Mobile Phone Study Released and Reported Very Very Badly

Tomorrow a major international study on cell phone use and cancer will be published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. The study, known as the “Interphone Study” was sponsored by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. Despite the study not being published in its entirely, some of the data has already been reported.

Based on the headlines, you might think that the study proved a link between cell phones and cancer. You might also think it didn’t. You might think that it’s inconclusive. Here are just a few of the headlines from various news sources:

The Scotsman: “Study links mobile phone use to brain tumours”
CP24 (Toronto News): “More than 30 mins of cell use/day increases cancer risk: study”
The Australian: “Industry study shows brain tumour link to heavy mobile phone usage”
Sydney Morning Herald: “Mobile phone-cancer link possible: study”
Wire Update: “INTERPHONE finds no increased risk of brain cancer from mobile phone use”
AFP: “Study finds no brain cancer link to mobile phone use”
BBC News : “WHO study on mobile phone cancer risk ‘inconclusive‘”
CTV News: “Link between cellphones, brain cancer ‘inconclusive’”
ABC News Australia: “Calls for more phone cancer research”
CBS News: “Cell Phone-Brain Cancer Link Deemed Inconclusive”
Independent Online: “WHO: No clear answer on cellphones and cancer”
CourierMail: “Brain cancer link to mobile phones”
Boston Herald: “No proof of cell phone, cancer tie”
Time Magazine: “Cell Phones and Cancer: a Study’s Muddled Findings”
Montreal Gazette: “Cellphone users shouldn’t relax yet: Cancer study”


So what did the study really find?

The study tracked more than 13,000 individuals over the course of ten years and compared phone usage to incidence of cancer in the brain and head.   The results were that absolutely no increase in risk of any kind was found between phone usage and any kind of brain cancer.   None.  Zip.  Nada.  Zilch.   Despite this, researchers (as usual) stopped short of calling their study conclusive and conceded that it was possible that there was an increase in risk that went undetected.    Others pointed out that the study shouldn’t be considered the definitive word on cell phones and cancer because of the fact that it did not look at children and that there were some forms of cancer that were beyond the scope of the study.

The portion of the study data that has generated talk of a link between heavy usage of cell phones and cancer is some of the interview data collected as part of the study.  This data is the most unreliable and subjective and thus the authors of the study used very tempered words when they described it as having “suggestions” of an association between heavy phone usage and glioma, a type of brain cancer.

The study found no increase in giloma among heavy users of cell phones. What it did find was that, when interviewed, those who were diagnosed with giloma were more likely to say that they were prone to holding the phone on the side of their head where the tumor was located. The trend was small but statistically significant. Of course, this is completely subjective and was even noted by the authors of the study noted “biases and error prevent a causal interpretation.”

That small piece of interview data is the entire basis for the study being stated as showing a risk between cell phone usage and cancer.

Now, I ask you. What side of the head do you usually hold your cell phone on? If you’re right handed, you might, at first, be prone to saying the right side. However, I’ve noticed that when I am making an outgoing call, I often hold the phone in my left hand and use my dominant right hand to dial the number, then put it up to my left ear. Also, I often am doing something else with my right hand. Then again, when I answer the phone, I do think I hold it in my right hand a lot.

The point being: off the top of my head, I can’t think of what side of my head I usually put my phone to and I bet many other people can’t either. Just throw in some selective memory and confirmation bias and you’d fully expect cancer sufferers to remember their phone usually being on the side of their head that has the tumor.

The study is officially “inconclusive” – that is to say, that it found no evidence of phone usage being linked to brain cancer – eventhough some otherwise reputable news sources have falsely reported that it did, apparently having some confusion over the side of the head interviews. The authors of the study, however, pointed out that the data is not compelling enough, entirely on its own, to put the issue to bed.

On this I have to strongly disagree. While scientists tend to be purists when it comes to levels of certainty (which are never really 100.00000000000000000000000%), this seems to be lost on most of the public and media when it comes to these kind of issues. When this study is added to the mountains of scientific data we’ve already accumulated over the past 70+ years, it only serves to confirm the well established fact that RF radiation does not cause cancer. As a matter of public health, policy and precautions, this issue is as certain as we can ever expect any issue to be.