Italian Supreme Court Says Cell Phones Cause Brain Tumors: How to Address Your Concerned Mother

Six talking points to prevent undue panic

Miguel Vidal/Reuters

If you haven't already, you will at some point receive a panicked phone call or email from a concerned parent/grandparent/aunt/uncle/colleague about an Italian Supreme Court's ruling on Friday that there is link between cell phones and brain tumors.

The international consensus, still, is that the news doesn't mean much for you -- unless you're Italian and want to get in on a class-action lawsuit. In which there could be some euros coming your way.

There's no new information here about the controversial idea that cell phones might be bad for us. Here's how to reassure the worrier in your life that we're all (probably) going to be just fine:

1. Explain what actually happened.

The decision was based on the case of a man who made work-related calls on his cell phone for six hours a day for twelve years. He developed a neuroma, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50. Yes, it had to be operated on, but it wasn't malignant.

Emphasize the fact that there's a big difference between malignant and non-malignant brain tumors.

2. Put things into context.

He spent six hours a day on the phone. Most people, myself included, do not spend a full quarter of their life with their cell phone pressed up against their head.

Also explain to them that Italians historically tend to be more suspicious of the cellulare than most. To illustrate their cultural uneasiness with mobile technology, the Economist describes how "phone masts in Italy are often disguised, for instance as the arches of a hamburger restaurant, as a palm tree or even as the cross on a famous cathedral."

3. Point them to some other credible authority figures who are less than panicked.

The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society both give very measured responses to questions about the possible dangers of cell phone use. They're open about the fact that more research is needed, but they're far from suggesting that we stop using them, or that they start coming with warning labels as with cigarettes. Both organizations are much more firmly against cigarettes.

The World Health Organization lists cell phones as a "possible carcinogen," which puts it in the same category as lead and chloroform, but also coffee.

The FCC, limits the amount of radiation that can be absorbed by the body from cell phones sold legally in the U.S. Their limit is 1.6 watts per kilogram. My iPhone 4 only emits .988 W/kg, so they say I'm "safe."

Finally, right around this time last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a similar case. Here you might add: "Funny how I don't remember you calling to tell me about that."

4. (a) If they're still pressuring you to go back to having a land line, explain that most experts don't think we have enough evidence at this time to declare a causal link between cell phones and brain tumors.

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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