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 This means this paper is unpublished and merely submitted for review.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.