Mobile phone companies = tobacco companies? More conspiracy mongering over cell phones and cancer

Here we go again.

Every so often, it seems, the media has to recycle certain scare stories based on little or no science. Be it vaccines and whether they cause autism or not (the don’t) or various environmental exposures supposedly linked to various cancers or other diseases in which the science is far more complex or tentative than represented, convincing people that some common thing to which we are routinely exposed is going to kill them seldom fails to bring in the readers. One of the favorite targets of this is the ubiquitous cell phone, and there have been two hunks o’ burnin’ stupid that I’ve seen about cell phones and their alleged link to cancer in the media. One was published yesterday in that famous medical journal Parade. Written by Dr. Ranit Mishori, a family practitioner who seems to like writing sensationalistic articles, it’s entitled How Safe Are Cell Phones?, and it rehashes the usual arguments. While admitting that cell phone radiation is too weak to break chemical bonds in DNA and that numerous studies have failed to find a link between cell phone use and brain cancer, not to mention that the incidence of brain cancer does not appear to be rising, Dr. Mishori nonetheless writes as though there is serious science showing a profound risk. Fortunately, Decrepit Old Fool demolishes Dr. Mishori’s article quite handily, leaving the second bit of stupidity to me. I can’t resist quoting one passage:

Dr. Mishori admits that cell phones make the wrong kind of radiation to break chemical bonds, and that studies have found no link between cell phone use and brain cancer. She admits there’s been no change in incidence of brain cancer. But still she says “more studies are needed”.

While they’re at it, they should study whether exposure to any temperature above absolute zero causes cancer too, because infrared is above microwave on the electromagnetic spectrum. Light bulbs and space heaters could be our doom. A fireplace? Forget it – more studies are needed.

For that matter, avoid all visible light! Best to cover yourself entirely in aluminum foil and breathe through a bendy-straw.

Heh. That’s some pretty good insolence.

Next up is an article that was credulously and approvingly cited on Gizmodo, beginning:

When it comes to cell phone radiation, everyone thinks they’re an expert. Recently, however, GQ talked to the real experts, and though there’s no consensus, one thing’s clear: the rest of the world is worried. The U.S. is not.

Last week I posted a link to a study of the 20 cell phones that emitted the most radiation. In the comments, readers were quick to debunk the notion of cellular radiation altogether, explaining that the radiation was nonionizing and thus definitionally unharmful.

That the rest of the world is supposedly so “worried” about mobile phone radiation compared to the U.S. is news to me, particularly after the latest scare in 2008 when Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, at the time director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (the current director there is Dr. Nancy Davidson) issued a warning to its staff to limit cell phone use or risk getting teh brain tumorz! We Americans are pretty good at overwrought warnings, too, you know. In any case, the article being referred to appeared in GQ. Written by Christopher Ketcham and entitled Warning: Your Cell Phone May Be Hazardous to Your Health, it’s emblazoned with a photo of a cell phone next to a pack of cigarettes, thus visually likening cell phones to cigarettes and cell phone manufacturers to the tobacco companies who for so long used denialist tactics and bad science to deny that there was a very strong link between smoking tobacco and developing cancer. In this, Mr. Ketcham appears to have taken a page from the anti-vaccine movement, who have a similar penchant for likening vaccine manufacturers to the tobacco industry. (The most persistent promoter of this lie is Dr. Jay Gordon.) Ketcham also echoes the anti-vaccine movement by starting his long article out with an anecdote:

Earlier this winter, I met an investment banker who was diagnosed with a brain tumor five years ago. He’s a managing director at a top Wall Street firm, and I was put in touch with him through a colleague who knew I was writing a story about the potential dangers of cell-phone radiation. He agreed to talk with me only if his name wasn’t used, so I’ll call him Jim. He explained that the tumor was located just behind his right ear and was not immediately fatal–the five-year survival rate is about 70 percent. He was 35 years old at the time of his diagnosis and immediately suspected it was the result of his intense cell-phone usage. “Not for nothing,” he said, “but in investment banking we’ve been using cell phones since 1992, back when they were the Gordon-Gekko-on-the-beach kind of phone.” When Jim asked his neurosurgeon, who was on the staff of a major medical center in Manhattan, about the possibility of a cell-phone-induced tumor, the doctor responded that in fact he was seeing more and more of such cases–young, relatively healthy businessmen who had long used their phones obsessively. He said he believed the industry had discredited studies showing there is a risk from cell phones. “I got a sense that he was pissed off,” Jim told me. A handful of Jim’s colleagues had already died from brain cancer; the more reports he encountered of young finance guys developing tumors, the more certain he felt that it wasn’t a coincidence. “I knew four or five people just at my firm who got tumors,” Jim says. “Each time, people ask the question. I hear it in the hallways.”

Let’s see: Confusing correlation with causation? Check. Using an anecdote rather than real data? Check. Appeal to authority in the form of a neurosurgeon? Check. Relying on that authority’s memory, which is almost certainly a case of confirmation bias? Check. Personally, if I were interviewing that neurosurgeon, I’d ask him to produce records showing exactly how many patients with brain tumors he’s seen over the years and whether he’s even checked to see if they were on the same side as the patient’s favorite cell phone ear. My guess is that he hasn’t. It’s nothing more than anecdotes.

Ketcham then launches into a variant of the “pharma shill” gambit and conspiracy-mongering all rolled up into one:

It’s hard to talk about the dangers of cell-phone radiation without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. This is especially true in the United States, where non-industry-funded studies are rare, where legislation protecting the wireless industry from legal challenges has long been in place, and where our lives have been so thoroughly integrated with wireless technology that to suggest it might be a problem–maybe, eventually, a very big public-health problem–is like saying our shoes might be killing us.

Except our shoes don’t send microwaves directly into our brains. And cell phones do–a fact that has increasingly alarmed the rest of the world.

His evidence that the rest of the world is worried? Lots of sensationalistic headlines from different countries about the issue and various studies purporting to show a link between cell phone use and brain cancer. How pathetic! I just mentioned one such story in Parade, and Googling turned up a number of stories with similar headlines from right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.:

If the number of scary headlines is going to be a measure of concern, I’d put my country against any other when it comes to fear mongering about cell phones. I will give him that the action of France, which apparently decided to remove wifi connections from its national library. In any case, Ketcham went to Allan Frey, who in the 1960s and 1970s studied a phenomenon in which humans could “hear” audible clicks induced by pulsed/modulated microwave frequencies, a phenomenon now known as the microwave auditory effect or the “Frey effect” and that he reported in 1962. Frey also apparently reported:

In a study published in 1975 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Frey reported that microwaves pulsed at certain modulations could induce “leakage” in the barrier between the circulatory system and the brain. Breaching the blood-brain barrier is a serious matter: It means the brain’s environment, which needs to be extremely stable for nerve cells to function properly, can be perturbed in all kinds of dangerous ways. Frey’s method was rather simple: He injected a fluorescent dye into the circulatory system of white rats, then swept the microwave frequencies across their bodies. In a matter of minutes, the dye had leached into the confines of the rats’ brains.

The paper being referred to is apparently this one. Unfortunately, my university’s library doesn’t go back to 1975; so all I could see was the first page of the article. Ketcham also cites Leif Salford, who has reported to have replicated Frey’s work. Indeed, if you search for “blood-brain barrier” and “microwave radiation,” you will pull up a bunch of papers by Salford’s group reporting various derangements of the blood-brain barrier in mice and rats exposed to cell phone radiation. However, you will be hard-pressed to find much literature from other groups showing the same thing. For example, this Japanese group reported no effect. Whether there is in fact an effect on the blood-brain barrier due to cell phone radiation, given the thickness of the human skull and size of the human brain relative to that of a mouse or a rat, it would be difficult to demonstrate.

Unfortunately, Ketcham’s article is constructed as a tale of brave maverick scientists finding out an “awful truth” that, if you believe Ketcham, the cell phone industry has apparently labored mightily to repress. Now, far be it from me to doubt the capacity of industry to corrupt scientific research, but I find it very bothersome that Ketcham’s narrative reminds me, more than anything else, of something written by the anti-vaccine movement or something that would be right at home on, particularly this passage:

If all this sounds like some abandoned X-Files script, consider the history of suppression of evidence in the major issues of consumer health over the past half century. Big Tobacco hid the dangers of smoking and the addictiveness of nicotine, supporting its position with countless deceptive studies. Asbestos manufacturers hid evidence that the mineral was dangerous even as tens of thousands of workers died from exposure; the makers of DDT and Agent Orange stood behind their products even as it became clear that the herbicides caused cancer. That the cell-phone industry, which last year posted revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars, has an incentive to shut down research showing the dangers of cell-phone use is not a radical notion.

Add to that the cherry picking of data and the ignoring of the larger body of negative data (or dismissing it as all being “industry-funded” without actually criticizing anything about the methodology of those studies that would produce a problem of sufficient magnitude that we should doubt them), and Ketcham’s piece does read a bit like an X-Files script. A bad X-Files script.

I’ve written before about the evidence regarding cell phones and their link (or, more consistent with the evidence) lack of a link to cancer. As I’ve pointed out before, to consider an epidemiological study to be strong support for the hypothesis that cell phones cause or contribute to brain cancer, there must be a few key results. First, there must be an increased incidence of brain cancer in cell phone users. It’s even more convincing if there is some sort of dose-response phenomenon. In other words, there should be an increasing risk of cancer with increasing cell phone use. Other results that also support the hypothesis would be tumors correlated with proximity. In other words, do people who primarily use their left hand to hold their phones to their ears tend to get tumors primarily on the left and people who primarily hold their phones with their right hand tend to get tumors primarily on the right? Finally, there should be a biologically plausible lag time between exposure and tumor development consistent with known lag times for the relevant cancer, say 10-20 years in the case of central nervous systemtumors, and some specificity. In other words, does exposure to cell phone radiation correlate with certain types of tumors and not others? Thus far, there hasn’t been a convincing body of evidence to support these contentions, and most studies have been negative or equivocal, although there was one almost certainly anomalous study suggesting that cell phone use protects against Alzheimer’s disease. Even a meta-analysis reported late last year that was represented as positive for an association turned out upon a critical reading to be negative, with no evidence of correlation.

Once again I will point out that I do not discount the possibility that ther emight be an etiological link between cell phones and brain cancer. However, such a link is highly implausible from a biological standpoint. The type of radiation emitted by mobile phones is simply too weak to break chemical bonds in DNA, which is necessary for carcinogenesis. Moreover, the thermal heating effect is very weak, weaker than many other sources of thermal heating. Perhaps there is another mechanism by which cell phone radiation could cause carcinogenesis, but if there is it hasn’t been described yet. In other words, the implausibility of a link between cell phone radiation and brain tumors is not as high as, for example, the scientific implausibility of homeopathy, but it’s still pretty high. In the absence of seriously compelling evidence, an article like Ketcham’s represents starkly just how bad science reporting can be.