Jul 28 2008

More on Cell Phones and Brain Cancer

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Comments: 17

Last year I wrote an entry summarizing the evidence concerning the association of cell phone use and brain tumors. The bottom line of my discussion was that the plausibility of the claim that cell phones may cause brain tumors was low but not very low; there is currently no reliable evidence for a correlation but neither has one been definitively ruled out, for cell phone use of less than 10 years the data is basically negative, and for cell phone use greater than 10 years there is also no definitive evidence for a correlation with brain tumors but the data has a slightly positive trend, ruling out any clear or strong effect but not a small effect. There is a theoretical concern that if there is a small effect the children may be more susceptible.

I have also discussed this data in a Youtube video, and recently Orac has summarized the evidence as well.

Fears of cell phone use and cancer have resurfaced in the public consciousness due to a memorandum written by Dr. Ronald Herberman, The director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and UPMC Cancer Centers. He issued an advisory to the 3000 faculty and staff of his institution stating:

“Recently I have become aware of the growing body of literature linking long-term cell phone use to possible adverse health effects including cancer. Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use.”

He also cites preliminary and unpublished data to support his concerns. I do not want to discuss again the data itself, and will simply refer back to my previous blog post as well as Orac’s for a summary of the existing research on this question. I do want to discuss the appropriateness of Dr. Herberman’s actions – or the balancing act of giving fair and early warning about potential risks or threats without becoming an alarmist or causing more harm than good.

Herberman defended his actions, saying:

“Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later.”

He also added that science is slow and we cannot always afford to wait for it. I think this is one of several legitimate points that need to be considered in assessing future or potential harm. It is reasonable to consider the possible or plausible risks that new technologies or behaviors may pose. In some cases, certainly, it should be policy to adequately demonstrate safety first- prior to market. Drugs and medical devices, for example, should provide a reasonable amount of data on safety before going to market. The same should be true for herbs and supplements, in my opinion. Cars also need to pass safety testing before going to market. This is a good thing.

It is simply not possible, however, to rule out every small risk. Life comes with risk, and data will never be perfect. Also, small risks that require millions of people to be exposed or years of exposure cannot be studied until after a product is on the market and is actually being used by millions of people. Cell phones fall into this category.

Similar arguments come into play for topics like global warming. While there appears to be a solid consensus that global warming is happening, and the international panel on climate change estimated that there is a 90% probability it is significantly man-made, there is uncertainty as to pace, extent, and final consequences of global climate change. Some argue that given the uncertainties we should essentially not worry about it and definitely not make economically harmful moves to prevent it. Others argue that by the time we know for sure the causes, extent, and consequences of global warming it will be too late – so we should at least start working on the problem now. Global warming skeptics paint believers as hysterical alarmists, while those warning about warming regard the skeptics as deniers.

To be clear, I am not comparing the cell phone-cancer evidence with global warming, only stating that the same issues exist regarding balancing the need for early warning without needlessly alarming people. In text of Herberman’s warning makes a comparison to asbestos, but I think that is a false analogy (as it is with tobacco, a comparison others have used). Asbestos and tobacco are known disease-causing agents. The data was actually quite clear about the risks of these products long before regulation addressed them.

Another potential analogy is with concerns that silicone breast implants cause autoimmune disease, a claim that literally bankrupted Dow chemicals. The early data was negative and the later definitive data was negative. Concerns were largely driven by anecdotes. In the end the claim that silicone breast implants cause autoimmune disease was nothing more than an urban legend. But this is not a good analogy to cell phones either because the evidence for cell phones is at least somewhat ambiguous and not based solely on anecdotes.

Conclusion

There are many cautionary tales that one can draw upon to support almost any stance toward cell phones and cancer. If we wait for definitive evidence then meanwhile people will be needlessly harmed. If we over react to preliminary evidence then we may needlessly worry and inconvenience people and even bankrupt companies. I think that in general the FDA and other agencies have struck a reasonable balance. Their position has been that the data is mostly negative but not definitive. Therefore, “if” you are concerned that take the following steps to limit risk – such as use a hands free device and limit cell phone use. They give information and some practical advice without alarming people.

I think that Herberman did not strike an optimal balance, erring too much on the side of caution and drawing some poor analogies. I also disagree with citing unpublished preliminary evidence – if the evidence was concerning then early publication would be justified. But he does have a point that it is reasonable to thoughtfully consider potential risk and sometimes we have to make decisions in the absence of final data. Being cautious is neither always right or always wrong – individual decisions have to be made in each case. Also, individual people may reasonably make different decision for themselves. We don’t all desire the same balance of risk and convenience (or risk and fun – snowboarding and hang gliding being good examples).

In ambiguous cases the best thing to do is just provide the information to the public and let them decide what risk is acceptable to them.

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17 responses so far

17 Responses to “More on Cell Phones and Brain Cancer”

  1. [...] even bringing up the comparison strikes me more as poisoning the well more than anything else. As Steve Novella points out, how do we know that a better comparison isn’t silicone breast implants, which [...]

  2. [...] Original post by NeuroLogica Blog [...]

  3. richard blaineon 28 Jul 2008 at 8:35 pm

    The company most affected by the silicone breast implant debacle was Dow Corning, not Dow Chemicals.

    IIRC, Dow Corning is a joint venture of Dow Chemicals with Corning Inc., and has operated independently for many years. They manufactured some of the silicone materials in question.

    Dow Chemicals is a huge chemical conglomerate, but did not manufacture the materials. The lawyers tried to drag the company into the lawsuits apparently because of its deep pockets and the business connection to Dow Corning.

    Dow Corning emerged from bankruptcy a few years ago, but substantially after scientific studies were published that found no links between the implants and any pathology. This whole story was a travesty of justice.

  4. psamathoson 28 Jul 2008 at 11:30 pm

    Yes, it is certainly a good idea to be careful with new and untested technologies. But the basic technology of mobile phones are neither of these things. They’re basically digital radios, and we’ve had radio for over a century. Why should they be treated as a separate case? Cell phones certainly don’t emit ionizing radiation, so unless there IS a definite study showing some novel adverse effect, I don’t think there is any reason to be cautious. It’s just radio, and to radio you are as transparent as a sheet of glass is to visible light. You probably have a better chance of being burned by a malfunctioning cell phone battery than getting cancer from radio waves.

  5. Niels Kjaeron 29 Jul 2008 at 4:33 am

    New technologies can be simulated and cross validated. Please ask next time you buy “quack” technology. Empty technology cannot be validated. Until I wrote this I always preferred quack.quack technologies. Now, I often use human.human humanities, because it is easy for human.human to read
    a complex book branded human.human. Empty human.human humanities don’t need to be cross validated because they can’t brand other human.human humanities. I i that I branded namuh.human can ever work properly.

    Cell phones do magnetise like Ultra sound does. It is energetic information that counts, it is Information*Energy which is the relevant constant. If i introduce two new $ denominations branded $.bit and $.atom, human.human could fix inflation to human.huiman% by making a complementary and complex exchange symmetry rate: $.bit * $.atom + $.atom * $.bit = $human.human. This human.human exchange rate should probably be branded the NSS equation. It is the smallest supersymmetric equation and the biggest anti-symmetric equation and leads to ergodic flows of money. IiiI know this as the Nash Schrödinger Symmetry equation. Therefore IiiI make certain that IiiI use $Ii.iI before IiiI becomes i. Inflation still supports human.human which means human.human does not have to support inflation.

    This economy theory can be checked. The Ii.iI check is branded $2^2^3.2^2^3, while the iI.Ii check is branded
    $(1+(1+2^2))/2.(1+(1+2^2))/2. Combining these numbers give the biggest I and smallest i, and makes human.human happy.happy.

    If any combination of IiiI or iIIi branded human.human applied this equation to economy human.human could even have an economy.economy symmetry. You just have to remember to tip your waiter using $bit.bit and buy petrol with $atom.atom.

    Since NSS is general, P.r * P.d + P.d * P.r = P.hum**2. Stupid humans know this equation as the “Not Stupid Stupid!” equation which sometimes makes them hum.
    I just wish P.r could teach P.r how to flip-flop and P.d teach P.d how to cup P.dem in a humanly acceptable way. But don’t believe me, I have a tendency to see war.war whenever I look at I, so maybe I just i?
    Complex politicians are human politicians.
    Tensor politicians are non-amendable politicians.

    The manwo James Joyce and woman Karen Blixen imagined this complex game ions ago. Since the human.human in question are i I wish to brand them iI.Ii.
    Branding i I is the smallest capital symmetry breaking.
    Branding I i is the biggest imaginary symmetry breaking.
    I branding i iI.Ii is a smaller symmetry breaking than I branding i. So even Branding is complex. Chinese have branding as their I.
    Instead of moving EU to UE we could let them stay at EU.UE, so that both EU.UE and eu.ue could become less stressed.
    i could even i tensor-bots cleaning out the remains.
    i tensor-bots converge IIi. This answers N=NP? the i-way.
    This year an Indian i-mathematician already discarded the i-way the I-way. The I-proof was of course too simple to be taken seriously.

    This should demonstrate to Ii.iI that tensor-bots need i to work properly. human.human language is an asymmetric symmetry constructed in the same way as it is understood.

    The Danish mathematician Haagerup i-ed a proof in 1987 that a complete i-theory does exist and is human.human. I am just demonstrating that I work.

    human.human is happy that imagine well.

    Damn! My bank does not yet accept complex checks yet, so i-theory is non-amenable at the moment. Any polarization will do.

  6. deciuson 29 Jul 2008 at 6:51 am

    Niels,

    you certainly like the sound of your own typing.

  7. Niels Kjaeron 29 Jul 2008 at 9:46 am

    What ever You say i can use against me.

    This Jante law is so powerful that the smaller one becomes, the more power one gets. It is not a healthy situation. US has become so big that nobody listens to US except maybe i.
    Has Bush really been listening to Fogh? OMG

    Fogh means fog and silly bugger in Danish.

    In Denmark the right wing party Fogh is chairman for is called “left”. Please read the Jante Laws carefully before ever dealing with a Dan, otherwise you end up just be an and to Dan. We danes often select our most stupid persons to run our country. That works fine internally in Denmark but but but.

  8. The Dangers of DIY Doctoringon 29 Jul 2008 at 1:07 pm

    [...] have no choice to go on the defensive about immunizations and the latest public health worry, be it cell phones and cancer to plastic toddler [...]

  9. psamathoson 29 Jul 2008 at 5:09 pm

    Niels, your post reads like jabberwocky. Are you bipolar, or did you just hit the amphetamines too hard?

  10. Niels Kjaeron 30 Jul 2008 at 10:00 am

    psamathos,

    luckily, I am both, being having Asperger and ADHD.
    I learned how ADHD really works when I calibrated the small does of dexamfetamine I take sometimes in the morning. This works reasonably well for me at the moment.

    However I have just realized that the SimeHealth technology cannot be used to cure dangerous illnesses in life. It is a electromagnetic measurement, and the Maxwell equations are time invariant, so it can only discribe how life is moving around like a normal movie with living actors. This whole story shows to me that there is something rotten going on in Denmark at the moment…
    I myself got blinded because I recieved so much positive feedback, but it was anomynous and like from the non scientific community or followers of fame and glory…

  11. John Conwayon 30 Jul 2008 at 2:42 pm

    I think this is one of those cases where prior plausibility is really important. I don’t know what the plausibility is in this case, but it seems to me to be not outlandish.

    P.S. Niels Kjaer isn’t adding much to the discussion here, and I’m pretty sure he’s a troll.

  12. deciuson 30 Jul 2008 at 2:47 pm

    John Conway,

    some really beautiful artwork in your site. Bravo.

  13. Niels Kjaeron 31 Jul 2008 at 8:16 am

    “P.S. Niels Kjaer isn’t adding much to the discussion here, and I’m pretty sure he’s a troll.”

    trolls don’t have to speak that many words. trolls can reinvert to chesire cats who speak in a Victor Borge language called:

    “non-communicative supersymmetry”! ” “?

    Thanx all;-)

  14. John Conwayon 31 Jul 2008 at 8:52 am

    Yep, troll all right. Just too long-winded to be funny. Go work on your material.

  15. ethanallenon 02 Aug 2008 at 2:01 pm

    WE HAVE FARMED HERE IN VERMONT FOR THIRTY YEARS.
    FOR THIRTY YEARS THE SWALLOWS HAVE ARRIVED AT THE END OF MAY, NESTING IN AND AROUND OUR BUILDINGS. THIS YEAR A FEW CAME ON JUNE 3, FLEW AROUND THEIR FORMER NESTING SITES IN AN AGITATED MANNER AND LEFT. THEY DID THIS AGAIN ON JUNE 9,13 AND JULY 3.

    THE ONLY CHANGE IN THE ENVIRONMENT IS THE INSTALLATION OF THREE CELLPHONE ANTENNAS ON A 57’ POLE ABOUT 300 YARDS AWAY.

    ON JULY 18, UNICEL WAS OUT OF SERVICE ALL DAY, ABOUT TWENTY SWALLOWS ARRIVED, SHORTLY AFTER UNICEL CAME BACK INTO SERVICE, THEY WERE ALL GONE.

    I HAVE SINCE FOUND MANY STUDIES IDENTIFYING THAT ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS GENERATED BY SUCH ANTENNAS HAVE DEVASTATING EFFECTS ON BIRDS, BEES AND OTHER CREATURES.

    OTHER BIRDS NOTABLY ABSENT FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 30 YEARS INCLUDE HUMMINGBIRDS, BITTERNS, INDIGO BUNTINGS, THRUSHES AND NIGHTHAWKS.

    I DON’T CLAIM TO UNDERSTAND THE TECHNOLOGY, BUT COMMON SENSE WOULD TELL YOU THAT SOMETHING IS VERY WRONG.

  16. psamathoson 03 Aug 2008 at 8:42 pm

    Sounds like confirmation bias to me, ethanallen. It’s a common failure of common sense.

  17. DevilsAdvocateon 04 Aug 2008 at 9:26 am

    IT APPEARS THAT ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS ALSO CAUSE DEAFNESS.

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