When I first watched Mad Men, I was struck by how much the characters in practically every scene smoked. It seemed that cigarettes and the surrounding smoke were as ubiquitous in the 1960s as women wearing dresses and heels.* In fifty years, I imagine we might be watching some holographic TV show called “The Information Generation” in which everyone is on a cell phone every minute, and we will chuckle and stare aghast at how naive and uninformed we were as a society about those dangerous cancer-pods.

Although the research up until now has been inconclusive on a purely scientific front, it remained a reasonable concern that we were running fast and headlong into a societal habit that may prove dangerous in the long run. Now the World Health Organization has announced that, in fact, the radiation that comes from cell phones is carcinogenic.

The main concern is that cell phones are conduits for radio-frequency (RF) waves, which are a form of electro-magnetic energy. The concern lies in the fact that waves are strongest near the antenna of a device, and that since a cell phone is held against the head, these waves affect DNA in the body’s tissues.

But the argument has been that since RFs are a form of non-ionizing radiation (like the ones in the microwaves that our mothers told us not to stand in front of when we were kids (which we now know poses almost no risk to us) the risk of damage is really minimal. You can learn more from the FCC, if you want. As the concern over whether cell-phone use should or should not be government-regulated, this group will have something to say, I’m sure.

However, when it comes to our kids, it might be a different story. Since children’s skulls and tissues aren’t as dense, it is possible that the penetration goes deeper, causing a greater potential risk. Some countries have put out warnings that alert the public about the potential dangers of cell phone use, and have strictly limited the marketing of cell phones to users under twelve. But not enough studies have been done solely on children, and since brain tumors take years to develop, it may be years until we know things for sure, like whether the radiation causes other types of cancer, or just how much cell phone exposure (and the intensity) really does any damage?

The announcement from the WHO is based on a review of several different studies that reveal similar results, which basically is that we have full cause now to be officially wary of what cell phones might be doing to us. But a lot of things still aren’t clear, and more research is, and should be, getting done. Wearing an earpiece or headset is recommended, for instance, and it is better to be safe than sorry, if you worry.

Lots of things cause cancer. But people still smoke, and even though the black crunchy grilly-bits that makes the neat black stripes on your grilled meat is technically carcinogenic, who doesn’t love a brat now and then? The question is how much? We don’t know yet definitively about cell phones. But we use our cell phones every day, and it will be helpful in the months and years to come to know whether I need to seriously think about never putting it to my ear again, or never letting my child hold my smart phone, or if I should be shutting it off at night, or steer clear of signal towers, or throw my phone down the toilet like a smoker trying to quit.

Or will there be no need for paranoia? It remains to be seen whether this is a “don’t stand in front of the microwave” unnecessary, unfounded fear, or rather a “by the way, you folks that have been smoking for the past twenty years, nicotine is freakishly addictive…oh, and also, inhaling all that smoke, no matter where it comes from, causes cancer” early-warning sign post?

*Writing this post was very informative for me, as I hope it was for you, too. But it also gave me an excuse to browse for photos of Jon Hamm, which was a delightful use of my time. For those of you interested, here ya go.

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