About That Cellphone Cancer Study… | Vol. 3 / No. 30.3

Maybe don’t sleep with it? | Photo: Alex Garcia, CC BY 2.0

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The media last week were in a kerfuffle over at new study that claims a dose-mediated response of cellphone radiation to cancer. But the results, while thoroughly interesting, are really not that simple.

The findings were the preliminary report of a study by the National Toxicology program trying to study the effects of chronic, long-term exposure to cellphone signals in animals. Bear in mind that until this point, nobody has been able to demonstrate any kind of a link between cellphones and cancer in anything but a petri dish (and even that was questionable).

But according to these findings, the researchers found a dose-mediated link between cellphone signals and two rare types of tumour: a brain cancer called glioma and a heart tumour called schwannoma.

The study appears to have been done very carefully, and controlling an incredible number of variables. But there are also a lot of questions that need answering. For one thing, the statistical significance of these cancers was only present in the male mice. They don’t know why. There’s no evidence the cellphone signals cause cancer in female mice. Second, the brain cancer incidences are only statistically significant in the male rats exposed to CDMA and not GSM. They don’t know why. Third, the male rats exposed to the radiation also seemed to live longer than their non-exposed brethren. Again, we don’t know why.

I suppose it’s a little reassuring that schwannomas are benign (not really cancer) 99% of the time, and that the mice were exposed to signals up to six or seven times regular strength cellphone signals for nine hours a day for two years (which is a lot of exposure), so I’m not rushing to toss away my cell anytime soon. But it is a curious set of findings, and I’m looking forward to seeing the scientific community writ large reviewing and discussing the full datasets when they become available. It may well end up that new regulations are put in place to limit exposure.

That said, we’re also talking the tiniest of signals in a huge pile of biological noise. Let me remind you all: bacon and spam also cause cancer, and given how much easier that was to detect, probably more cancer than cellphones.

So the sky isn’t falling. You don’t need to throw away your phone. But I’ll be keeping an eye out for more analysis as it becomes available, because at the very least these are interesting findings.

Check out Scientific American or the preliminary report itself for more.

[Edit: Since I wrote this post, Dr. Steven Novella of Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe fame has also expressed his doubts. You should check that out too.]

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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