Don’t Worry, You Can Still Give Your Rat that New Phone for its Birthday

Don't do this to your phone!

Don’t do this to your phone!

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.

Via Wikimedia commons

Via Wikimedia commons

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.

About Eric Hall

My day job is teaching physics at the University of Minnesota, Rochester. I write about physics, other sciences, politics, education, and whatever else interests or concerns me. I am always working to be rational and reasonable, and I am always willing to improve my knowledge and change my mind when presented with new evidence.
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11 Responses to Don’t Worry, You Can Still Give Your Rat that New Phone for its Birthday

  1. NoseyNick says:

    I was led to believe the rats in the RF also lived longer, and thus also had more years in which to develop the cancers? You’ll notice the headlines don’t say “Cell phones might make you live longer”, they say “cell phones might cause cancer” :-/

  2. Wrynose says:

    Gorski’s article states “Cell phones do not emit ionizing radiation; they emit electromagnetic radiation in the microwave spectrum whose energy is far too low to cause the DNA damage that leads to mutations that lead to cancer.” yet you seem to imply that he says the opposite – that he doubts that they are non-ionizing and then say that you disagree with him.

    I suspect that either in adding clauses and explanations of what ionizing means, you may have tripped over your words or your parsing of what Gorski says – or that in an earlier version of his article, Gorski might have had a confusing turn of phrase which he has since clarified.

    Anyhow, you, he and I clearly agree that microwave photons are many orders of magnitude too low in energy to cause ionization, or for that matter to even excite electrons into higher energy quantum states (aside from hyperfine transitions such as Cesium atomic clock transitions).

    It certainly does seem that the control group was unusually cancer-free for this breed of rats – something of an anomaly, thereby anomalously boosting the apparent difference in certain other groups under test, most probably by chance variation, especially given the prior implausibility, the unexpected sex selectivity and the lack of apparent dose response.

  3. Karolyn says:

    I saw a video recently of people surrounding a few popcorn kernels with 3 cell phones and then calling them, which popped the kernels. Not very scientific but does make one wonder… Of course, I don’t have to worry anyway because I rarely use a cellphone.

  4. Tony says:

    i was reading some where that it’s the digital modulation in the tens of hertz range that might be responsible for effecting DNA hence cancer risk. Not the actual UHF radio energy from the phone.
    The digital modulation sits on the UHF signal..

    • NoseyNick says:

      Doesn’t that seem even LESS likely? You have to get up to about petaHz (10^14 Hz) before it’s ionizing.

      • Tony says:

        Who said anything about ionization – we all know that starts to become measurable at Ultra Violet part of spectrum.
        I perhaps should have said immune response rather than DNA – But there’s a hypothesis about ELF electromagnetic fields and it’s effect on immune function.
        Some say for instance there’s a correlation between leukemia and living near power lines (50/60Hz)

        just google it..

    • Wrynose says:

      The modulation on top of the carrier frequency will simply great sidebands above and below the central carrier frequency that will be band-limited by design (the filters are necessary to stop one channel interfering with another). Even turning the signal on and off is done in a band-limited fashion because abrupt switching would again cause interference to neighbouring channels. The receivers too have narrowband filters to reduce the noise floor and cross-channel interference. All this means that still, frequencies are far too low (and thus photon energies are far too low by many orders of magnitude) to cause ionization of any atom.

  5. WorkingInACopshop says:

    Cell phones are the techno-version of alcohol and opium: invented for a purpose and widely abused in an addictive process by people who refuse to think.

    If telling people that they cause cancer will inspire people to refrain from using them while driving or giving them to children not thereafter supervised, go for it.

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