By now, most people have read something from one or both sides of the story regarding new preliminary data published about cell phones and cancer, which Mother Jones referred to as “game changing.” As I would expect, David Gorski wrote a great summary at Science-Based Medicine. He includes links to several stories, and runs through some of the science. I’m going to highlight and concur with a couple of his points, and take issues with one or two others.
What is being reported is that the electromagnetic radiation (which I will abbreviate going forward as EMF or RF) from cell phones can increase the incidence of cancer. This initial reporting comes from the preliminary publication of a large study being done with rats and various doses of frequencies associated with the two frequency bands most commonly used in cellular signals. It is important to note this is preliminary data, that has had some internal review, but no peer review as it has not been formally submitted for publication in a journal. It is not out of the ordinary to do this, but it is important not to draw firm conclusions without having all of the details. But many media outlets ran with the fear anyway.
A constant refrain in many skeptical and science circles is how terrible science reporting is. It is a difficult challenge. It’s hard to get clicks with headlines such as: “Marginally Interesting Preliminary Data Gives Reason for Further Study.” Key words like “game changing,” “large study,” and “government study” all lead to using sensationalism or fear to obtain clicks. It is not an easy problem to solve. Fear is much easier to sell than scientific literacy and pragmatism. Just see the current U.S. presidential election. The best we can do at this point is counter this bad reporting by putting out a more realistic assessment in channels of science, and hope the word spreads.
It isn’t that all publications are selling fear wholesale. Certainly this data should make us pause and think more deeply about what it means. But there are sites, such as Natural News, that went into pure fear mongering. The easy irony here is how quickly “the Health Ranger” trusts a government study when it gives him fear to sell, but government data is not to be trusted when it doesn’t produce clicks for his site.
I did download the preliminary publication (PDF) and a few things stand out almost immediately that would make one question how fearful one should be. The most interesting piece of data is that overall, almost all groups of rats exposed to radio frequencies actually had longer lifespans than the control groups in both sexes. If I was willing to jump to the same conclusions as some of the early reporting of this data, I would say cell phones are actually good for our health and could help us live longer. I’ll take it!
As Gorski points out in his article, the number of rats that ended up with these rare cancers is so small, it is hard to call it significant. It also makes it harder to believe these cancers are caused by the cellular radiation when there is a difference in gender. Gorski also brings in experience from his field, knowing these particular rats should have a background rate of this type of cancer, it was very unusual that none of the control group developed these cancers. While it is possible that this could happen, it might also indicate something else happened in the control group that caused this unusual zero result. Lastly, the number of rats that developed cancer did not seem to have a dose dependence, which would seem to further weaken the idea it was the RF causing the cancers.
Gorski is doubtful that the frequencies used by researchers—which are similar to the frequencies used in cell phones—are non-ionizing, meaning that they aren’t energetic enough to affect tissue, according to our current understanding. I disagree with him. We emit electromagnetic fields at much higher frequencies than cell phones, just by being at body temperature. If EMF were to cause damage, we would harm ourselves just by being warm-blooded. He agrees the chances of RF causing cancer are extremely low, just not as low as us physicists claim. The argument is a subtle one, as to who has the right degree of smallness.
One thing I couldn’t seem to find is how the researchers were able to ensure that the rats were dosed evenly. If more than one rat was in a cage, it is possible the rats were not getting the dose in which they were grouped. I could see the possibility of a few rats getting a much higher dose, and it is possible that thermodynamic effects helped trigger these cancers. Considering the rats where this effect was noticed were males, and the sizes of the exposed were statistically different during development, the heating effect seems at least plausible (considering my limited biological understanding). Testicles can be pretty sensitive to temperature, so much so that the testicles of a human are most efficient at producing sperm a few degrees below body temperature. If I were to use my non-expertise to look for plausibility, perhaps these cancers were a side effect of other changes in the body, such as specific hormone balances in the males. Because it would be impossible to measure all body parts, and hormone levels weren’t tested, it is impossible to know. While there were some small pilot studies done to ensure overall body temperature wasn’t changed by the RF exposure, there was no data included to see how it was measured or where it was measured.
Overall, this study at most might get you to consider using a headset with your phone if you are really worried. Even a few inches of distance from your phone reduces the energy to which you are exposed, thus a headset is a simple and actually convenient precaution to take if you are really worried about exposure. And if you are on your phone for nine hours a day, every day, I would consider changing your phone habits. Try meeting a few of those people for coffee instead. And don’t worry: as long as you don’t talk to your rats for nine hours a day, every day on the phone, they will be just fine too.