Media outlets had a field day last week when a favourite old story resurfaced with some new ‘game-changing’ research results.
“There is a link between mobile phones and cancer” said the Daily Mail.
“Your mobile phone could give you cancer after all, new study finds” warned the Metro.
“Mobile phones linked to cancer in ground-breaking study” echoed the Independent.
Even the usually level-headed Guardian hedged its bets in an opinion column “Mobile Phones and brain cancer: ‘no evidence of health risk is’ not the same as ‘safe’.”
To be fair, many parts of the media – particularly online – took a far more measured approach.
The research that generated all those headlines was a two-year $25 million study programme designed to test the effect of radio wave radiation on rats.
In its final report the study found a slight increase in the incidence of tumours in some of the rats and it is this that has prompted the new speculation about the safety of mobile phones.
So what are the actual facts behind the results?
The rats were exposed to two types of radio wave radiation replicating the frequencies used by GSM (i.e. G3) and CDMA (used in the US) mobile networks.
The exposure was over the entire body lasting for nine hours each day, seven days a week over a two year period.
There was no measurable effect on female rats and no effect on any of the rats exposed to the GSM type radiation (European hats in the air).
In the male group of rats exposed to the CDMA type radiation an small, but statistically significant section (just under 3%) developed rare cancerous tumours in their hearts and brains.
That doesn’t mean that we should entirely dismiss the study, but there are some major caveats.
1. It was a study on rats, rats are somewhat like humans, but they’re not humans.
2. The exposure was far heavier than even the most regular mobile user would experience.
3. No other studies (and there have been many) have indicated this effect, it doesn’t mean they were wrong, just that it’s more likely to be a chance occurrence rather than a causal link.
4. Hundreds of thousands of people of all genders and age groups throughout the world have been using mobile phones for decades without any significant upturn in the incidence of brain (or heart) tumours.
So it’s scientifically interesting and certainly worthy of further investigation but a long way from firm evidence of any imminent mobile phone risk to people.
Oh, and my justification for the headline…
The same study showed that rats exposed to the radio waves lived longer than the control groups which had no exposure at all.
Make of that what you will.
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