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Mobile phones and cancer – the debate goes on

There was an interesting and upsetting story from The Telegraph yesterday about a community in the West Midlands (the area around Birmingham in the UK), that claims that a phone mast has cause 14 people to die of cancer and 20 others to have contracted the disease.

Firstly, it is obviously very upsetting to hear of any community that has suffered so many deaths and it must be terrible for the friends and families of those that have died.

But was it caused by the mobile phone mast, or just an unfortunate statistical ‘accident’?

It is true there is a mobile phone mast near the homes of these people, but are there other things that connect them? What age were they? Did they work in a similar industry? It seems too easy to blame the phone mast for these things when there could be other explanations. Without wishing to appear unsympathetic, they could have just been unlucky.

On the other hand, is the financial power of the mobile phone operators suppressing information about the link between your handset and cancer? It’s been proven that smoking DOES cause cancer, but for years the big tobacco companies denied it. It’s possible that in a few years time we’ll have similar admissions from the phone companies.

So who should we believe and what should we do?

Here’s another report from The Telegraph from February this year saying that heavy mobile phone users have a higher risk of mouth cancer.

But here’s Cancer Research UK saying that there is ‘no firm evidence’ of a link.

The Cancer Research article finishes with a sensible message about the potential dangers of mobile phones:

“Remember – the most dangerous thing about mobile phones is that people use them when they are driving! You have 4 times the risk of having an accident if you are talking on the phone when driving – and hands free kits don’t seem to be any safer as far as driving accidents are concerned. “

8 replies on “Mobile phones and cancer – the debate goes on”

I'd like to take issue with the use of the word 'debate' here.

For me, a debate involves people in command of incontrovertible facts, positing benefits vs drawbacks of particular approaches.

For example, two dads debating different types of family car:

One thinks the Volvo Estate is the best, offering safety, utility and space.

The other thinks the Ford Focus is the best, offering fuel economy and being easy to park in city centres.

Both are correct in assigning attributes to their chosen 'sides'. These attributes can be weighed, measured and proven beyond doubt. It is then down to the audience to side one way or the other, depending on their own perspective/needs: large family / dog / low income / city dweller / country gent.

However, in the mobile phones and cancer “debate” there is 'no firm evidence' of any causative link between exposure and increased likelihood of contracting cancer. Therefore the industry is left to prove a negative, which is of course impossible in this context.

Funnily enough, what you CAN prove is that there are many tens if not hundreds of thousands of people alive in the UK today SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE of the existence of mobile phones. The ambulance, fire & police services can vouch for that.

I am absolutely certain that you could find another community who had suffered the same concentration of deaths without a mast nearby. But there might have been a {pick social vice of your choice} nearby. Would that mean that was the cause?

There are many & varied confounding factors around proving causation. Every time someone has found a supposed mobile-cancer link, independent peer review has found the analysis or data gathering wanting.

To suggest an industry-wide conspiracy is utterly laughable. The sheer volume of research completed, the vast number of institutions involved and the financial risk of being found out (“Vodafone bribes university to suppress cancer evidence. Shares now worth 2p each”) make any such suggestion beyond the realms of wildest fiction.

With the internet we are well beyond the days when a) big tobacco were the only people who could afford to pay for the research and b) there was no other way of getting the news out there.

Sadly, the internet also gives credence to the flimsiest of conjecture, making everyone an expert. Good business for Snopes.com etc, bad for those of us who fancy a dollop of reality with our morning read.

Also, bloody lazy journalisim is to blame. Quiet news day? Need to sell a bit more copy? Righto, wheel out a 'Mobiles & Cancer' piece, with – and this is the grabber – a definitive, absolute headline. “Mobiles Cause Cancer” (footnote: so says one-off researcher desperate for some funding, don't shoot us, we just tell it like it apparently is with a minimum of effort)

Grrrr….

/m

Mike, without wishing to belittle the terrible experiences of the people with cancer and their friends and family, I tend to agree with you. I think for many people it is almost like faith – they 'believe' that mobile phones cause cancer and are willing to continue believing without any absolute proof.

It is also true that there are times were statistics collide – ie a new phone mast is built, then many people die of cancer. But that isn't causation (I think it's called correlation).

However, because of this faith, the [so called] debate will continue for a long time.

“It is also true that there are times were statistics collide – ie a new phone mast is built, then many people die of cancer.”

Spot on Patrick. The industry's problem is that now mobile is *everywhere*, any statistical blip in any illness or behavioral trait can be ascribed to the mast 0.x-x.0 miles away.

Never mind that other sources of non-ionising radiation are much more powerful and pervasive.

You can't win.

I too was going to call out the use of the word 'debate' – you already did so Mike, and very eloquently.

We always feel like we have to apologise when disagreeing with this type of article, as to not do so appears cold and disrespectful. However in reality it is the journalists who should be apologising for not having the balls to present these stories in an objective way.

Hope that Ben Goldacre (http://www.badscience.net) can get his teeth into this…

I too was going to call out the use of the word 'debate' – you already did so Mike, and very eloquently.

We always feel like we have to apologise when disagreeing with this type of article, as to not do so appears cold and disrespectful. However in reality it is the journalists who should be apologising for not having the balls to present these stories in an objective way.

Hope that Ben Goldacre (http://www.badscience.net) can get his teeth into this…

I too was going to call out the use of the word 'debate' – you already did so Mike, and very eloquently.

We always feel like we have to apologise when disagreeing with this type of article, as to not do so appears cold and disrespectful. However in reality it is the journalists who should be apologising for not having the balls to present these stories in an objective way.

Hope that Ben Goldacre (http://www.badscience.net) can get his teeth into this…

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