July 24, 2008

Cell Phone Cancer Woo Spread by Irresponsible Newspapers

After living in Worcester for a year, I’ve already learned an important lesson about the local media. That is, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette is generally an unreliable piece of crap. Nonetheless, it has excelled in plumbing the depths of irresponsible and inaccurate reporting with today’s headline story which amounts to fanning the flames of woo-inspired public panic regarding cell phones, electromagnetic fields and cancer.

Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, issued an internal memo warning staff about dangers from cell phone use that have never been borne out by any reputable peer-reviewed study. This internal memo has apparently been leaked to the press and the Worcester Terrible & God-awful decided to run the story as front page news.

WARNING: Limit cell phone use or risk cancer
By Jennifer C. Yates and Seth Borenstein THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The head of a prominent cancer research institute issued an unprecedented warning to his faculty and staff yesterday: Limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer...

Herberman is basing his alarm on early unpublished data. He says it takes too long to get answers from science and he believes people should take action now — especially when it comes to children...

No other major academic cancer research institutions have sounded such an alarm about cell phone use. But Herberman's advice is sure to raise concern among many cell phone users and especially parents...

The largest published study, which appeared in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2006, tracked 420,000 Danish cell phone users, including thousands who had used the phones for more than 10 years. It found no increased risk of cancer among those using cell phones...
A little basic physics and organic chemistry here. In order for any form of radiation to cause cancer, the electromagnetic waves must possess enough energy to disrupt the bonds in DNA molecules. When this occurs on a large enough scale, a mechanism is triggered called the “SOS response.” Essentially, enzymes kick in that quickly repair the damage without proofreading the DNA. This can result in any number of errors (point substitutions, inversions, etc.), or somatic cell mutations, which lead to cancer. None of this can happen, however, until the damage is done in the first place.

There are several ways to express the amount of energy represented by an electromagnetic wave. For the sake of convenience, I’ll just use frequency here. The greater the frequency the more energetic the EM wave. Simple stuff.

The EM waves generated by cell phones have frequencies that are in the neighborhood of 900 megahertz, that is to say 9×108 Hz. For comparison, television signals are broadcast on frequencies of between 30 and 3000 megahertz. Thus, the radiation given off by a cell phone is well within the energetic limits of the frequencies, and so energy levels, of EM waves to which we are exposed constantly every single day and have been since before the moment of conception. There is nothing magical about the radiation given off by a cell phone; if it were dangerous we would expect to see harm being caused by other waves with similar frequencies. Radio and television broadcasts would be causing cancer to millions and millions of people the world over. We would expect to see tremendously increased rates of children being born with genetic mutations. Moreover, someone would have discovered a link between these broadcasts and increased cancer rates. That hasn’t happened, nor is anyone demonstrated a link between cell phone use and brain cancer in a study that has adequately controlled for confounding factors. In fact, study after study has shown no link as is mentioned briefly in the article. Not only has no link been demonstrated but nobody can explain what the underlying mechanism would be that would result in cell phones causing cancer, but radio and television that doing so.

Ionizing radiation – the kind that really can cause cancer – has much higher frequency and so much higher energy. Xrays, for example, have frequencies of between 1017 and 1020 Hz. That’s many, many orders of magnitude different. In practical terms, it’s the difference between it being 1° and 1,000,000,000° outside. We all know what to do when the temperature gets down to 1°; what would we do if the weather report called for a high of 1,000,000,000°? Maybe panic a little? That’s the difference we’re talking about here.

It’s bad enough that an award-winning scientist such as Dr. Herberman could be taken in by electromagnetism woo, but for the press to start spreading his phobia around is ten times worse and for a newspaper to run a story based upon his poorly-evidenced memo is ten times more irresponsible still. Clearly, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette is in dire need of a science editor. That they would choose to run this piece with a title beginning with the word “warning” should immediately strip away any remaining shred of respect that one might have for this fishwrap of a paper. I realize that the market niche opened up when the Weekly World News went under, but if the T&G aims to fill that gap then it should have the decency to let its readers know that intention.

It is unfortunate that overwrought headlines sell newspapers, and even more unfortunate that readers will see the title “Dr.” before a name and immediately buy into what the person bearing the title says. Basic science education of even moderate quality should be enough to counteract the sort of thing, but much of the public lacks the basic knowledge to critically evaluate a story such as this precisely because science education isn’t a major priority. We thus get sentiments like this one arising out of ignorance:
It's like smoking, you have been notified of a potential danger and possible result, it's up to each person to do what they want with the information. I for one don't see how holding a cellphone to your temple for extended periods of time or wearing a bluetooth device all day long can be anything but BAD for you. Heavy users like heavy smokers will never agree with it, can't even think of it, but the dangers are there with everything man has created.


Shame on the T&G for exploiting ignorance to sell papers and for helping to spread unfounded fears. A good newspaper should be a source of reliable information. What shall we call the T&G for being the diametric opposite?

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