Cell Phones and Cancer – Scaremongering from the Independent

The Independent has yet another hysterical article about the potential link between cell phones and brain cancer. And I’ve been asked, what are we seeing here? Is this the early reporting of a potential public health threat? Or is it just more nonsense from a newspaper that wouldn’t know good science if it sat on it’s head? Both Ben Goldacre and I have felt the need to take on some piece of nonsense from the Independent, and their previous writing on “electrosmog”, a repeatedly disproven piece of crankery, diminishes their credibility on this issue.

And guess what else diminishes their credibility here? Only about every single aspect of this article. For one they start out with an irresponsible claim about the risks of cell-phone use that I won’t bother to repeat since it will just reinforce an unproven statement.

Second, where is this study? I looked for it. I searched for the author’s name in pubmed, and while he’s well-published, there’s nothing about cell phones.

Yet they claim the study has been published:

The study, by Dr Vini Khurana, is the most devastating indictment yet published of the health risks.

But then we find out that this study isn’t “published”, the results are just on a “brain surgery website”. After a little more digging I found it here published on Dr. Khurana’s webpage. Just a little reminder for the Independent, putting a paper on a webpage does not make it “published” in a fashion equivalent to publication in a scientific journal, and they would do well to correct this in their article. I know they won’t because I’ve noted a total lack of journalistic responsibility in their science coverage, but one can dream. Then I see this:

Professor Khurana – a top neurosurgeon who has received 14 awards over the past 16 years, has published more than three dozen scientific papers – reviewed more than 100 studies on the effects of mobile phones. He has put the results on a brain surgery website, and a paper based on the research is currently being peer-reviewed for publication in a scientific journal.

Currently being peer-reviewed? This means this paper is unpublished and merely submitted for review. Further, it’s a very strange move to take a paper that is being considered for publication to put it into the public domain. This means that it’s either been rejected from wherever was supposed to take it, or the author doesn’t realize this will likely sabotage its chances of being published. I simply don’t understand this move. Dr. Khurana appears to be a legitimate scientist, but that doesn’t make this any less inappropriate a method of publishing such a result. Since he hasn’t gone through proper peer-review channels before making this article available I think this means it’s fair game for me to criticize, and there’s plenty of room for that.

For one, he has an entire section on “Popular Press and the Internet” which consists of anecdotal reports of cancer clusters in the press, crank websites repeating false claims about cell phones and second-hand reporting on scientific articles. This is hardly a scientific approach to epidemiology or risk assessment, and should be dismissed out of hand as unworthy of discussion in a scientific paper. A review of the literature does not include citations of “www.EMF-Health.com”, no kidding, this is one of the sources he mentions. A website that sells the Q-link, a quack remedy for a nonexistent malady!

Then I see this statement:

In other words, if cell phones interfere with aircraft and hospital electrical equipment (even at quite a distance), how can it be that they don’t interfere with the electrical equipment of the head (i.e., the brain, when held for extended periods of time right next to this

Who’s done with this guy now? Do you even have to go on after a statement so absurd? This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of physics and biology and a terrible argument from analogy. It’s an especially bad analogy as the evidence seems to be that cell phones have no effect on plane equipment to the point the FAA has long considered dropping the ban. Finally there is very little physical basis for a carcinogenic link between these radiofrequencies and cancer, so what would be the mechanism? The EM bands used by cell phones are non-ionizing, and do not have a physically plausible mechanism for causing cancer.

So far we only a couple pages in, have incredibly questionable sourcing and a terrible argument from analogy, l’ve already dismissed this as unworthy of consideration, should we bother to keep going? Ok, maybe a little further.

For one there is a problem with consistency of the argument here. The author mentions other radiofrequency exposures such as CB radio:

What about “walkie-talkies” or “CB (Citizens’ Band) radios”? Unfortunately,
these devices emit at relatively very high power outputs (e.g., 3-4 W) compared
to mobile and cordless phones, even though their frequency bands may be lower.
They are considered to be the worst offenders of all the mainstream hand-held
“wireless” two-way communication devices in terms of electromagnetic radiation
exposure. They are widely used by our emergency services, armed forces,
construction sites, trucking industry airports and rural communities.

However these devices have been employed for many more decades than cell phones without any observation of higher rates of brain tumors in these types of professions. This argument hurts his position, and is a claim of health risk despite a complete absence of evidence.

Then there is the highly implausible suggestion that the risk from cell phones is thermal:

The potential effects of mobile phone-associated electromagnetic radiation on tissues include “thermal” and “non-thermal”. Thermal effects are due to tissues being heated by rotations of molecules induced by the electromagnetic field. In the case of a cell phone, the
head/ear surfaces close to the phone may be induced to heat. This heating has been thought to cause molecules within cells called “heat-shock proteins” to become activated and repeated activation of such proteins by microwaves/electromagnetic radiation can lead to cellular events culminating in cancerous transformation of the cell (C. Jolly & R.I. Morimoto, “Role of heatshock
response and molecular chaperones in oncogenesis and cell death”; Journal of the National Cancer Institute (2000) Volume 92; pages 1564-1761).

Dear god, the next source of cancer is going to be hot water bottles. Further, the warmth you feel from your cell phones is due to heat released from discharge of energy from the battery, not from microwave heating of your tissues. Not all microwaves induce vibration of water, it has to be a specific wavelength. Your body is more than capable of handling small amounts of warmth and such a mechanism is thoroughly implausible for oncogenesis otherwise we’d have tumors all over from hot tubs and heated blankets or any routine exposure to heat.

It just gets worse and worse. By the time he cites this paper to suggest certain magnetic flux densities have been empirically found to be dangerous I’ve given up on taking this as a serious work of scholarship. It reflects absolutely no competence in judging quality of sources or in appropriate reading of papers as the paper does not show this. The paper mentions these levels but it is not the appropriate citation, and overall is a silly piece of work I wouldn’t cite for anything.

The evidence he cites for increasing rates of brain tumors is contrary to the assertion that these tumors have become more frequent in the general population due to cell phones as it is not contemporaneous with cell phone usage, and more frequent detection of tumors by CT and MRI modalities is a far more plausible explanation. Most of the papers that show an increase that he cites showed the increase before significant exposure to cell phones existed. It’s only been in the last 15 years or so that they have become ubiquitous. The only paper that comes remotely close to suggesting a real effect is this Hardell Paper,and this is nothing new and too preliminary to make me very worried. This does not stop him from making claims at the end of the paper that brain malignancies are increasing, or that bluetooth devices turn your head into “an effective, potentially self-harming antenna.”

So, to sum up.
1) There is nothing new here at all so the Independent’s claims that this is some breakthrough are absurd.
2) This is not a systematic review, and there are many cranky features.
3) Don’t get me started on the bolding, scientific writing doesn’t typically bold in every sentence for emphasis and it made me totally nuts reading it.
4) There is very poor evaluation of sources throughout the paper with many inappropriate selection of articles from poor sources of information, as well as a very biased presentation of the basic science literature evaluating this problem.
5) Biological effects from the thermal gradients or small amounts of energy absorbed from the non-ionizing radiation from cell phones do not present a plausible carcinogenic mechanism, and the studies cited using cell culture and the Hsp hypotheses are unimpressive for various reasons.
6) If you really want to make cell phones safer don’t let people use them while driving.
7) This is alarmist, sloppy work that won’t get published in a reputable journal.

I’ll be more than happy to suggest cell phones should be improved for safety concerns if more convincing data emerges. This report is unimpressive, and as usual the Independent has shown its incompetence in judging scientific material. Will this stop this article from making the rounds of the blogosphere? I wouldn’t bet on it. No one actually checks sources, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t be able to figure out why this is not new or impressive.

I’m not saying it’s impossible we’ll find out cell phones have some ill health effect, it’s just highly improbable, and the data so far is unconvincing. There is a lot of crankery about electrosmog and various other nonsensical fears of “radiation” from people who clearly slept through physics class. The Independent has been at the forefront of promoting such nonsense, and this is no exception.

21 thoughts on “Cell Phones and Cancer – Scaremongering from the Independent”

  1. I read the article of Professor Khurana. It’s nice but i think, excess Use of Mobile Phone can be dangerous for our health but if we use it carefully we can save our life from harmful electromagnetic radiation.

  2. Considering the “types” who use cell phones while sitting in restaurants, shouldn’t the concern be for carcinoma of the anus?

  3. I don’t know if you actually read the whole thing but his research method was as he puts it: personally reviewing over a 100 sources of information extracted from the medical literature and the Internet and popular Press (Google and MSN searches using the same keywords and combinations)…wow (he actually wrote the google thing).
    So, he just sat down, read and summarized. The article has clearly no been peer-reviewed (at least I would like to think, it needs urgent editing). It may be valid as a “Guide to the study of EM radiation effects on humans” but nothing more. As you justly said, this is the result of poor journalism (let alone scientific journalism).

  4. The fulliest thing is that the same people who want the brain radiation waves reduced want a stronger cellphone signal.

    How come people are so willing to believe one crank on the internet, but won’t ever believe the volume of other people countering that point?

  5. Fascinating.

    Of course, like any sensible person (as I’ve written in the past) I think there is a possibility that mobile phones might cause long term health problems, such as cancer, and there is some evidence linking high power EM fields to childhood leukemia. It’s perfectly plausible that there is a very delayed health impact (more than ten years) from frequent mobile phone use which we have not picked up yet.

    The real tragedy is that the outright ridiculousness of this kind of scare story coverage from Geoffrey Lean – and all of the absurd electrosensitivity coverage – completely eclipses any hope of a sensible discussion of EM exposure as a risk factor.

    To be honest, if you were a conspiracy theorist, and you believed that the mobile phone industry were trying to cloud the issues and undermine any legitimate suggestion of harm, then by far and away their greatest allies in all this would be Geoffrey Lean and the electrosensitivity movement.

  6. The hypothesis that low-power, non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation causes cancer is not supported by a shred of reliable and/or reproducible evidence after decades of in vitro, in vivo and epidemiological studies. Everyday a minimum of 10^8 people in countries with developed health systems use cell phones. Where are the cancers? All that keeps the hypothesis alive is the faux controversy stirred up by crackpots, profiteers and useful idiots. If this is a ‘sensible’ hypothesis then so are homeopathy, cold fusion and ‘vaccines cause autism.’ No experimental evidence, no plausible mechanism–the sensible conclusion is: no effect (ok, negligible effect).

  7. Speaking as a professional pilot for over 10 years, there has never been a U.S. Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) restricting or even regarding the use of cellular telephones. The restriction on cell phone use in aircraft is from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and has more to do with the ability of a single phone to tie up multiple towers (all in range at once) from an aircraft than with potential Electro-Magnetic Interference (EMI). The idea that the FAA restricts cell phone use is nothing more than an urban legend based on the reasonable assumption that since the airlines don’t allow it, then the FAA must be the source of the restriction. That logic is then extrapolated to assume that the reason is interference. Don’t feel badly, there are flight crewmembers who don’t know the truth about this either.

    As an existing FCC restriction, the airlines are upholding the law by restricting cell phone use on their aircraft, however there is no FAA requirement to do so and as far as I know there is no reason to believe that cell phones would interfere with onboard aircraft systems which are designed to be robust enough to protect against such EMI.

  8. Gotta love Epidemiology. I suppose it is a useful tool, but if it makes the front page it is most likely because it wasn’t used correctly.

    Finding a person that doesn’t have a cell phone is really difficult these days. The danger will become highly apparent without having to bring epidemiology into the mix.

    Too bad the media is always more interested in a story than in verifying the story.

  9. This is common sense, don’t knock the dr. for telling the truth. Use them all you want, then don’t bitch about it when you get brain cancer or a tumor!!

  10. The funniest thing about common sense is that everyone thinks they have it.

    Also, just for future reference, those of you that think you know everything are really irritating to those of us that do.

  11. If heat shock proteins are a cause of cancer, then the infrared saunas that are so popular with the alties are far more dangerous than cell phones.

  12. Dear Mark,

    I read your article with great interest having been referred to it by a colleague. Your comments are insightful, although I respectfully disagree.

    I would urge you to please visit http://www.bioinitiative.org and consider posting your response to their report. I sincerely would be interested in your interpretation of that report since you write authoritatively. The authors of the Bioinitiative report have a considerable experience in excess of yours and mine combined I suspect.

    I would also advise you to look at the forthcoming report of CBTRUS, it should be available in the next few weeks. If you have experience with statistics, please email me your statistical analysis of the incidence trend in the years over which that report’s data will be collated and reported, and your comments.

    Finally, I wish you well in your career. There are many neurosurgeons concerned about what appears to be an increasing incidence of brain tumours we are seeing, not entirely explained by better diagnosis or reporting or ageing. Perhaps the ones you have spoken to are not concerned. While the cause is unknown at present, once you’ve seen enough rapid and untimely deaths from these conditions, especially in younger patients, you will understand the motivating factors for seeking an answer, not just any answer.

    Time will tell.

    Sincerely, and in good spirit,

    Vini Khurana

  13. Hmmm…maybe if you want Mark to do your stats you should hire him, or better yet, get a statistician and submit your data in a paper for peer review rather than tossing into the intertubes.

    You’ve basically come out and said that you don’t know your statistics. Try. Just try.

  14. Wow, had no idea where the debate was since I have not looked into this for some time.

    There was an article on PubMed that was pulled down. It however was on a phone technology that is no longer in use. So, it is irrelevant. As Mark Twain said, there are three types of liars. Liars, (expletive deleted) liars and statisticians.

    Well, if cell phones cause brain cancer, then we should be seeing more brain cancer in the hospital. I have seen less. So the thought occurred to check the actuarial.

    Please let me know if my math or numbers are wrong but there is a very large drop in people per thousand who are getting brain cancer over the past 10 years.

    However, I do believe they could be dangerous for children. Or should I say I would not be willing to take a chance on being wrong.

    Also, for any of your visitors, there should be a warning label on the cell phones. Perhaps more studies will be needed but cell phoned can be harmful to the health of laboratory rats according to a Middle eastern study.

    Which brings me to a theory. Although I wrote the Ulterior Health posting a bit tongue in cheek, there is a serious theoretical basis for what I wrote.

    Radiation triggers glutathione to flood cells where it is being depleted. Glutathione is the bodies way to fight toxins, viruses and radiation poisoning. It would seem that cell phone use could actually protect us from brain cancer.

    There is obviously a tipping point.

    But how else can we account for a decrease in per-capita incidence of brain cancer over the past 10 years. Again, although proposed as a joke, what if this is true.

    A second reason is the economy. With so many lawyers being out of work, some of whom have become second homeless due to economic downturns, they would be lining up to file suits if there was truly harm that was caused by them. How come there are no class action suits all over the world?

    Hey, I am the first to warn about aspartame, MSG, Splenda, ProLac in Milk and many other potentially hazardous to our health toxins. But somehow, there just does not seem to be the science here. And I am a scientist.

    I have no love for cell phones. Do not own stock in them. Even wish they were never created. But science is science.

    The only thing that can be said about them, is they could potentially cause harm to your lab rats, so to speak.

  15. As near as I can tell, research causes cancer in laboratory rats. Possibly white lab coats. More research will be needed to tell which.

  16. In the present days there are indeed a lot of discussion and research going on regarding the connection between cell phones and brain cancer. This is a very informative article…

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