Monday, 15 November 2010

Cellphones and Cancer again?

There's a book out there by the name of "Disconnect" by Dr. Devra Davis, of U. Pittsburgh, that has been making rounds in the lay print due to the sensationalist claims it makes about cellphones and cancer. You've all probably heard about the alleged link between cellphones and cancer where people claim, on the thinnest of mechanistic argument, that cell phones can cause brain tumours. Various research groups have then been looking at whether or not there's a cancer risk primarily through observational studies, since it's very difficult to tell someone how much they should talk on their cellphone for the next x years, and the results have been the messy mix of results that you typically find if either there is no real effect, or if the effect is so subtle as to be nearly negligible.

Personally, I'm inclined to the "No Effect" camp a little more. Here's why: It's all about mechanism. It sounds dangerous when you hear about EM radiation and all that, but realize your toaster gives off EM radiation. So does the sun. And light bulbs. And... well, about everything in the office, these days. You, right now, are giving off radiation! But it really, really doesn't matter. The wavelength of the EM radiation needs to be the right length to excite chemical bonds and cause them to break, form, etc. We'd call such wavelengths "ionizing radiation," and cellphones do not give off ionizing radiation. The best they could do is make your head slightly warmer. This is in contrast with something we know gives off ionizing radiation - the Sun.

The Dr. Davis harps on how "Industry Knows," like there's some massive cover-up of the topic, and points to disclaimers in the fine print of cell phone manuals warning not to keep the phones too close. Ever heard of a CYA? The legal evidence of effect in a law suit is a far lower bar than the rigour demanded by scientist. Companies can be, and have been, sued for things that were later shown to be totally harmless upon actual study. All Nokia needs is to be sued for an ungodly amount by someone who has a brain tumour from another source to really ruin their day, and the fine print lets them say, "Well you didn't use the phone as we instructed."

One other thing I would like to note - the news stories are coming off making Dr. Davis look like some sort of cancer expert. This is interesting, because to the best of my google scholar abilities, as well as looking at her public CV, I can one peer reviewed paper on cell phones and cancer. It looks like she's spent most of her time recently tilting at aspartame (which to be honest, sends up a whole lot of red flags in my mind). Now, I won't begrudge her the right to write a book - I have zero publications on cell phones and cancer - but the Times and other journalists should know that one study does not an expert make.

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