From the Crowd

Commentary and analysis from outside voices in venture capital, hedge funds and economics

Your cell phone IS trying to kill you

June 9, 2011: 1:58 PM ET

We don't yet know if cell phones really cause cancer. But we do know another way they are lethal, and have mostly ignored it.

By Lisa Suennen, contributor

Many people are talking about (or actively trying to ignore) the World Health Organization's recent declaration that cell phones are "possibly carcinogenic" and might cause cancer. "Possibly carcinogenic" is a specific category that WHO uses to characterize medical risk, and also has been attached to 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 the real risk cell phones present at hospitals is that they are chock full of bacteria, some of which are resistant to antibiotics, and all of which are out to get patients and caregivers.

Even worse, the study suggests, patient cell phones carry twice as much gunk into the hospital as hospital staff cell phones, probably because the staff undertake infection control measures regularly. The creatures found on these devices are the very ones that lead to hospital-acquired infections, of which in the U.S. there are 1.7 million annually (causing an estimated 100,000 deaths).

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, and physician who walks through the hospital door is carrying a potentially lethal set of germs. 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.

Lisa Suennen is a co-founder and Managing Member of Psilos Group, a healthcare-focused venture capital firm with over $577 million under management. 

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