Death of a Brain Cell

By Jim McVeagh 04/06/2011

I have to say, I much preferred the WHO when they were only a rock and roll band and not a teeming hive of health BureauPrats*. This week, a meeting of the terminally stupid (otherwise known as the International Agency for Research on Cancer – IARC) issued a statement that flies in the face of logic, reason and decent scientific research. They decided to classify radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

To date there is not a single decent study that actually supports this conclusion. There are some anecdotal associations. And then there is the  Interphone study, a large case-controlled study that came to this conclusion:

Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation. (emphasis mine)

This is the study that the Who panel bases it’s flimsy conclusion on. On the possibility that there might be an association between brain cancers and very heavy cell phone use – although this study does not demonstrate that. Bear in mind that this is a VERY large study, but even a study this large could not demonstrate an association with any statistical meaning. In addition, this study has a major methodological flaw in that it established the extent of cell phone exposure by getting people with brain tumours to recall their past cell phone use. This exposed the study to serious “recall bias” because people with tumours unconsciously tend to exaggerate their exposure, desperately trying to work out why they are afflicted by this terrible disease. This means that it is very likely that the association between cell phone use and tumours (already not statistically significant) is likely to be less robust than the study findings.

This is in keeping with the large Swiss and Danish studies which showed no increase in the incidence of brain tumours over a 20 year period, despite a massive increase in cell phone use. These studies were effectively ignored by IARC. The recent US epidemiological study confirms the same result. There is simply no credible evidence that cell phone use causes brain tumours.

A recent study in JAMA did demonstrate that 30 minutes of exposure to EM radiation causes significant increases in brain activity, but this is a long way from showing any evidence of carcogenicity or genotoxicity (cancer formation or genetic damage).

It therefore seems to me that a sensible comment from the WHO would have been simply to state that there is insufficient evidence to make a definitive statement. In placing EM radiation into the nebulous “2b” classification (“Possible” – but no hard evidence available or mechanism of action postulated), the WHO have merely provided endless fodder for the flakes.

For example, Campbell Live last night featured Sue Kedgley, the Green’s resident anti-technologist, making the bizarre assertion that Telcos were acting like the tobacco companies in denying “the evidence”. In actuality, the Telcos are doing the exact opposite. The tobacco companies insisted that the association between cancer and smoking should be proved beyond all doubt. In order to muddy the scientific waters they commissioned small, poorly constructed studies to produce lingering doubts about the association. Eventually, of course, they had to bow to the overwhelming scientific evidence that smoking does indeed cause lung cancer.

Telcos, on the other hand, have the weight of evidence on their side. They have no need to produce “defensive” studies because every decent study is saying the same thing – that there is (at the moment) no evidence of an association. It is “possible” that, with longer exposure, more evidence of carcogenicity may accumulate, but this is pure conjecture, not science.

In addition to Kedgley, there was a “Biologist”, one Bruce Ratley, who was implying that researchers might be fudging their results in order to avoid their funding being cut off. While funding bias is a real phenomenon, there is no funding bias evident in this case. The only study of the ones mentioned above that has significant funding from the Telcos is the Interphone study itself. The study upon which the WHO basis its silly statement.

There are times when it is best to stay silent and await the accumulation of evidence before speaking. Making proclamations, however guarded, simply allows an excitable media and an even more excitable bunch of crackpots the opportunity to exaggerate and sensationalise the issue to the detriment of an increasingly (falsely) alarmed public. All this does is bring the actual science into disrepute when, down the track, the evidence shows that the was never a cause for concern.


*BureauPrat: Professional scientist/clinician who has joined the forces of the damned administrative workforce.


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