The results of the World Health Organization’s Interphone study have finally been published. You might not have heard about this study because the mainstream media in the US has ignored it. The study, billed as the largest of its kind, was intended to shed light on the claim that cell phone use increases the risk of brain cancer.
The results have been anticipated by both cell phone advocates and opponents in the hope that it would decisively show that cell phones are safe or harmful. Unfortunately, as many expected, the results will change few people’s minds. Depending on the news outlet, you’ll find that the Interphone study showed either no risk at all or a significant risk for heavy users or a muddled mess of both. The scientists involved in the study itself have the same range of views of what their own study tells us. In fact, it took four years after the research was actually complete for the study to be published because of the internal fights over how to interpret the results.
So, the science aside for a moment, the politics consists of saying the least possible so that the official conclusion of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is that more research is needed. Technically, that’s called a punt. The politics are very much in the tradition of science used to defeat action by spreading doubt and confusion in the name of scientific probity and neutrality. Cigarettes come to mind.
As to the actual science: in my opinion, even with its warts, the Interphone study unquestionably adds to the growing evidence that wireless technology is dangerous.
All are agreed that the study found a 40% increase in risk of developing a brain tumor after 10 years of heavy cell phone use. “Heavy use” was defined as an average of 30 minutes per day. The official statement and the study’s detractors discount this result because of the way in which data was collected. They couple this with the peculiar result that low usage seemed to actually show a decrease in brain tumor risk. Great fun was made of this by the media.
However, as Louis Slesin points out, buried in the study is a reworking of the data that eliminates the oddity at the low end of use and makes sense of the outcome for heavy use. This wasn’t a matter of torturing the numbers until they sang the right tune. It was a matter of examining the numbers so they make sense. In other words, the official version of what the study tells us presented so that the results would be least credible.
Yet another flaw in reporting on the results was pointed out by Cindy Sage and David Carpenter of the Bioinitiative Working Group. The official report states that there is no evidence of risk overall. First, as the varying headlines attest, that privileges the average risk over the risk to heavy users. Second, and more important, that bland dismissal studiously ignores the study’s short latency period of 10 years—that is, the period of time from first exposure to first appearance of a disease state. For cancers—and in particular the type of cancers in this study—10 years is at the low end. Typically, the latency period is 20 years or more. In other words, what we’re seeing is an early warning.
At least that’s what, in my opinion, a reasonable person would conclude: use of wireless technologies demands prudence, avoidance being the most prudent of all.
In fact, what the release of this study has reinforced for me is that, while decisions informed by science are critical, it is rare for some one study or even body of science to decisively settle an issue of personal or public health. The hope for scientific revelations to cause the scales to fall from our adversary’s eyes, to show them the light, to enable them to cast out wireless technologies has at its core the same desire that puts people in thrall to wireless and other technologies in the first place, those technologies the absence of which would end life as we know it. It’s a bad idea to believe that a study or a technology will save you.
What will save you is politics: what you do for yourself and what we do for each other. Good science helps. But it’s the politics that makes it common knowledge and part of our social ecology.
This makes what goes on around wireless technologies so maddening. We’re all exposed. Our exposure is increasing. There’s evidence that the exposure causes harm. If you want to take that risk, have at it. If I don’t want to take that risk, I shouldn’t have to. What’s hard about that?
What’s hard about it is that very often, what you do puts me at risk. Or so I believe. Hence politics. We rely on the science to sort it all out. That’s hard too because the science is too much about careers and the technology is too much about money and neither is very much about compassion and the prevention and alleviation of suffering. So what are we waiting for?