A Thought Experiment on Mobile Phones and Mortality Risk

by Reihan Salam

Siddhartha Mukherjee has written an epic piece for the NYT Magazine on whether cellphone radiation is carcinogenic:

Populationwide studies have failed to demonstrate an increased incidence; retrospective trials have been contradictory and riddled with biases; animal studies negative; human physiological experiments inconclusive; cellular studies inconsistent and weak. What is clearly needed, experts agree, is a single, definitive, unbiased study — “one trial,” to borrow Paget’s terminology. Logistically speaking, the simplest such human trial is a case-control study that compares cancer patients with healthy patients, using phone-log data that companies have thus far been reluctant to provide. The simplest animal study involves subjecting rats and mice to long-term exposure to cellphone radiation. The National Toxicology Program has begun such a study. Cellphone radiation will be turned on and off for 10-minute stretches for 20 hours each day. This experiment — the closest we will get to making mice use actual cellphones — is likely to be published in 2014.

As Mukherjee goes on to explain, even this study will be far from definitive, in part because there could be 50-70 years of lag time and cellphones have only been in wide use for a few decades. 

But I wonder: how many months or years of your life would you trade for the extraordinary convenience afforded us by the spread of cellphones? If I expected to live to a ripe old age of, say, 125, I think I’d happily sacrifice 4-5 years, and more if pressed. I’d sacrifice a decade to eat large quantities of animal protein with every meal. Sugar I could do without. (Some have posited that there is a link between exposure to cellphone radiation and male infertility, which is a whole other kettle of fish.) 

All this is to say that it helps to think about these risks dispassionately. Life is about tradeoffs. There are, however, legitimate questions regarding the policy implications. If, as Gary Taubes suggests, sugar really is the root of the rich world’s public health woes:

If Lustig is right, then our excessive consumption of sugar is the primary reason that the numbers of obese and diabetic Americans have skyrocketed in the past 30 years. But his argument implies more than that. If Lustig is right, it would mean that sugar is also the likely dietary cause of several other chronic ailments widely considered to be diseases of Western lifestyles — heart disease, hypertension and many common cancers among them.

I’d say that’s a rock-solid case for not subsidizing its consumption, which is something we do quite enthusiastically at present. The rush of eating sugary foods could be worth the heart disease, hypertension, etc., for us as individuals, but the socialization of medical expenditures, whether through tax expenditures or direct public programs, adds a wrinkle. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.