Delightful Devra Davis, Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at UP’s Graduate School of Public Health,1 has provided me with a basis for one of your New Year’s Resolutions. I hope.
One of the problems with studies of cell phones, according to Dr. Davis, is that the issues they are trying to understand are inherently complex. Science works best, apparently, examining one thing at a time, as we do routinely with drugs in clinical trials.
The problems posed by cell phones in the real world are like are like huge simultaneous equations — mathematical formulas of relationships between multiple unknowns. She asks how we can determine the role of one factor, such as cell phone exposure to the skull, when others like diet, workplace conditions and local air pollution, are changing at the same time and at different rates.
Studying brain cancer, for example, is one of the toughest jobs in epidemiology, according to Devra (Let’s provide a cozy sit-down, holiday ambiance here, okay?) because it is a rare disease, takes years to decades to develop, an impairs the very systems that might give us clues, a person’s ability to recall and describe past activities and exposures that might have put them at risk.
The disease can take forty years to develop, and very often researchers have to rely on the very unreliable recollections of family members… respecting what elements a given relative might have been exposed to way back when. Try remembering on that count for your own life. Very difficult, to say the least.
When it comes to sorting through the risks of cell phones, we have lately been assured that there are none based upon reports from what appear to be independent scientific reviewers. Devra points out that researchers from the Danish Cancer Society reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2006 that they found “no evidence of risk in persons who had used cell phones.”2
Headlines around the world boasted of this latest finding from an impeccable source published in a first tier scientific journal. The press coverage of this study tells us a great deal about what journalists and the rest of us who depend so heavily on these phones would like to believe. The following were all posted between the 6th and the 10th in 2006:
“Cell Phones Don’t Cause Brain Cancer” — Toronto Daily News
“Cell Phones Don’t Raise Cancer Risk” — Reuters
“Big Study Finds No Link Between Cell Phones, Cancer” — San Jose Mercury News
“Study: Cell Phones Don’t Cause Cancer” — Albuquerque Tribune
“Study: Cell Phones Safe” — Newsday3
“Cell Phones Do Not Cause Cancer” — Techtree.com, India
Most people — in the absence of well-publicized official clarification/intervention — will run with those positive findings… for a number of reasons. Continue with their lifestyle as is. Keep their hands on their habits.
But…what did the researchers actually study? I can hear Santa Claus going “Ho, Ho, Ho” in the background:
1. They reviewed health records through 2002 of about 421,000 people who had first signed up for private use of cell phones between 1982 and 1995.
2. A “cell phone user” in the study was anyone who made a single phone call a week for six months during the period 1981 to 1995.
3. The study kicked out anyone who was part of a business that used cell phones, including only those who had used a cell phone for personal purposes for eight years.
Dr. Davis asks:
1. Why did they not look at business users — those with far more frequent use of cell phones?
2. Why lump all users together, putting those who might have made a single cell phone call a week with those who used the phones more often?
3. Why stop collecting information on brain tumors in 2002, when we know that brain tumors often take decades to develop and be diagnosed?
There are NO legitimate explanations for such indiscretions.
It would have been better to compare the frequent users with non-users, omitting the limited users altogether. Devra notes, “Lumping all these various users together is like looking all over a city for a stolen car when you know it’s in a five-block radius.”4
The Danish Study was designed to appear definitively thorough — Imagine, 421,000 people!!! — but in fact it was biased against positive findings from the start.
Anyone who’s interested in receiving data which definitively damns the use of cell phones is invited to contact this author. Short of that, if you’re interested in the health of society and your own health on this count, I recommend the “Presumed Innocent” chapter (Fifteen) of Dr. Davis’ latest book.5 For the purpose of coming up with a possible… New Year’s Resolution.
Regardless, I do have one other anecdote to share, which hints at WHY findings (you’ll keep coming across) are likely to gloss over the gross, horrific aspects of cell phones.
A major international study of brain cancer in wireless phone users has been underway for quite some time, headquartered at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization in Lyon, France.
The large study was designed to combine more than 3,000 cases of brain tumors from around the industrial world and was supposed to release its results in 2006. In Canada, Daniel Krewski, a respected epidemiologist who heads that country’s national study of cell phones, receives much of his funding from the industry. Some have asked whether this constitutes bias. Krewski is also part of the IARC study.
The former director of the IARC, Lorenzo Tomatis, is concerned about the lack of independence of this important work, according to Dr. Davis. He complained publicly in 2004 about the close cooperation that was developing between the cell phone industry and those who were studying brain cancer that could be associated with cell phones’ use.
When Dr. Tomatis returned to the facility in Lyon to meet with colleagues with whom he had worked, he was treated like no other former director: he was ordered to leave and security guards escorted him from the building. Much along the lines of how Will Ferrell’s “Buddy” (a loving character) is roughly escorted out of his Scrooge-like father’s office building — denying him deserved refuge — in the laughable movie Elf.
I end on this funny cinematic note because more readers are likely to be able to relate to that Moloch-like image than they can to delineated dangers of cell phone use.6 And I do so want readers to stop stagnating with/suffering through the commercial imagery surrounding cell phones, push past the powers that be, and resolve to make changes in their lives. Our lives.
- She is also a Global Environmental Advisor to Newsweek, and was the founding director of the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the National Academy of Sciences and Services, as well as Scholar in Residence at the National Academy of Science. Her traditional credentials are impeccable, but the real basis for her credibility lies in her unswerving embrace of what’s right, unencumbered by any self-serving financial and/or career agenda. [↩]
- Devra Davis, The Secret History of the War on Cancer (New York: Basic Books, 2007), pp. 401-402. This is a monumentally important/well-respected/useful book for the layman. I urge one and all to delve into Devra’s opus. [↩]
- Interesting to note that Dr. Davis is Global Environmental Advisor to this publication. Whoops, that’s Newsweek, not Newsday! Still, the point is that the vast majority of independent scientists do not concur with the “reassuring” headlines. Documentation upon request. [↩]
- Davis, op. cit., p. 403. [↩]
- Her 2007 book (cited above) begins Chapter Fifteen with a photo of Donald Rumsfeld, posing as CEO of the Searle Corporation… when FDA approval was granted prematurely to market aspartame in 1981. The fact that scientific reviewers were overridden in that case should be highly instructive. Across the board, our decision-making authorities have been dropping the ball for decades. It’s time for the pubic to come up with a new way of looking out for themselves. To put it mildly. Again, this author has recommendations upon request. [↩]
- Which include, of course, the electromagnetic dangers for non-users associated with cell towers. [↩]