Will your mobile fry your brain?

Wiil your mobile fry your brain

A report has been produced by The World Health Organisation, which, as far as I can see, says the there is no data that proves a causal link between mobile phone usage and brain cancer. It does, I will admit, also say that the risk cannot be ruled out. But why the headline like the one in today’s Guardian?

Mobile phone radiation is a possible cancer risk, warns WHO

As far as I can see there has been no new data, just a review of the existing evidence, which has always pointed to the conclusion that there is no obvious link between mobile phone usage and brain cancer, so why the change in emphasis?. This is their summary of the evidence;

.

The evidence was reviewed critically, and overall evaluated as being limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers. The evidence from the occupational and environmental exposures mentioned above was similarly judged inadequate. The Working Group did not quantitate the risk; however, one study of past cell phone use (up to the year 2004), showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users (reported average: 30 minutes per day over a 10 year period).(my emphasis)

The one study they highlight appears to be an outlier (i.e data that while not ignored, would not normally be used to draw the conclusion, as it does not fit with the rest of the data). When the strongest words that they (the WHO) can find to describe their data are limited and inadequate do they up ante and say that using your mobile could cause cancer?

Orac gives a much more detailed account of the (lack of) evidence on his blog.

One of the things we as human beings have difficulty with is assessing risk. (This could be the subject of a future post.)

There is a proven casual link between driving cars and killing people. We think we know what the risk is, so we discount it and carry on driving, Mainly because we feel the inconvenience of not driving outweighs the risk of using the car. There is no casual link between the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Certain newspapers, however, acted and reported as if there was. Because we as human beings had no way of assessing what the (non-existent) risk was, and the immediate downside of not having your child vaccinated seemed small, large numbers of people failed to have their children vaccinated. The result is we now see a significant increase in the frequency of a disease (Measles) that had become more or less non-existent in the United Kingdom. In the future, we may also see an increase in birth defects caused by Rubella during pregnancy as girls who missed their vaccination enter their child-bearing years.

So my conclusion; Will your mobile fry your brain? – No – but reading newspaper science reports without a pinch of salt and a close look at the data just might.


Update Saturday 04 July 2011 @ 10:30

Ben Goldacre writes about the report in his Bad Science column for the Guardian

He quantifies the increased risk that the worst case scenario points to (the study I referred to as an outlier). A forty percent increase would mean about 14 new brain tumours ber 100,000 people per year as opposed to 10 per 100,000.

Contrast that against this article

But I have to admit, this story from Kenya was the first time I heard of cell phones helping health workers speed up diagnoses and help fight preventable diseases. In this video, Steven Omollo, the health worker, even uses his phone to confirm a suspected case of malnutrition.

which I found on the Bread for the World’s blog. Watch the video embedded in the post. Risk versus reward anyone?

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