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[Funny WHO pun about Cell Phones and Cancer]

Posted by Ethan Clow on June 8, 2011

Recently the World Health Organization released a statement regarding cell phones and possible connection to cancer. Almost immediately newspapers and media took this release and ran headlines saying “World Health Organizations say cell phones linked to cancer”

What’s really going on here?

First, it’s important to know that the World Health Organization didn’t release a study or any research. They issued a press release – an actual report is scheduled to appear in The Lancet on July 1st. That’s right, their research, which no one has actually seen, remains…well, unseen. Instead, media and newspapers are reporting on press release, which in of itself isn’t too odd, rather, I have to wonder exactly why scientists at the W.H.O. thought it would be a good idea to release a press release on scientific findings that are not available to the public or other scientists.

It’s also important to understand exactly what the W.H.O. have said here.  To quote them, they have classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

To quote them again:

The Working Group [the scientists doing the research] discussed and evaluated the available literature on the following exposure categories involving radiofrequency electromagnetic fields:

-occupational exposures to radar and to microwaves;

-environmental exposures associated with transmission of signals for radio, television and wireless telecommunication; and

-personal exposures associated with the use of wireless telephones.

According to their results, they classified the evidence for the possibility that cell phone use could cause glioma and acoustic neuroma as limited, further, they classified the evidence that cell phone use could cause other types of cancer as inadequate.

As a result of this, the working group moved cell phones into a new classification. These levels of classification are:

Group 1 Carcinogenic to humans

Group 2A Probably carcinogenic to humans

Group 2B Possibly carcinogenic to humans

Group 3 Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans

Group 4 Probably not carcinogenic to humans

Cell phones were placed into Group 2B Possibly carcinogenic to humans.

There’s a number of major problems when trying to research the relation between cell phones and cancer. One of the first being that there is no plausible mechanism for which using a cell phone could cause cancer. Basically, a cell phone emits to low amount of energy to mutate strands of DNA which would cause cancer. And since cell phones don’t contain any cancer causing carcinogens like asbestos or something, there really isn’t a mechanism that would cause the cancer.

In addition to that, we do have some rather interesting points of data to consider. There are currently over 5 billion cell phones in use right now and yet cancer rates have not increased in proportion to this figure. Now, this factoid alone isn’t science, but at the very least, people arguing that cell phones cause cancer need to find some way to address this discrepancy.

We should also consider the INTERPHONE study, whose results were reported last year, showed no evidence of a link between cell phone use and glioblastoma or meningioma. Of course, the study is now generally thought to be inadequate, for reasons laid out here.  Nevertheless, the study; which involved 13 countries looking for any sort of link between cell phones and two types of brain cancer, glioblastoma and meningioma, and had a case control study including 2,708 glioma patients and 2,409 meningioma patients, along with matched controls; does at least provide some evidence in the realm of proof of concept, or rather, a lack of proof of concept; since the study failed to show a credible connection between cell phone use and cancer.

Another interesting study that was quite recently published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the researchers looked at where brain cancer was forming in relation to the cell phone. The idea being that if cell phone radiation was causing cancer, the tumours would form in an area of the brain close to the source of the radiation. They based this hypotheses on the observed fact that that cell phone energy absorbed from the radio field created by cell phones depends strongly on the distance from the source.

Since the available evidence seems to indicate that it is virtually physically impossible for cell phones to cause brain cancer, now, that doesn’t mean it could never happen, but to say that it could, one would require significant evidence to essentially overturn some very established theories in physics and biology.

According to Orac, the medical blogger at Respectful Insolence, at worst cell phones are either Group 3 (Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans ) or Group 4 (Probably not carcinogenic to humans) , not Group 2B.

We are left again to ponder the bad choices of World Health Organization. My biggest concern is a matter of credibility. Because of the authority and influence the W.H.O has, one would think they would use a very strict policy to determine what they say to the media, especially about a contentious issue like cell phones and cancer. If the W.H.O stir up a controversy, which turns out to be a bust, they come across as alarmists and worse, even pandering to the evil drug companies that in turn get to sell expensive treatments. If the W.H.O don’t address concerns like this, they get accused of being in the pocket of big business like cell phone companies. This places them in a predicament that I can’t imagine they like being in.

Another concern for me is the potential for a misuse of policy because of such a pronouncement by the W.H.O.  And that may be what we get. The Ontario New Democratic Party, is now pushing for warning labels on cell phones after the press release from the World Health Organization.

NDP health critic France Gelinas has gone on to say that children should not use cell phones at all. Gelinas has pushed for such labels in the past but has renewed her efforts recently. Now best case scenario, Gelinas is just misinformed and this will be a minor embarrassment once the science is explained to her. Worst case scenario is Gelinas is in the camp that scary words like radiation are scary and must be stopped. I don’t want to lump her in with those who say wi-fi will kill you or that power lines cause cancer, but it does make me worry that such policy could act as a slippery slope for more fear mongering about scary sounding words.

Hopefully, that won’t be the case.


4 Responses to “[Funny WHO pun about Cell Phones and Cancer]”

  1. Ian said

    There is no such thing as “The Canadian New Democratic Party” and the NDP of Canada has issued no such statement or position. The Ontario NDP (which is affiliated but has separate policy than the federal party) made that statement.

  2. Ethan Clow said

    Thanks, updated.

  3. Alma Miller said

    In my opinion it no longer matters what causes or could possibly cause cancer. Everything is contaminated with something. Breast cancer for example, I wonder if the rate of this cancer increased with the introduction of microwave ovens. They are the closest and heavily used, or childrens cancers. I currently live where some health problems are the highest or close to per capital in Canada.
    I would also like to say that I never agreed with nuclear power plants. I remember the t.v. commercial many years ago. A little boy asking I guess his grandfather why nuclear power was so great.
    I feel the public and corporations should have been made to live with what we had, instead of fueling this horrible horrible form of power.

  4. Ethan Clow said

    Alma, I’m sure you could compare the rates of breast cancer and the use of microwave ovens and see correlation. But keep in mind that correlation does not equal causation. To assume so is to make a serious error in critical thinking.

    There are many reasons why we might see a rise in breast cancer, many of which may not have anything to do with increased cases of the cancer. Over the years we’ve gotten better and better at detecting cancer, this means that we are going to be seeing a lot more cases, but this doesn’t mean that something is causing more cases, only that we are getting better at identifying it. People are also living longer. Longer life spans will also increase detection of cancer because there are more people to find the cancer in.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “horrible form of power” Do you mean nuclear energy? That has nothing to do with cell phones or microwave ovens.

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