August 5, 2010
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
To get a sense of the total, complete, and utter mess that is research on the health effects of cell phones, look no further than a study of whether the ubiquitous gadgets raise the risk of brain tumors. “Interphone,” organized by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, was the largest (10,751 subjects, ages 30 to 59, in 13 countries), longest (10 years), most expensive (as much as $30 million), and most labor-intensive (48 scientists) study of its kind. That boded well for producing credible conclusions. Instead, Interphone found that using a cell phone decreased the risk of glioma (primary brain cancer) by 19 percent. Even in people who had used cell phones for more than 10 years there was no increased risk of brain tumors, with the exception of those who said they had yakked away for more than 1,640 hours. And the 40 percent increased risk of glioma in this group came with a caveat that is emblematic of this field: this elevated risk, the scientists warned, may be an artifact of “biases and error,” not real. Things got so acrimonious among Interphone scientists that they delayed announcing the results, finally released in May, for four years.
There are many, many ways to screw up experiments on the biological effects of cell-phone radiation, and in 20 years of studies scientists seem to have used every one. The result is a confused public and nearly incoherent government policies that careen back and forth like a drunk after last call. In April, Maine legislators voted against requiring warning labels on cell phones. In May, San Francisco mandated them. A bill to be introduced in Congress would require warning labels nationwide and create a research program—but the last time the government called for studies that would “finally” answer whether cell phones pose a risk of cancer was in 1999, and since then all that’s been accomplished are studies on how to do the studies. Society has never been good at making decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty (what do we do about possibly carcinogenic pesticides? About climate change?), but with cell phones the situation is even worse: it may be impossible to get definitive answers in a reasonable time about whether the radio-frequency radiation the devices emit will kill any of the 4.6 billion people who now use them.
The first big uh-oh experiment, done in Australia and published in 1997, exposed mice to the radiation typical of cell phones (about 800 megahertz to more than 2 gigahertz; this study used 900 MHz) for one hour a day for 18 months. The mice got lymphoma at 2.4 times the rate that unexposed mice did. The alarming finding set off a stampede of research. Two studies in Texas, in 1998, exposed mice to 2,450-MHz radiation for 20 hours a day, every day, for 78 weeks, finding no extra breast cancers compared with mice that weren’t zapped. A 2002 study in Germany, exposing mice to 900 MHz, found no increase in breast cancer. A 2002 Australian study—900 MHz, an hour a day, five days a week, for two years—looked for an increase in lymphomas: nothing. The biggest set of animal tests—called Perform-A, it took eight years, cost $10 million, was organized by the European Commission, and announced results in 2007—found no evidence that cell radiation induces or promotes cancer in exposed mice or rats.