The Cell Phone Cancer Question, Again

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The debate over whether electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and other wireless technology causes cancer rages on. Yesterday, an advocacy group called the National Institute for Science, Law, and Public Policy sent a letter to journalists and lawmakers urging them to “learn about the health consequences of microwave radiation exposure from cell phones, neighborhood antennas, wireless networks, wireless routers, DECT portable phones, and the potential health consequences of further chronic exposures from wireless broadband and new wireless utility technologies.”

The folks behind this latest media blitz are some of the same ones who authored the controversial BioInitiative Report in 2007, which linked wireless radiation to cancer and a host of other health problems.* When I investigated the issue of whether cell phones cause brain cancer last spring, I was told by some BioInitiative authors that we’d finally have the answer in a few months, when the conclusive results from the multinational Interphone Study, the holy grail of cell phone health research, would finally be released.

But a year later, the results still haven’t been released. Why not?


Some say the Interphone scientists have serious qualms about publishing what could be seriously flawed research. The Economist reports:

One problem was what statisticians call selection bias. Interphone began by gathering a group of people who had had the cancers of interest (glioma, meningioma, acoustic neurinoma and parotid gland tumour) and questioning them about their past use of mobile phones. The researchers then approached a number of healthy people in order to compare them with the cancer patients, and find out if there was a systematic difference in mobile-phone use between the two groups. Some of those approached agreed, and some declined. Of those who agreed to take part, 59% were regular mobile-phone users as defined by the study’s protocol. Later on, those who had declined were recontacted and asked about their mobile use. Among this group, only 34% were regular users. That meant those in the control group were more likely than average to be regular users, and therefore were not representative of the population at large.

Moreover, the definition of “regular mobile-phone use” was itself questionable. Anyone who had used a phone just once a week for at least six months qualified. That is a pretty low rate of usage. If phones really do cause cancer, but only at high exposure, employing such a generous definition of regular use means that the effect might be diluted into undetectability.

Another potentially serious flaw is that participants asked in 2001-02 about their mobile use a decade earlier will have been using analogue, not digital, handsets. That would lead to a different pattern of exposure and therefore of potential risk.

So does this mean you can quit worrying that your cell phone will give you cancer? Unfortunately, no. It just means we need better research, the kind that tracks large groups of people over years, instead of relying on self-reporting. And that’s going to take a while. In the meantime, some people are playing it safe. For example: In May, France banned cell phones in primary schools.

So I’m curious: Do you use an earpiece to protect yourself from potentially hazardous cell-phone radiation? Do you worry about the health effects of wi-fi? Post your thoughts in the comments.

*Correction appended: I erroneously referred to the people of the National Institute for Science, Law, and Public Policy as the same ones who authored the BioInitiative Report. The two groups aren’t related. I apologize for the error.


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