I’m getting lots of notes from people about the latest press release from the World Health Organization, saying there is a "possible" link between cell phones and brain cancer. My first reaction was, "Seriously?" This keeps popping up every now and again, but this was the first time I had heard it from a group as big as WHO.
The reason for that initial reaction was that I’ve read about lots of studies showing no link at all between cell phones and health issues (besides quadrupling your odds of a car accident if you drive while using your phone), so my reaction was one of fair skepticism. I’d be surprised if a strong connection had been found.
Turns out, it seems, that’s the right call. My Discover Magazine co-blogger Ed Yong explains why on the Cancer Research UK website. Basically, the WHO put cell phones into the Group 2B category, meaning they are "possibly carcinogenic to humans". Aiiiieee! Sounds scary… except that word "possibly", it turns out, needs to be understood a little more quantitatively.
As Ed shows, the graph showing the results from several tests investigating the links between cell phones and cancer shows that any connection is very weak, and honestly cannot be statistically distinguished from no connection at all. Of course, it’s impossible to rule it out, so there’s that word "possibly". From looking at the graph, though, I’d put the odds at being very, very low. As Ed says in his post, "It means that there is some evidence linking mobile phones to cancer, but it is too weak to make any strong conclusions."
I poked around some news sites (like CNN and MSNBC), and while they aren’t over-hyping it, in my opinion they aren’t being entirely fair, either. The claims I’ve seen from people linking cell phones to brain cancer make it seem as if the connection is obvious, but the results from the WHO make it clear that’s not the case. There might be a connection, but if there is it’s not terribly clear. I’ll note the studies only appear to cover a time base of ten years; it’s not possible to know what happens after, say 15 or 20 years. Even then, other environmental factors dominate such studies, making teasing out a weak signal very difficult.
You may also wish to note what other things are categorized as Group 2B possible carcinogens, including gasoline, pickled vegetables, and (GASP!) coffee.
My opinion here is that while a link between cell phones and brain cancer cannot be ruled out, without a strong correlation and a numerical statement about the odds, it seems very unlikely to me that such a connection is something to worry about. I’m far more worried about the dingus in traffic in front of me gabbing to his friend on his phone and causing an accident than I am about me getting brain cancer from my own.
P.S. Speaking of this topic, I’ll be at the Dragon*Con in September, attending the Star Party Thursday night to raise money for cancer research. I did this in 2009 — it’s in memory of my old friend Jeff Medkeff, who died of liver cancer a few years ago. I missed it last year, but I’m very much looking forward to it this time.
Tip o’ the app to Treelobsters for the list of other Group 2B materials.
– Repeat after me: cell phones don’t cause brain cancer
(note the followup in the next link!)
– More on cell phones and the lack of harm
– xkcd radiates
I recently wrote a post about the lack of any evidence that cell phones cause cancer. Not too surprisingly, a lot of alarmist comments followed, many of which actually proved one of my points that the threat is exaggerated: at the very best studies show a very tenuous link between cell phones and health issues, yet people are claiming the relationship is obvious. Clearly, that’s not the case.
I’ll admit my title, "Repeat after me: cell phones don’t cause brain cancer", was overzealous. It’s very difficult to prove that with 100% accuracy. As a skeptic I have to admit that there is some slim chance of a causational relationship, even though study after study show there isn’t.
So it was interesting to me to see Michael Shermer write a post about this for the Skepticblog: Cell phones and cancer. It’s a well-written and clear article with references, links, and quotations from doctors showing that, despite the claims by many people, there is very little or no reason to think cell phone radiation causes brain damage.
Of course, if you’re using one to text while driving, brain damage is far more likely in the form of sudden catastrophic deceleration. So that’s a good time to avoid cell phones. But in ordinary use, I’m not worried, and I’ll continue to use mine. Especially if I finally do start playing Angry Birds.
Humans have a seemingly infinite capacity to worry. The problem is, with a near-infinite supply of things to worry about, we wind up fretting over problems that don’t exist.
One of these non-issues that keeps popping up is the idea that cell phones cause brain cancer. Despite there being study after study of cell-phone radiation showing no link at all to brain damage, and despite there being no physical way a cell phone can cause brain damage, people still worry about it.
If you run across someone who believes this, now you have a place to send them: a video of a talk at a National Capitol Area Skeptics meeting, where Professor Christopher Davis (from the University of Maryland’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering) totally destroys these claims. It’s a full-length talk, but it’s all online. Here’s part 1:
If you want the bullet points, they’re not too hard to remember:
1) People fret when they hear the word radiation, but there are lots of kinds of radiation, most of which is harmless.
2) One type of radiation is plain ol’ light. Radio waves are radiation. Microwaves are radiation. These types of radiation are essentially harmless.
3) The type of radiation cell phones emit is on the borderline between radio and microwave light.
4) Not only is the type of radiation from cell phones harmless, the amount of it is too small to hurt us. Regulations set the power of cell phones far, far lower than levels known to be even borderline noticeable.
5) There have been many careful studies looking at any connection between cell phones and health risks. None has been found. Note: this means direct risk, not things like phoning while driving, while using a buzz saw, while running from zombies, and so on.
6) Cell phone use has exploded worldwide, with hundreds of millions of users. Yet the rate of brain cancer detection has been steady for years. If there were even a tiny connection, we’d see a dramatic increase in brain disease. We don’t.
7) Therefore, cell phones don’t cause cancer or brain damage.
Can you hear me now?
I like my iPhone, kinda. It’s not that great as a phone, but it does have lots of fun apps. The maps hardly ever tell me to take a wrong turn at the last second, and I rather enjoy taking fuzzy red photos in low light levels.
Snark aside, there are a lot of good science and entertainment apps for the iPhone. But because I am so stubbornly reality-based, it didn’t occur to me that there would be some apps that border — if not flounce solidly into — alt-med nonsensery.
That is, until I received an email from BABLoggee Cameron Carr, who told me about an app that cures headaches.
Called, oddly enough, "Headache", it uses "… principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine [that] teach that energy imbalances in the body often contribute to headache symptoms, and these imbalances can be corrected with pressure to specific points on the body."
Energy balances! Wow, that sure sounds sciencey! Except whenever you talk to people who believe in this, they can never really tell you what energy is, or how it flows, or what precisely it does. I guess it only sounds sciencey.
So basically, this app embraces both the ancient and the modern, but with a slippery grip on both.
My favorite line in the app description is, "Selected by licensed acupuncturists, these points may bring you safe, natural, effective relief." Hmm, just "may"? And c’mon, "natural"? The app can make your phone emit sounds or vibrate, which it claims "may" relieve your headache if you hold the phone against these imagined points. How is that "natural"? Even Steve Jobs wouldn’t claim that.
Having this stuff supported by acupuncturists doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence either. Acupuncture is the idea that sticking needles at certain locations in your body can restore the balance of this energy flow. If that’s true, acupuncture can be tested to see if it works. Surprise! It has been, and it doesn’t. Or, to be more precise, it doesn’t work any better than the placebo effect.
The thing about headaches is, they can have lots of causes. Sometimes they go away by themselves, sometimes they don’t. Certainly the placebo effect will help some percentage of the time, as might a gentle vibration (just as a gentle neck massage might relieve some symptoms as well). So testing a product like this isn’t easy… and there are approximately a bajillion other products like it, so they’ll never all get tested. There are a hundred ridiculous products — no, probably ten thousand — for every person actually willing to do a proper scientific test of its efficacy. There’ll never be an end to them.
I cannot say whether this app really works, or is thinly disguised quackery. Given the description on the app’s page, I suspect it’s just another alt-med claim with little or no evidence in support of it, just as I suspect it’ll do quite well. Just as the company’s Aulterra cell phone EM neutralizer probably does quite well (and you have to read that page to believe — or disbelieve — it) despite there being no credible evidence that cell phones cause any harm… unless you’re using one while driving, or skydiving.
Science pays in the long run, but stuff you just make up pays off really well in the short run. And since it’ll never, ever, go away, nonsense pays off in the long run too.
I wish there were an app to cure that.