Many people are talking about (or actively trying to ignore) the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent declaration that cell phones might actually cause cancer. WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer did a review of dozens of published studies on cell phones and cancer before classifying cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic.” “Possibly carcinogenic” is a specific category that WHO uses to characterize medical risk; other categories include “probably carcinogenic,” “carcinogenic, “ or “probably not carcinogenic”. Other things in the “possibly carcinogenic” category are night-shift work, engine exhaust and coffee. Guess we know what that means? I’ll die from coffee before the cell phone gets me.
Meanwhile, hospital leaders have for years taken extra precautions with cell phones, barring visitors and staff from carrying them into patient areas for fear that they might interfere with medical equipment and monitors. What they didn’t realize was that they had the right villain but the wrong crime, according to a study in the June issue of the American Journal of Infection Control. Turns out that the real risk that cell phones present at hospitals is that they are chock full of bacteria, some of which are resistant to antibiotics (such as MRSA) and all of which are out to get patients and caregivers.
Even worse, the study suggests, it is the patients’ cell phones that cause the bulk of the problem, carrying twice as much gunk into the hospital as the staff’s own cell phones, probably because the staff undertake infection control measures regularly. The creatures found on these cell phones are the very creatures that lead to hospital-acquired infections. In the U.S., there are approximately 1.7 million such infections that cause an estimated 100,000 hospital deaths annually.
This research topic is not new by the way. There have been earlier studies dating back 5+ years showing that mobile phones harbor more germs than the average shoe, toilet seat or men’s room urinal handle. Now there’s a visual. If you weren’t sick enough to be in the hospital already, you probably are now.
And by the way, patients show up at hospitals with far more than their cell phones. They carry in all manner of organisms on their clothes, shoes and purses, among other things. God knows they may even show up with coffee cups, which could be the double whammy given the “potentially carcinogenic” risk of every Starbucks Latte on earth. I’m almost afraid to suggest that someone study the pathogens that trail into the hospital on the stuff belonging to people who visit patients, drop their stuff on the bed and give them a nice juicy kiss. Nasty.
But as to the “deadly” cell phone controversy, it would be interesting to turn WHO’s attention to what might be the more immediate cell phone risk: the fact that every patient, nurse, physician who walks through the hospital door is carrying a potentially lethal set of germs on their cell phone. Not only that, but a whole new generation of cell phone-based medical technology is coming to hospitals and not every vendor is thinking about the infection risk equally. Some are committed to ensuring that their devices can be readily cleaned between patient rooms while others are just selling cell phone apps into hospitals without concern for whether the handsets themselves can be readily disinfected, consequences be damned.
Dr. Jonathan Samet, a University of Southern California physician and epidemiologist and chairman of the World Health Organization committee that deemed cellphones as “potentially carcinogenic” was quoted recently as saying, “We’ve hit the point where today’s children are going to use a cellphone or something like a cellphone for most of their lives. We do need to understand if there is a risk of cancer or anything else.” It is possible that the “anything else” might already be known.