Mobile phones join tobacco, alcohol and drugs on the naughty step

Smart phones are about to get smarter, but the World Health Organization is ready to rain on our parade with yet more junk science

Around since the 80s - still no causal link established between mobiles and cancer
David Atherton
On 28 August 2012 14:02

While my preferred mode of communication is little more sophisticated than a couple of empty baked bean cans joined by a length of string, I am sure most of you couldn’t face living without your smartphone. And they could be about to get better.

Most current mobiles run on the Third Generation (3G) network and for the next two to five years the network providers such as Vodafone, O2 and Everything Everywhere will bring about major projects in offering 4G services. Also known as Long Term Evolution (LTE), it will allow higher quality, faster speed, and better availability. 

The first live installations were in Oslo and Stockholm in 2009. In the UK this week, Everything Everywhere, a merger of Orange and T-Mobile, has been granted a licence by Ofcom to offer their own LTE/4G network in the 1800-MHz spectrum.

But of course, when your toys and gadgets become supercharged there is inevitably someone or something lurking, ready to tread on them. In this case, it’s the World Health Organization (WHO) that just can’t help itself.

It has been speculated for some time that the radiation from mobile phones can cause brain cancer. Specifically, two types: Glioma and Meningioma. Last year The WHO released a press release which states: "The WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer associated with wireless phone use.”

A Group 2B carcinogen means there is “limited evidence” that something causes cancer in people, and even the evidence from animal studies is “less than sufficient”. Group 2B means that there is some evidence for a risk but it’s not that convincing.

Dr Jonathan Samet (University of Southern California, USA), overall Chairman of the Working Group, indicated that “the evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion and the 2B classification. The conclusion means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk.”

The Environmental Working Group, a Washington DC based pressure group, wants to join in the scaremongering linking phone usage to anything from DNA damage, cancer, and low sperm counts, to change in the activity of white blood cells. It concludes, “EWG joins health agencies in at least six countries in recommending limits for children's phone use, such as for emergencies only.”

The first mobile phone call in the UK was in 1985 and the kit was the size of a wardrobe. Even well into 1990s charging of batteries and the costs associated were only just coming down to allow extensive use. By 1999 46 percent of us were gluing them to our ears. 

Yet a quick visit to Cancer Research UK’s website finds that the peak age for brain cancer is in the 75-79 age group and I would hypothesise that they are least likely to use a mobile phone.  Also, if we look at the figures from 1999 onwards, when mobile phone usage exponentially went up, the European rate was 7 cases per 100,000, in 2008 it was 6.7. Meanwhile, in the UK, the incidence rate was 6.8 in 1993; today, it’s 6.7. You might say there is hardly a case to answer.

I have also been able to track down the paper cited by the WHO. Out of the four categories, only one vaguely points to a risk. The authors seem to have produced some honest research by concluding: “Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation.”

A Danish study, published in 2006, followed 420,095 people who were the first subscribers to mobile phones in 1982-1995. There was not one shred of evidence of increased risk of cancer. They concluded: “We found no evidence for an association between tumor risk and cellular telephone use among either short-term or long-term users. Moreover, the narrow confidence intervals provide evidence that any large association of risk of cancer and cellular telephone use can be excluded.”

Not only is there little-to-no evidence that mobile phones can cause brain cancer, but it appears that mobiles may actually offer protection against Alzheimer’s disease. Please bear in mind these experiments were done on mice and may not translate to humans, but exposure to mobile electromagnetic waves gave genetically-altered Alzheimer’s mice equal performance in memory tests. It even reversed their disability.  

Expecting the opposite Gary Arendash of the University of South Florida said, “Quite to the contrary, those mice were protected if the cell phone exposure was stared in early adulthood. Or if the cellphone exposure was started after they were already memory- impaired, it reversed that impairment”.

Not only do mobile phones add quality to one’s life, in developing countries the telecommunications industry is also adding greatly to the nation’s wealth. Uganda has been enjoying consistent GDP growth rates varying from 3.1 percent in 2000 to 6.7 percent in 2011. This can be partly attributed to mobile and landline infrastructure.

The market has been allowed, with little government interference, to make a profit and provide a service. As the ITU News commented, “Uganda will experience Africa’s second highest percentage rise in mobile subscriptions (after Cameroon), and that by 2014, more than 70 per cent of Ugandans will have mobile phones. Pyramid Research also foresees rapid growth in fixed and wireless broadband access to the Internet.” The immediate benefit of telecommunications is a contribution of 3.4 percent to wealth.

Much of the cutting edge research and development for mobile telephony is done in the guise of the Cambridge Wireless Forum and it is an industry that the UK is justifiably proud of. The benefits it gives to billions of people in the West and in the developing world therefore makes the World Health Organization’s junk science-based power grab even more perplexing.

David Atherton is Chairman of Freedom2Choose, which seeks to protect the informed choices of consenting adults on the issues of smoking. Follow him on Twitter: @DaveAtherton20

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