Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mobile phones and health

TL;DR: phones are not harmful. anti-phone lobbies are!

This is a topic that gets me fired up: every so often, there's some news about telephony and that's the perfect time for people to cry wolf about mobile phones cooking our brains. I could just say that it's bunk but no. That's truly evil demagogue and irresponsible bunk. And I'll demonstrate how and why.

Once upon a time...

...1st generation mobile phones were invented. But we don't care about that because nobody was using them except Michael Douglas in Wall Street.

Then in 1980, the 2nd generation of mobile phones was invented. 2nd generation is abbreviated to "2G" and is divided into 2 main standards: GSM everywhere in the world and CDMA in the USA just because! 2G allowed for small size and affordable phones and that's when mobile telephony became popular worldwide. Depending on where you live, having a mobile phone became mainstream at a sooner or later date. In France, the turning point was 1996 or 1997.

In 1992, IRPA (International Radiation Protection Association) created ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection). IRPA is an agency interested in protecting people from effects of radiation. When it was created back in 1965, it was concerned by nuclear stuffs because that was the hot topic then. Nuclear radiation is ionizing, which means that its effects are capable of kicking electrons away from the atoms they normally orbit around. Why is it important? because that's the mechanism by which some atoms of our cells' DNA can fly around and end up giving us cancer. But the brand new ICNIRP was focused on non-ionizing radiations like mobile phones' signal. These electromagnetic waves do not have the capability of kicking away our DNA's electrons but they might have been harmful through other mechanisms like heating our brains, so it was a good idea to be careful and check what science can say about such mechanisms.

So, ICNIRP looked into it, studied all the literature that existed on the subject and in 1998 came up with the following report: Guidelines for Limiting Exposure to Time-Varying Electric, Magnetic, and Electromagnetic Fields (up to 300 GHz) available from this page. This report then made its way through many intergovernmental organizations like the European Union and the World Health Organization, leading to this international standard: 41V/m. That's the maximum limit of electric field that can be allowed in places where people are. The report acknowledged that its conclusions relied only on the effects that had been positively identified and that cancer was not one of the effects identified, but still ICNIRP said it would keep its eyes open as further studies would emerge. And those intergovernmental organizations said (I'm paraphrasing): let's roll with 41V/m and we'll regularly meet with ICNIRP so that we update the limits if these limits are not safe enough. Since no serious indication ever came of other problems, the standards were kept as such.

Then came the studies. Not 2 studies! Not 3 studies!... Over 3,500 studies! Summary? nothing meaningful up until the year 2007. Why nothing meaningful? Just because there could not be any conclusive evidence linking health problems to the usage of mobile phones or the presence of rooftops antennas. I might need to come back in another article on the disinformation about rooftops antennas but to cut the story short: scientists aren't even looking at them any more for health impacts because we know they create electromagnetic fields of too tiny amplitude that it's not even worth checking. It would be like checking if people can be run over by ants. So the only concern still surviving within scientific circles was the potential effects of the phones.

Good logo, bad study

 In 2007 a report was released: the report of a study named BioInitiative. The report can be downloaded and consulted from this page. For significant criticism of this report, you can read wikipedia's page about it. My own personal bad opinion about the report came from the fact that it simultaneously acknowledged that there wasn't any evidence for health effects of telephony waves and it advocated for new standards dramatically different from the current standards, namely 0.6 V/m instead of 41 V/m. Despite the flaws of this report, its lack of peer-review, etc. it was picked up by the media and got some attention which explains why I feel compelled to mention it in this article. Also, to be fair, the Bioinitiative report covered other subjects than telephony like the effects of electricity power lines, for which there is conclusive evidence of harm.

Bad logo, good study

In 2012, another study (this one, peer-reviewed) came out entitled "Interphone". Here's the official webpage on the website of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), from which the report is accessible. It has been conducted over more than 10 years on 420,000 people. The duration and sample size are huge and speak favorably as to the reliability of the findings, and the methodology was recognized as proper. The conclusion requires to make subtle distinctions and to look at the numbers. Among the heavy users of mobile phone who consumed an average of more than 30 minutes per day over more than 10 years, an increase was noted in some rare forms of tumors (glioma and meningioma). Since these tumors are rare, the increase noted also represented a small number. And because of biases and errors, it was impossible to conclude from this small number a causal relationship between mobile phone use and these tumors. The report therefore speaks of a "correlation" rather than "causation". The possibility of a causal effect is not to be totally discarded but it couldn't be established. It is possible that heavy phone usage is related to specific lifestyles or professional activities that exposed people to other risk factors responsible for the small increase in glioma and meningioma. In any case, we cannot rule out the possibility that using phones is responsible for the increase. And that's where the numbers are important.

Applying the increase factor to French statistics of glioma and meningioma, I have calculated the maximum theoretical odds of a person dying, in case that phones are the cause of tumors. I came to the figure of 1 person in a million. So, supposing that phones do cause tumors, and that's only a hypothesis, it would amount to 65 French people dying from it every year out of a population of 65 million people. It would be sad, but the number has to be compared with other causes of death. This Huffington Post's article lists only the 21 most common causes of death in the USA, which is already a rather safe place compared to the rest of the world, considering malaria, war, famine, infectious diseases, etc. The figure of 1 in a million that I reached previously for mobile phones (if proved causal) is a worst case scenario and is nowhere near dog attacks (1 in 120,000), lightning (1 in 80,000) or bees (1 in 60,000).

Because the probability of phones being the causal effect of glioma and meningioma hasn't been ruled out, the IARC decided to declare telephony radio waves in its "Group 2B" of possible carcinogens. The word "possible" meaning that we don't know enough to rule it out. But the numbers are reassuring. The World Health Organization (WHO) has endorsed IARC's assessment and declared that "to date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use".

What do anti-phone lobbies (APL) say ? And my rebuttal to their claims

1a) The #1 claim is of course the claim that mobile phones are harmful. What is more, the emphasis given to the alleged problem suggests a "big" problem. As explained in the section above, there is currently no evidence of any cancer being caused by phones' radio waves. As for the correlated observation on glioma and meningioma, its amplitude is tiny which shows that, should causation be established, the danger will be of incredibly low proportion and definitely not worthy of the noise in the media.

1b) In addition to this, but I admit it's because I'm fed up with them, I will insist on claiming that the APL (anti-phone lobbies) DO represent a harm which, unlike radio waves, has been proven. Indeed, you often find people claiming to be electro-sensitive and who will complain about headaches, discomfort, bad quality of sleep... even when the antennas installed near their homes aren't switched on yet. This effect is known as "nocebo" and is the reverse of the placebo. It is a suggestion-induced degradation of health. It is not a matter of faking it. These people really suffer physically and psychologically as a result of the anxiety produced by APL campaigns. Also, we must consider that these campaigns induce stress. And stress is harmful. It decreases the body's immune response and makes people more prone to disease. An accumulation of stress can also lead to suicide. Unless studies can quantify the exact harm created by APL, I estimate that their action might be more deadly than the danger they are preaching about concerning phones.

2) We need to study the subject on a longer term before we can draw conclusions. It should be noted that the Interphone study was already carried out on a long term. The mechanism by which cancer occurs is not that it waits patiently for a pre-defined duration of 25 or 30 years and then suddenly pops into existence within the human body. It is when cells are exposed to a mutagen agent (ionizing radiation for nuclear exposure, or chemical reaction for lungs cancer) that our DNA plays cancer-lottery. Every exposure carries a small chance of "winning" the cancer-lottery. Smoke 1 cigarette, and you have little chance to win the cancer-lottery. But smoke 3 packs of 20 cigarettes per day and within 30 years it's like you'll have played the lottery 657,000 times and by then it's likely that you've "won" at least once. But if we test a lot of people smoking cigarettes, we'll see some of them developing cancer after 5 years, after 10 years, after 20 years... Following the same principle, if phones were as harmful as suggested by the APL, the heaviest consumers would already show some statistically significant occurrences of cancers which would leave no doubt. The results of Interphone, taking into consideration the duration of the study and the sample size, strongly suggest that there is no space for long-term studies to uncover significant danger from mobile phones.

3) Not all studies agree that phones are harmless. There are 2 rebuttals to this claim. First, the fact that no study has established danger. Otherwise, if it had been established... well it would be established! Secondly, studies are not all created equal. There are small studies. There are bad studies. There are even pamphlets. And there's Interphone. When you have a study with proper methodology, with a huge sample size and a long duration, you're expected to look at its results and take these results for what they are: the very best results available which supersede all the past nonsense! If the best scientific results do not convince you, your opinion is irrelevant. Science is established and the burden of proof shifts onto you to provide a better study, of which results must be independent from your ideology.

4) But there are people who claim they developed cancer. I saw it on TV.  You see a lot of things on TV. People make claims and its their right. But if you pay attention, you'll see that the causal relationship between their health problem and radio waves is never established scientifically.

5) Telecom operators influence the results of studies. Well... in the case of Interphone (since it's the hallmark study on the subject), the funding came primarily from operators but IARC served as a financial screen between the researchers and the financiers in order to guarantee the independence of the study. So telecom operators can't be suspected of influencing the outcome of the study... unless you're ready to also accuse IARC of complicity... and you would have also to demonstrate the bias in Interphone if you think it is biased.

6) The Interphone study proves a danger of phones. No. As explained, there is an important difference between correlation and causation.


This was a lengthy article, but it is a deep subject. Any attempt to debate it seriously or take information seriously will require a lot of reading and a few hours watching documentaries.

When I started taking an interest into this subject, I didn't have any opinion. I wanted to know and I was ready to be convinced by any side of the argument who would provide the best arguments. From my observation, the 2 sides were not the APL vs. Telecom Operators but APL vs. Science. It sounds radical to say that one side has no valid argument at all, but this is what appeared through the several years I've spent taking information and debating on the subject. On one side, there are studies with scientific demonstrations and quantified facts. On the other side, there's empty accusations and claims, unsupported by any kind of evidence. And if you look at the track record of cases prosecuted in court, you'll find an overwhelming majority of wins on the side of science and operators.

There is a legitimate concern by citizens and parents to know that the appropriate measures are taken to avoid exposing them to harm. The state of the art is that they're safe. Unfortunately, reading and interpreting scientific language is not easy for the layman, and they're easily influenced by roaring paranoid lobbies who exist thanks to their donations. And scientists are also quite famous for sucking at communication.

I hope that this article, despite its length, can be helpful to anyone to understand the current state of affairs. Also, I did not cover the subjects of how mobile phones relate to pregnant women and children. In the case of pregnant women, I simply haven't researched the subject. And in the case of children, it essentially comes down to smaller heads and thinner skulls. In the absence of specific studies focused on them, and due to my personal opinions on good behavior, I would simply estimate that children don't need to have a mobile phone but it's ok for them to use a mobile phone ever now and then.

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