The Independent scaremongering over mobile phone radiation

The Independent wants to know whether mobile phones are killing bees. They claim that bees are disappearing all over the world, and that studies have shown mobile phone radiation may be sending them astray. According to an entomologist on the radio this afternoon this is based on a study where a mobile phone transmitter was placed directly inside the hive, and has rather dubious real-world validity. But that’s not what I wanted to mention. The last third of the article trots out a lot of unjustified hysteria over mobile phone radiation:

Evidence of dangers to people from mobile phones is increasing. But proof is still lacking, largely because many of the biggest perils, such as cancer, take decades to show up.

You can just about read this as objective, if you stand on your head and squint your eyes a bit.

Most research on cancer has so far proved inconclusive. But an official Finnish study found that people who used the phones for more than 10 years were 40 per cent more likely to get a brain tumour on the same side as they held the handset.

No it didn’t. Here’s the abstract from the International Journal of Cancer:

We found no evidence of increased risk of glioma related to regular mobile phone use (odds ratio, OR = 0.78, 95% confidence interval, CI: 0.68, 0.91). No significant association was found across categories with duration of use, years since first use, cumulative number of calls or cumulative hours of use. When the linear trend was examined, the OR for cumulative hours of mobile phone use was 1.006 (1.002, 1.010) per 100 hr, but no such relationship was found for the years of use or the number of calls. We found no increased risks when analogue and digital phones were analyzed separately. For more than 10 years of mobile phone use reported on the side of the head where the tumor was located, an increased OR of borderline statistical significance (OR = 1.39, 95% CI 1.01, 1.92, p trend 0.04) was found, whereas similar use on the opposite side of the head resulted in an OR of 0.98 (95% CI 0.71, 1.37). Although our results overall do not indicate an increased risk of glioma in relation to mobile phone use, the possible risk in the most heavily exposed part of the brain with long-term use needs to be explored further before firm conclusions can be drawn.

There was no evidence of increased risk in the vast majority of their studies. The only worry is a borderline statistically significant result indicating that people who’ve used mobile phones for more than ten years, exclusively on one side of the head, are more likely to get a tumour on that side of their head. I’m not sure whether this is actually increasing the odds of getting a tumour, or saying that if they get a tumour in the first place, it’s more likely to be on the side of the head they use their mobile phone. From the phrasing I suspect the former. Either way, the numbers are really, really small, and that the side of the head is reported in hindsight by people already with brain tumours (and therefore possibly suspicious of mobile phones) certainly doesn’t warrant drawing any conclusion beyond ‘further research is necessary’. It’s definitely not enough to make sweeping statements like the Independent has. This isn’t a case of the result probably being true and scientists just being picky, it’s a genuine lack of evidence to make any kind of conclusion. My grasp on statistical methods is fuzzy, but I’m also willing to bet that an odds ratio of 1.39 isn’t the same as being 40% more likely, in this case. Back to the Independent:

Equally alarming, blue-chip Swedish research revealed that radiation from mobile phones killed off brain cells, suggesting that today’s teenagers could go senile in the prime of their lives.

In rats. Assuming they’re talking about a 2003 study. There is no evidence to suggest that mobile phone radiation damages human brain cells. It’s known that mobile phone use can affect the brain, but no damage has been detected. Again, this isn’t a matter of it probably being true in humans too – plenty of tests on animals simply don’t apply to humans. At most it’s a reason to continue researching and isn’t enough to draw a conclusion, especially one so nutty as ‘today’s teenagers could go senile in the prime of their lives’. Where the hell did that come from?

Studies in India and the US have raised the possibility that men who use mobile phones heavily have reduced sperm counts. And, more prosaically, doctors have identified the condition of “text thumb”, a form of RSI from constant texting.

RSI? You’re bringing up RSI in a piece about the supposed deadly effects of mobile phone radiation? I’m perfectly willing to believe that somebody could get RSI from excessive texting. Quick, call the Pope. As far as I can tell, the sperm count studies seem to indicate that people who use mobile phones for many hours a day have smaller sperm counts. But it’s not thought that the radiation itself is causing the problem – there’s no real theoretical mechanism for this, for a start – more likely that it’s a substitute for some other factor. If people are on the phone for so long, are they sitting down the whole time? What kind of lifestyles do they have? What are they eating? How much exercise do they get? Studies need to control for these things before such conclusions can be reached.

Professor Sir William Stewart, who has headed two official inquiries, warned that children under eight should not use mobiles and made a series of safety recommendations, largely ignored by ministers.

No he didn’t. He said, in his 2000 report:

If there are currently unrecognised adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones, children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head (paragraph 4.37), and a longer lifetime of exposure. In line with our precautionary approach, we believe that the widespread use of mobile phones by children for non-essential calls should be discouraged.

He recommended that children be discouraged from using mobile phones not because of any evidence of adverse health effects, but because if any are discovered they would affect children more than adults due to the differing physiologies. This seems reasonable to me, since there’s little reason for under 8s to be regularly using mobile phones anyway. The precautionary approach detailed in the report is laid out on the basis of possible future discoveries, with effort put into finding a reasonable balance between caution and outright paranoia. The final sentence of the Independent report is useless without any details, and I can’t be bothered checking to see whether every recommendation has been implemented.

The health effects of electromagnetic radiation are the subject of huge amounts of research, as you’d hope. If there are any dangers to using a mobile phone, I want to bloody know about it! But with the evidence not suggesting anything to worry about, the Independent article is nothing more than scaremongering, and doesn’t help anybody.