Living in a divisive world
Buzzwords of 2015

Death by cellphone?

Cell-phone (1)Could your cell phone be killing you?

One of the points we make in Public Relations Ethics is that practitioners have an ethical obligation to reveal potential dangers in any product or service they promote. In fact, if the danger is near-certain, as in the case of smoking or climate change denial, it would be unethical to promote it at all.

This story in the New York Times demonstrates how difficult it can be, to assess product risks, especially when experts can't agree.

Cell phone use is now so ubiquitous, there are actually more handsets than people in some countries, such as the U.S., Brazil, and Russia.  But almost from the beginning, some studies purported to show a link between cellphone use and brain tumors.  

Other scientists reviewed the data and deemed the links tenuous at best. For example, some studies bombarded tissue in a petri dish with far more radiation than anyone would experience in normal use. And as Jane Brody pointed out in her Times column, "While the incidence of brain tumors has risen slightly in recent years, there has been no disproportionate increase in tumors near the ears, despite a meteoric rise in cell phone use."

Still, no one can prove conclusively that cell phone use is risk-free. As the Times' story demonstrates, that situation hasn't changed much in since I first faced it at AT&T in 1993.

What we did then still seems like the ethical approach. We acknowledged the controversy, pointing out that there was no conclusive evidence on either side. We funded more independent research. We offered free earphones for anyone who wanted to eliminate even the possible risk. And we cautioned customers about the very real -- and provable risk -- of driving while talking on a cellphone handset, as opposed to handsfree devices.  (Today, the risk of texting is even higher.)

So, yes, no one can prove your cell phone won't make you sick or even kill you. But the risk it will happen while you're texting while driving is a near certainty. 






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