Posts Tagged ‘cancer’

Think I’ll Bang My Head Against the Wall Now…

May 31, 2011 1 comment

File:Cell phone.jpgSo the news media is going nutso over the World Health Organization‘s decision to list cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Let me be absolutely clear on this: No new studies have been released to spur this decision. The decision was reached by a team of 31 scientists who reviewed the existing scientific literature.

After reviewing the evidence they decided that even though there was no conclusive evidence that cell phones cause cancer, they are going to list it as a possible danger to humans.

They are playing it safe; erring on the side of caution; not counting their chickens before they’re hatched, whatever you want to call it.

[Update (11:57 AM): Here is an excellent explanation on the evidence the WHO used to make its decision, and what their decision actually means.]

This is a touchy subject. While I generally agree with playing it safe, in this case I disagree with the WHO’s decision.

Basically they are saying they need more long-term studies. However, since it is impossible to prove a negative, we will never be able to prove that cell phones don’t cause cancer. You would need an infinite number of studies to do that!

It’s just like on Glee when Kurt made the point that 

You can’t prove there isn’t a magic teapot floating around the dark side of the moon with a dwarf inside of it that reads romance novels and shoots lightning out of its boobs.

Same deal with cell phones. There is no plausible mechanism by which cell phones can cause cancer since the radiation is non-ionizing. There is also no dramatic increase in cancer rates coinciding with the dramatic increase in cell phone use in recent years.

Critics get around this point by saying that it takes decades for effects to really take hold. On average, yes that is true, but after 10-20 years of regular cell phone use by a large percentage of the population we should still expect to see some signs of adverse health effects.

So I disagree with the WHO. This little announcement is going to cause undo panic and fear.

But the “be afraid of microwaves” crowd has gotten much louder in the last few years, and I suspect this announcement by the WHO is largely due to public pressure rather than scientific evidence.

But who am I, right? I’m just a humble science blogger with a degree is physics who has looked at the scientific evidence and seen that there is no cause for alarm.

So I’m gonna go ahead and say “Don’t panic!”. But I have a sneaking suspicion people are going to anyway…

Please Don’t Build a Cellphone Tower Because We’re “Afraid of the Unknown”

May 23, 2011 3 comments
File:Cell Phone Tower.jpg

Photo by Joe Ravi

The CBC reports that residents of Surrey and Port Coquitlam, BC are petitioning against the construction of two new cell phone towers in the area.

There is a proposal on the table to build two cell phone towers in the area of Cloverdale, as people often complain of losing their cell phone signal in this area.

Some residents oppose the construction mainly due to fear of health effects from the radiation emitted by the towers.

The CBC interviewed a Coquitlam resident, Andrea Gretchev, and asked what she thought the tower construction would do and why she opposed its construction,

“I can’t say that this causes anything in particular, because I don’t know,” Gretchev said. “But because I don’t know, I don’t want to live next to a cell tower.”

Fear of the unknown is a natural human response and I can’t begrudge the residents this natural instinct.

But for comparison, lets look at the situation of me being afraid of the dark when I was a child.

I was afraid of the dark because I didn’t know what was out there. I was afraid of the unknown. As soon as my Dad turned the light off, there could be monsters, or aliens, or giant-ass bugs waiting to attack me.

Periodically, I would race to the light-switch and turn on the light, exposing everything in the room to electromagnetic radiation (in the visible range, of course).

At once, I realized nothing was there. I was safe. I didn’t have to be afraid anymore.

Eventually, I learned that there really was nothing to fear when the lights went out. Just because I couldn’t see the rest of my room, didn’t mean I had to be afraid of it.

So is there a similar “light-switch” in this situation that we can flip on so the residents of southern British Columbia don’t have to be afraid of cell phone radiation anymore? Why yes there is. And its scientific data.

Seeing as I’ve written on this issue many, many times before, I won’t rehash all my past arguments. But the scientific data is quite clear that there is absolutely no credible evidence that cell phone radiation causes adverse health effects.

You would think that this information would be enough, but I’ve had enough experience debating this issue that I know this is not nearly enough.

“Science has been wrong before,” is the counter-argument I most often hear.

“Well,” I reply, ” should we then also be afraid of broccoli?”

“What do you mean?” my opponent asks.

“Science has shown that broccoli is quite healthy for us. But if science has been wrong before, should we therefore avoid broccoli completely? Just in case?”

So when debating the issues, lets stick to the facts and not logical fallacies.

I know its tough. There are a lot of quacks out there trying to convince us that cell phones and power lines and Wi-Fi are dangerous, in complete opposition to all of the credible scientific evidence.

Hell, if you do a Google search for any of these topics, no doubt you will find more fear-mongering websites talking about the “possible” dangers with electromagnetic fields than references to scientifically valid papers.

Scientists may not have the Search Engine Optimization teams that these fringe websites do, but they have the truth on their side. And the truth continues to indicate that we have no reason to fear our phones.

Still not convinced? Have a look at this map showing all the cell phone towers in the lower British Columbia area (also available as an iPhone app):

Map of all cellular phone towers in the lower British Columbia area.

In this sea of towers already in existence, and all those near your house that you have been living peacefully beside for the past several years, will two more really make a difference?

More than that, with the explosion of cell phone use and cell tower construction in the last decade, isn’t is odd that no increase in cancer rates have been seen?

We should have at least seen a small effect by now if there were any health risks associated with these towers or cell phone use.

But again, I’ve had this argument enough to know that data and common sense won’t convince anybody. Anything new and widespread will inevitably cause people to be afraid. Much like microwave ovens did in the 1950s and 60s.

By the way, no adverse health effects have ever been reported with the proper use of a microwave oven. I guess we will have to wait about 60 years before people will start chilling out about their cell phones.

Cell Phones, Your Brain, and the Media

February 23, 2011 72 comments

Usually, when a scientific study gets this much media attention, it has something quite impactful to report.

But when the study has nice, media-friendly buzz-words like “radiation” and “brain activity”, you get a firestorm of media coverage. Even if your study doesn’t say all that much.

The study I am referring to is called “Effects of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Signal Exposure on Brain Glucose Metabolism” which was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study looked at 47 healthy volunteers; a relatively small study. The researchers took these volunteers and gave them all PET scans on their brains. They had also strapped two cellphones on either side of their head. One cell phone was on, and the other was turned off.

During a 50 minute phone call, they compared the two sides of their brain to see if there was any change in glucose uptake.

What did they find?

Whole-brain metabolism did not differ between on and off conditions. In contrast, metabolism in the region closest to the antenna (orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole) was significantly higher for on than off conditions (35.7 vs 33.3 μmol/100 g per minute; mean difference, 2.4 [95% confidence interval, 0.67-4.2]; P = .004). The increases were significantly correlated with the estimated electromagnetic field amplitudes both for absolute metabolism (R = 0.95,P < .001) and normalized metabolism (R = 0.89; P < .001). [JAMA]

So basically, whole-brain metabolism was the same whether the phone was on or off. However, in regions close to the phone’s antenna, the metabolism was “significantly higher”. It is important to point out that in this context, “significantly” means statistical significance, not a large increase. In fact, the increase was only about 7%.

Brain imaging physicist Dardo Tomasi of Brookhaven National Laboratory, who co-authored the study, said that’s several times less activity than visual brain regions show during an engaging movie. [Wired]

Ok, so now the important question: what does this mean for our health? Nora Volkow, the study’s lead author commented:

Volkow says it is too early to tell whether this is good or bad for the brain. “Much larger fluctuations in brain activity occur naturally,” says Patrick Haggard at University College London. In fact, being able to increase activity might boost the brain’s connectivity, and could even be useful therapeutically, Volkow suggests. [New Scientist]

So although the study was published as a “Preliminary Communication”, and that the study itself concludes:

This finding is of unknown clinical significance. [JAMA] (emphasis mine)

there is still a large number of news outlets which reported on the study. Why?

Well we know why already. That “unknown” word in the above quote carries a lot of baggage.

Cell phones are the new danger to health, of course. Despite there being no conclusive evidence that cell phones even have the ability to cause cancer, and the fact that even with the explosion of cell phone use in recent years, cancer rates have not increased, people are still scared of their cell phone.

This is thanks to poor media coverage, and a few crackpots out there who are determined to prove that technology is going to destroy us all.

And as a result this small, preliminary study with a result that, while interesting, is completely benign, gets extensive media coverage. Not only that, but some news sites give thinly veiled comments suggesting that the results somehow show that cell phones are dangerous, like this one:

The unusual finding, published on Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is likely to lead to new calls for stricter regulation of radiation emissions from the ubiquitous phones. The government currently assumes the signals have no effects other than a harmless warming of tissues near where they’re held. [The Globe and Mail]

or this one:

Some studies have linked cell phone exposure to an increased risk of brain cancers, but a large study by the World Health Organization was inconclusive. [MSNBC]

Of course they used the word “inconclusive” in the above quote, when it should really read “it showed no correlation”. Scicurious points out that this is probably because “‘inconclusive’ sounds scarier”.

So nobody panic. This study does not show that cell phones are dangerous. It may show that the electric field from the antenna somehow increases metabolism of glucose, but those findings need to be corroborated by other labs. Let’s wait until their findings are duplicated on a larger scale and a mechanism by which this effect happens can be discovered before we decide what, if any, impact this study should have.

Oprah Guest Chooses Alternative over Traditional Medicine. The Results are Unfortunate.

December 6, 2010 Leave a comment

A few years ago, Oprah had a guest on her show by the name of Kim Tinkham. Ms. Tinkham explained that she had breast cancer, but after reading “The Secret” she decided to forgo conventional treatment and instead pursue “alternative therapies”.

David Gorski has written a post today at Science-Based Medicine about Ms. Tinkham, and the news is quite sad. She pursued a pseudoscientific treatment called “alkalinization” supported by one Robert O. Young, who believes there is “no such thing” as cancer and that this type of illness is caused by “excess acidity” in the body. It goes without saying, but this is totally without scientific merit.

But Ms. Tinkham followed this therapy, and for a few years her health was stable. But unfortunately, she is no longer doing well and is not expected to live through the year.

[Update: I am sad to report that Kim Tinkham passed away on December 7, 2010.]

Why do people seek out these types of therapies? Dr. Gorski explains it quite well:

In fact, Kim Tinkham made it explicit by saying that Young and his wife had told her what causes cancer by saying “there is no such thing as cancer.” Again, remember that Young thinks that cancer is the body’s reaction to cells “poisoned” by too much acid, and he really does say that there is no such thing as cancer. He even goes on and on about how acid being “deposited into the fatty tissues” and thereby causing cancer. From a scientific standpoint, it’s a load of rubbish, pure pseudoscience without any good scientific evidence to back it up. But Young can assert his nonsense about tissue being due to acid “spoiling” tissues with utter sincerity. He looks completely convincing–if you don’t know anything about cancer biology, and most people don’t know much, if anything, about cancer biology. Give him a woman who is afraid, who wants concrete answers, and who has demonstrated that she is fairly clueless about breast cancer, and he can convince her that he has the answer and can cure her. The reason, it appears to me, is that Tinkham (and women like her) just want to believe that someone knows what’s wrong with them and how to fix it. Knowing how to fix it isn’t enough; they want an answer to the question, “Why me?”

Quacks are only too happy to provide that answer.

You can and should read the whole sad story at Science-Based Medicine. People wonder why I get upset about alternative medicines, and this is why. Ms. Tinkham’s cancer was treatable, but has now metastasized into other parts of her body.

It is wholly depressing, because she is a victim. A victim of quacks who prey on the vulnerabilities and wishful thinking of sick people.

I’m ashamed to live on the same planet as those people.

Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer? See What a Real Expert Says

November 24, 2010 6 comments

I’ve written about the issue of cell phones and Wi-Fi and the supposed health risks associated with their use. The resounding scientific evidence shows they are perfectly safe, but the media continues to stoke fear in the public with unbalanced coverage.

When reading a news story about this sort of thing, I always wonder why they don’t ask an actual expert. The answer is that an expert would say how implausible the story is, and that they are silly for reporting it.

That doesn’t sell newspapers.

Instead, they find the one person on the fringe who maintains that there is a magical mechanism by which non-ionizing radiation can harm us. But thankfully, Phil Plait posted on his blog today something I have been looking for a long time.

I’m not a researcher (anymore). I don’t have a Ph.D, so I can tell you what I think, and I can tell you I know what I’m talking about, but I will never have as much credibility as a real university professor in physics or electrical engineering.

Enter this talk by Professor Christopher Davis from the University of Maryland’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. It was given at a National Capitol Area Skeptics meeting, and posted on YouTube. It’s in 5 parts and each part is about 13 minutes long.

It is a fascinating talk and not too technical, so you don’t need a science background to understand the main points. He even touches on backscatter x-ray scanners which have been in the news quite a bit lately. Enjoy!

Ontario Says “No” to Cell Phone Warning Labels

November 5, 2010 1 comment

And it’s the right call. For two reasons:

  1. There is no conclusive scientific data to support any adverse health risks associated with short, moderate, or long-term cell phone use.
  2. A warning label would serve no purpose, other than to instill fear into the users.

The bill proposed to put a sticker on all cell phones indicating that there could be an increased risk of cancer from using a cell phone. Not only is this unnecessary, but it’s also wrong.

The scientific data overwhelmingly shows that there is no increased risk of cancer associated with cell phone use.

And what purpose would a warning sticker on a cell phone serve anyway? Would any of us stop using our cell phones? Would we hold it further from our head while we talk on it?

Of course not. Eventually we would get over our initial shock and fear of the warning sticker, read all the buzz-word containing media-frenzy stories about the evils of technology, and then settle back into our normal routine. All in all, this was a bad idea to begin with.

But my oh my, look who turned up to give her opinion on this issue. Our old friend Prof. Magda Havas from Trent University. She turns up in just about every story that involves cell phones, wireless internet, power lines, dirty electricity, and many other stories trying to convince us that technology is bad.

So I want to get something straight about why she keeps showing up. Is it because she is an expert? I would argue not. Her Ph.D. is in botany (the study of plants) so I don’t see how this qualifies her to study electromagnetic fields and their interaction with the human body. The list of publications on her website has very few peer-reviewed articles. Instead, it’s littered with “Letters to the Editor” and other opinion based writing. Not a lot of scientific credibility there.

No, she shows up because media outlets try to get both “sides” of the story, even if one side is way off base. Enter Magda Havas, who is one of very few people in the world who believes in electrosensitivity and kids getting sick from wireless internet. There are so few people who think this way, that they keep going to one person on the fringe to get her opinion. It is sloppy reporting, and not indicative of the evidence.

On CSI, Grissom (who was the best character but left, and now I am sad) always tells us to “follow the evidence” because the evidence will lead us to the truth. If we follow the evidence about cell phones, we see overwhelming evidence that cell phones are safe. Why then, do we continue to read about how evil they are?

William Peterson as Gil Grissom. From Wikipedia

Cell Phones and Cancer: The Globe and Mail’s Epic Fail

September 26, 2010 3 comments

So I wake up around 8:30 on Saturday morning. I’m enjoying a nice coffee and watching a “Hell’s Kitchen” episode that I’ve PVR’d.

Then I open my laptop to read the news, and right there on the home page of The Globe and Mail I read the headline: “The Disturbing Truth About Cell Phones”

Here we go…

The author of the article quotes a book newly released called Disconnect. Even though the book admits that there is no conclusive evidence that cell phones are in any way dangerous, the article still manages to come across as fear-laden and lazily researched. The article claims that studies show that the risk of glioma, a rare type of brain tumor, doubles with cell phone use. Funny, that’s not what this review of the literature says.

One thing that I think science journalists are particularly bad at is understanding that you cannot prove a negative. There are a large number studies which show there is little or no evidence that cell phone use is associated with increased health risks. However, when these studies are covered in the press or quoted by those opposed to cell phone use, they simply say that this shows “more study is needed”.

Now, I am all for studying the long-term risks/benefits of cell phone use. However, it needs to be made clear that when a study shows “no correlation”, this is not “inconclusive”. The only thing which will satisfy journalists or anti-cell phone activists is a study saying that “cell phones proved to not cause cancer”. The unfortunate thing is that this will never happen.

It is impossible to prove a negative. It would be like saying “prove to me that the sun won’t rise one day”. In order to prove this, I will have to perform an infinite number of observations, which is of course impossible. I could tell you that all the evidence suggests that the sun will rise every morning that the Earth continues to rotate on its axis and the sun continues to burn. But I cannot conclusively say “the sun will always rise”.

The Globe and Mail article also performs a common fallacious argument, which is cherry-picking data. Even though there is a large body of literature on RF radiation and cell phone use, the small number of studies which suggest a negative health effect of cell phones are often touted as proof that they do, in fact, cause negative health effects. This is wrong.

You have to look at a whole body of literature, not just a few isolated studies. For example, here is a study which not only shows no negative health effects of cell phones, but actually shows it may help fight Alzheimer’s disease. This is an isolated case which demanded further study, but no other lab showed similar results. So you can see why you need to look at a large amount of literature to get an accurate picture. This is something The Globe article fails to do.

The article also talks about a study in which rats were bombarded with microwaves and found that they had damaged DNA. Not only that,

The rats also had brain-cell alterations, memory lapses and fluids leaking from their brains into their blood, indicating a breach of the blood-brain barrier.

Where do I start with this one?

Well the reference to the study is not given, so that’s a big problem. It is not stated at what powers or frequencies of microwaves the rats were exposed to. Big problem there, since it is not fair to compare different powers or frequencies than those used in cell phones. And the final problem is rats are not people. This may seem obvious to most of us, but results from a rat-based study do not always translate to humans. Many drug studies test drugs which helped disease models in rats, but failed to do the same thing in humans, the physiology is different. To tout this study as evidence that cell phones hurt humans is wrong. It may warrant further study, but it doesn’t prove anything.

So lets not start throwing out our cell phones in favour of tin-can phones or telegraphs just yet. The literature shows that there is no conclusive evidence linking cell phone use to negative health effects.

Lets remember to keep these things in perspective too. A study which was just published estimates cell phone related deaths in the United States over the last decade. Not from microwaves, but from talking or texting while driving. In 2005, there were 4572 deaths related to cell phone use while driving. In 2008, the number was 5870. The study also estimates that from 2001 to 2007, texting resulted in an additional 16 000 deaths.

These numbers are only for the United States, not worldwide. This is a problem that is more dangerous than RF radiation will ever be, even if it did cause damage to humans.

Even though I am not a huge fan of Oprah, she has the right idea with her “No Phone Zone” pledge.

You can read more about the dangers of using cell phones while driving and sign the pledge on her website.

Wi-Fi the New Danger to Children…Apparently

August 16, 2010 2 comments

Well, as if we didn’t have enough to be afraid of in the pseudoscientific world, now we have to be afraid of our wireless internet connection.

Parents in Barrie and other northern Ontario towns have called the public school board to remove its recently installed Wi-Fi system because, they claim, it is making their children sick.

The symptoms include memory loss, trouble concentrating, skin rashes, hyperactivity, night sweats and insomnia.

These are extremely non-specific symptoms, and most of them can describe pretty much every young child I know at some point in their lives.

Said one of the parents:

“I’m not saying it’s because of the Wi-Fi because we don’t know yet, but I’ve pretty much eliminated every other possible source.”

Really? You’ve eliminated EVERY possible source? Thats quite a bold statement when it comes to environmental factors.

Now, its hard to blame these parents for looking out for their kids, but this is a clear cut case of poor understanding of technology and media hysteria.

Oh yes, I’m talking about YOU CBC!

For example, take the “expert” they got to comment on this story, one Professor Magda Havas from Trent University (in my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, incidentally).

So what does this professor say? From the CBC article:

Claims by Health Canada that Wi-Fi is safe provided exposures to radiation are below federal guidelines are “outdated and incorrect,” based on the growing number of scientific publications reporting adverse health and biological effects, Havas wrote.

Havas did her Ph.D in Botany, so what makes her an expert electromagnetism, I have no idea. But from her website (note the advertisement to her book at the bottom), it seems she is involved in fear mongering for just about every junk science theory about electromagnetism affecting humans, including the dangers of power lines and cell phones (all these technologies have repeatedly been shown to be safe).

It amazes me that they couldn’t find an actual expert in electromagnetism to comment on this story. But then, it wouldn’t increase readership would it?

But shall we interrupt this exercise in bad science and bad science reporting for some REAL science?

The energy deposition from a typical wireless signal is roughly 100 times less than exposure to a cell phone (which remember, has been shown to be a perfectly safe level). It is also thousands of times less than current government regulated safety levels, AND is less than normal background radio frequency radiation. Maybe that rat-bastard Ryan Seacrest and his Top 40 crap is making us all sick!

Now how about a bit of logic? The parents claim that these symptoms go away on the weekends. This makes no sense as children are exposed to wireless signals at their home, at the mall, the airport, restaurants, pretty much everywhere. If it was the Wi-Fi and these children are truly sensitive to it, they should be sick virtually all the time.

And what about children living in an apartment building, where there are literally dozens of wireless signals in their vicinity. Shouldn’t they be affected at home as well? Shouldn’t this be more widespread?

Ok, so when I start freaking out about stuff like this, my lovely girlfriend invariably asks “So what COULD it be, if not the Wi-Fi?”

My Lovely Girlfriend. Yes, I have one!

Well, remember these symptoms: trouble concentrating, hyperactivity, insomnia, night sweats. This sounds like me when I was a kid. I was always having trouble sleeping and running around like a madman. These tended to go away on the weekend though, when I could just relax and play video games. Also, kids don’t like school; they could get stressed out and cause these symptoms, which would of course go away on the weekends and in the summer. They may be staying up too late on weeknights, so sleep deprivation could easily cause some of these symptoms.

Want to know what I really think is happening? I think a child got sick with something, and an over-zealous parent read something about Wi-Fi being dangerous on the internet. They heard that the school had recently installed Wi-Fi and BAM! you got yourself the perfect storm of fear.

If you take nothing else from my blog, please take this: Correlation does NOT equal causation.

Just because these children got sick after (several months after, which is kinda weird. Shouldn’t they have gotten sick right away?) the school board installed wireless networks, does NOT mean wireless networks made these children sick.

I could just as easily say the sun rose after my alarm clock went off this morning, therefore my alarm clock caused the sun to rise. It is a logical fallacy and stories like this are riddled with them.

So don’t worry folks, your internet is just fine. Continue using your laptop (to read this blog, hopefully) and your cell phone without fear. With every new technology there will be those who try to convince you its bad. And unfortunately, there will also be protective parents to make a fuss over it.