t be damned by cell phones as we were in the previous century by lead and tobacco.

The precautionary principle informs a French ban on cell phone use by children under six and advertising directed to children under the age of twelve. Similar guidelines exist in Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, India, Israel, Ireland, and Finland. It underpins the European Parliament’s efforts to investigate radiation from Wi-Fi/WiMAX, Bluetooth, and landline cordless phones. And it is influential enough to warrant increased public investment in scientific research and campaigns to educate citizens about safe techniques for using electronics and avoiding transmission towers and high-voltage power lines

Last week, the FCC announced plans to reopen an inquiry into the health effects of cell phone radiation on American consumers But as there’s no precautionary principle in US regulatory thinking, the odds are that the agency will not change its current guidelines.

So should Americans worry about cell phone radiation? Perhaps. Just don’t take your phone out of the country.…

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