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What Do Cell Phones and Pickles Have in Common?

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The World Health Organization startled many this week when it said cell phones might cause brain cancer, going against the conventional wisdom that cell phones and cancer are not associated, says Forbes' Matthew Herper. But putting the WHO warning in context can be reassuring. WHO said a study showed cell phone usage may cause a 40 percent increased risk of glioma. Herper says there are 22,000 cases of brain cancer in the US per year, about 30 percent of which — 8,000 cases — are gliomas. About 300 million people in the US have cell phones — if everyone's risk of glioma rose by 40 percent because of cell phone use, the number of gliomas in the US per year would increase by 3,000 cases, he adds, equating that to a one in 100,000 increase in risk for each person. But the WHO study showed that the increase in risk is only relevant to the 10 percent of people who use cell phones the most, which would realistically mean an increase of a couple hundred more cases of glioma in the US per year. There are far scarier statistics when it comes to cancer risk, Herper says — like the rise in the number of throat cancer cases due to HPV, for example. Also, he adds, the incidence of gliomas over the past 35 years has remained relatively flat, even slightly decreasing, even as the use of cell phones has risen dramatically. And, according to the American Cancer Society's chief medical officer, WHO put cell phones in the same risk category as coffee and pickles. "If there is a reason to care about this data, it's this: if there is any risk of glioma, you could probably avoid it by using an earpiece or speaker phone for long cell phone conversations, and we could encourage cell phone manufacturers to design their phones to help people do that," Herper says. "But cell phones also improve our lives in numerous ways, and the evidence of risk just doesn't warrant much change."

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