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.

Two major studies in the past two years played down the cancer risk. A study of every single adult over the age of 30 in Denmark found no link between having a cell phone contract and an increased risk of developing brain cancer. And a long-term, international study found no more than a suggestion of a possible increased risk of developing a glioma, and then only at very high exposure levels. They weren't very comfortable making any strong conclusions, and just recommended more research be done.

There may be more that we haven't seen yet, but it's pretty ballsy at this point for the court to declare that cell phones are directly causing brain tumors. Most scientists are way more comfortable talking about associations, which is why you're always hearing that X may cause Y, or that certain activities are related to certain outcomes.

4. (b) If they feel bad about panicking and wasting your time, concede and validate.

Well, talking on a cell phone is a little bit like microwaving your brain, in that both cell phones and microwaves emit the same type of radiation. Also, a study found that 50 minutes of cell phone exposure is associated with increased brain glucose metabolism, of "unknown clinical significance," meaning they don't know whether or not it's a bad thing. It's probably not a good thing, though.

The decision in Italy was largely based on the research of Swedish cancer specialist Lennart Hardell, who the court found credible largely because he wasn't tied to any mobile phone companies. In looking at the data from 8 studies, he found that there was a five-fold increase in glioma risk tied to cell phone use before the age of 20. Children, he says, due to their smaller brains and thinner bones, are more susceptible to the negative consequences of being microwaved.

5. Promise them that, since we don't yet have a complete picture of the negative health effects of cell phone use, you'll consider taking some simple protective measures.

"I'll try to wear earphones or use Bluetooth/speaker phone whenever I call you. And yes, I promise I'll start calling you more. I've just been busy. And next time, why don't you text me instead of calling? That way, you don't have to worry that you're catching me at a bad time, and you also don't have to worry that you're giving me cancer. So everybody wins."

6. In case they're disappointed that there isn't more to this whole cancer thing, remind them that there's a lot more dangerous stuff you can do with a cell phone, like texting while driving, sexting, or throwing your iPhone at someone's head. Encourage them to get started warning people about that stuff instead.