Cell Phones Still Not Linked to Brain Cancer

The process of skepticism and scientific inquiry, it has become very apparent to me, requires constant learning and re-evaluation of one’s unfounded beliefs.  My own personal journey has been one that came from a position of simplistic certainly about the world and has resulted in a necessary embrace of uncertainty and a probabilistic understanding of the universe.  How we know A caused B instead of B occurring coincidentally with A is the point, really, of the increasing sophistication of scientific inquiry; with the past 60 years seeing a overhaul of medical investigation.

Enter cell phones.  We are constantly reminded of the failure of society to recognize the dangers of tobacco, let alone do something about it, and the industry led effort to suppress information and increase uncertainty in the pubic is held up as proof that all industries will stop at no lengths to protect their investment, despite dangers to the public.  In the face of this, we need a scientific outlook to unblinker us from determining an unbiased truth. A new systematic review published in October’s Bioelectromagnetics is an excellent illustration of how we determine causality.

Rapacholi et al set out to systematically review the current knowledge of the effects of cell phones on brain cancer from the two major avenues used to determine causality: epidemiology and in vivo experiments (done in living animals). Through a very comprehensive systematic review format, where all of the studies matching a pre-determined set of criteria are evaluated for their quality and conclusions are drawn given all of the evidence, the researchers sought to lay out the state of the evidence for any connection between the use of cell phones and the incidence of several types of cancerous tumors in the head.  They used all studies published in peer-reviewed journals up until January 2010, so they did not include the newest Danish epidemiological study, which showed no relationship between cell phones and cancer.

Modern efforts to determine causality in medicine have culminated in the Hill Criteria, first described in 1965 by Dr. Austin Bradford Hill, and the conclusions drawn from the current evidence by Rapacholi et al use these criteria, along with a comprehensive qualitative weighting system that takes into account the design and reporting of the individuals studies. The study design and paper are only available behind a paywall, so the average reader does not have access to the search and analysis criteria, unfortunately.

The results of the study should not surprise any reader of Skeptic North over the past year. The investigators concluded that the epidemiological studies found no relationship between cell phone use, both short term or long term, and meningiomas, gliomas, acoustic neuromas, or parotid gland tumors.  This anaylsis also included a meta-analysis of pooled data results, so it was also evaluated statistically, not just by qualitative measurement: both facets of the investigation found no relationship.

The authors found a consistent disagreement between all of the epidemiological studies and the results of Hardell et al, with the theme of this disagreement being poor study design and control of recall bias – the bias that creeps in when you ask a group of disease suffers to write down their exposure to a possible causative agent over many years of use – I do not know about you, but there is no way that I could accurately recall the amount of cell phone use I had 10 years ago without consulting a bill.  Hardell is indicted consistently throughout the paper for having poor study design and was accorded less weight than the other more rigorous studies that were based on objective usage data or took extensive measures to investigate bias in their study, like the Interphone study (a new iteration of which has found no relation between cell phone use and acoustic neuromas).

Ecological studies look at population level statistics, and Rapacholi et al looked at these studies as well.  The risk of tabacco smoke was noticed by public health officials first when they say an increase in lung cancer deaths at the beginning of the 20th century and wondered what the cause was.  If similar studies show an increase in brain tumors through the wide-spread use of cell phones starting in the late 1990′s then public health officials would be raising similar alarm bells.  Rapacholi et al found no such increase at the population level in any of the countries studied from the early 1970′s to the early 200′s.  Overall, tumor rates have remained flat in the northern European countries, the UK and Ireland as well as in the US.

Cordless phones were not left out of this studies (I hope it is clear that this was a very comprehensive review!) and no association can be drawn from those studies that were given the greatest weight between cordless phone use and brain tumors. Once again, Hardell et al is the outlier in these studies and the authors could not account, overall, for the reasons Hardell is finding associations when others are not.  In one study in 2010, Hardell relied on reporting data from next-of-kin so it appears as if his group is grasping at straws here.

The in vivo studes were no different in their conclusions.  These studies were attempting to determine a possible mechanism for any tumor formation from cell phone use as well as control for other variables that are difficult in epidemiological studies.  Overall, it was clear that those studies that had better dosimetry and were properly blinded, and were therfore accorded more weight, showed no relationship between RF exposure and genotoxicity, or DNA damage.  Concordently, no relationship was found between RF exposure and tumor production, in both the qualitative analysis and the pooled data analysis.  This is not looking good for those still purporting a link.

This study represents a very comprehensive evaluation of the evidence so far for a causal relationship between cancer and cell phone use.  In the conclusion, the authors apply their data to the Hill Criteria and find little strength of evidence, no dose-response relationship in a very heteraganeous data set, with no temporal relationship in the in vivo studies between exposure and tumorgenisis.  As well, they are quick to point out that so far:

“Despite extensive research over many years, no interaction mechanism has been established whereby exposure to low level RF fields (below the level where heating is the dominant mechanism) from wireless phones could cause or contribute to disease in living organisms. Overall, the lack of an appropriate mechanism and the results of the in vitro and in vivo studies do not provide any support for causality.”

It is important to note that there is little if any data for more than 10 years use and we should continue to use ecological and epidemiological studies to see if an increase in brain tumors occurs.  As well, there is very little if any study in children so we should continue to be vigilant, though given the above statement, it is doubtful that we will see any difference between childhood and adult exposure.

Two of the principle investigators did report funding from agencies tied to the cell phone industry, but original studies that they did were excluded from the analysis so they did not affect the outcome.  As well, there were 13 other authors on this paper, and all 15 authors approved the inclusion and analysis criteria as well as participating in the analysis.  Given this, it would be very difficult for any industry bias to confound the outcomes of the study.

Once again, science progresses, and given this new study, along with the Danish study, it is unfortunate that the WHO did not wait until the beginning of 2012 to make their decision about including cell phones on the 2b list of possible carcinogens.  It is nigh impossible to get anything removed from this list, because you have to now show that there is no possibility of carcinogenicity by the agent.  However, given this most recent systematic review, people can once again rest assured that no link has been shown to exist between cell phones and cancer.

Repacholi MH, Lerchl A, Röösli M, Sienkiewicz Z, Auvinen A, Breckenkamp J, d’Inzeo G, Elliott P, Frei P, Heinrich S, Lagroye I, Lahkola A, McCormick DL, Thomas S, & Vecchia P (2011). Systematic review of wireless phone use and brain cancer and other head tumors. Bioelectromagnetics PMID: 22021071

15 Responses to “Cell Phones Still Not Linked to Brain Cancer”

  1. Daryl Vernon says:

    Welcome back, Michael the more capable skepto, to something you appeared to bid adieu to, too, some time ago, the controversy generated by “sown doubt” about radiation “safety”.

    “the industry led effort to suppress information and increase uncertainty in the public is held up as proof that all industries will stop at no lengths to protect their investment”

    Why do you say “all industries”? It is unwarranted. And I would counsel to look behind the corporate or industrial interests involved, to their financial abettors & backers, as often the most important of all. Or to military/clandestine interests in suppression from the public view of truthful info that could jeopardize their doings. The inherent structural sociopathology of much of corporate culture has been written much about, and it can and does lead to “no lengths”. But when something as monstrous — given the documented history — of kill telephony is under consideration, it is hard to believe that the actual invested industries are the ultimate players, especially when these corporations tend to be very large & diverse to start with & in less/no real need of advancing iffy products, needing encouragement & assurance from behind to push ahead regardless of the bad news known about at least at the top. I know “conspiracy” stuff is something skeptos display strong aversion to. But all ‘conspiracy’ means is more than 1 person getting together for ill. It happens all the time, esp. one should expect in inscrutable bottomlessly & unaccountably wealthy circles. But no need to go there to establish the xenobiotic danger of this radiation.

    I’ll hold back on addressing the actual paper you bring, for now. And we’ll overlook Repacholi’s part, for now, except to point to an Italian TV exposé on topic (referred to by me, if it is allowed to stand as comment, at http://www.skepticnorth.com/2011/12/local-cell-tower-hysteria/#comments ) with at one point the journalist unable to suppress laughter as he with innocent air depicts a money laundering scheme (Slesin’s depiction) as upright. But let’s look at Lerchl, to which end see the Adlkofer material I also linked to there. Refused participation at IARC, the one at the forefront of slandering researchers, found to be baseless, but damage done so some decisive studies excluded from eventual IARC consideration, which could easily have had classification 2A already. I know regular skeptos take sci titles at face value when it fits their preference for those on top — but how can anyone listen to Lerchl after all he has wrongfully done? It is shameful.

    ” If similar studies show an increase in brain tumors through the wide-spread use of cell phones starting in the late 1990′s then public health officials would be raising similar alarm bells”

    Wrong again. Why would they, if say, stats are messed with (say, by reclassifications, supposedly for refinement but intended to confuse) or they are so steeped in perverted “risk analysis” culture (read that Maisch I have referred to often here, http://international-emf-alliance.org/images/pdf/The_Procrustean_Approach.pdf ) or are more crudely affected/captured by industry & its abettors? But there are indeed those who speak out. How Micheal Kruse will discredit the opinions of notable neurosurgeons, eg Vini Khurana & Charlie Teo, who see what they see inside actual brains — the disaster as it unfolds — and make the obvious connexion to what Repacholi’s stats have for whatever reason not caught up with yet, right up the perpetrators’ alley…

    The bafflement/absence of firmness about “mechanism” is definitely part of what kept the IARC from 2A, see http://www.wik-emf.org/fileadmin/EMF-Spectrum/Einzelartikel-3-2011/IARC-Monografie_WIK-EMF-Spectrum-3-2011-E.pdf . Why you prefer repacho. et al over this group of experts, you don’t say. Skeptos typically go on about sci “consensus”. Well there was quite the effort to achieve one at IARC. Had there been fewer industry-connected on board, 2A would have carried even without Lerchl’s slander undone.

    “to see if an increase in brain tumors occurs”

    Why are you focusing on cancer, again & again, anyway? Do you not see how longer latencies than for other ailments also plays into perps’ hands? And you are talking about removal from the carcinogen list?! Ask Dominique Belpomme, a French cancer doctor who sees the evidentiary trend to full class 1. Real smart, ignore what doctors are seeing & saying and wait for the industry-connected epidemiologists after the bodies pile up. Real skepto.

  2. Daryl Vernon says:

    I don’t think it inadmissible to quote in full from microwavenews.com on the paper Michael brings:
    October 25… (updated November 10…) Last year, sensing that the upcoming IARC assessment might undercut his legacy at both the WHO and ICNIRP, Mike Repacholi assembled a team to prepare its own assessment of the possible tumor risks from RF radiation: That review has just been released by the journal Bioelectromagnetics.

    No surprise: In contrast to the IARC decision to classify RF radiation as a possible human cancer agent, Repacholi and his 14 coauthors could not identify any hazard beyond overheating. What is surprising is that no one from the WHO EMF project and only one member of ICNIRP, Paolo Vecchia, joined his study team. On the other hand, two who served on the IARC panel did sign up: David McCormick of the U.S. and Martin Röösli of Switzerland. Repacholi’s second author is Alex Lerchl, who has long sought to discredit studies showing that RF can lead to DNA breaks. Here again no surprise: the paper finds that “studies do not support the conclusion that RF exposure causes genotoxic effects.”

    As we long ago documented, Repacholi’s EMF project at WHO received substantial support from the cell phone industry. Did the industry subsidize this new review? The published paper provides no information on possible conflicts. We have asked for clarification from Repacholi and Jim Lin, the editor of Bioelectromagnetics.

    Later: Mike Repacholi replied that “there were no sponsors for this review.” He expressed surprise that the conflict-of-interest statement had been left out of the published paper. Some days after we raised the issue with Lin, a new version of the paper was posted with a detailed, two-paragraph statement covering two of the 15 authors. All the others “reported no conflicts of interest.” The conflict-free include Repacholi and Lerchl. We have yet to be told how the two paragraphs were omitted from the originally posted paper. That pdf is now a collectors’ item.


  3. david says:

    Updated study contains poor science and should be disregarded

    BMJ 2011; 343 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d7899 (Published 6 December 2011)

    Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7899

    Related content
    Article metrics

    Alasdair Philips, scientific director1,
    Graham Lamburn, technical manager1

    Author Affiliations


    The update of the Danish cohort study of mobile phone use and cancer risk has the serious flaws present in the original publication.1 2 The first flaw in the update is the correct identification of mobile phone subscribers between 1987 and 1995. This resulted in a participation rate of only 58% of identified early subscribers, with the remaining 42% placed in the “non-exposed” category (which, by the authors’ own admission, could well be the heaviest user group in the dataset).

    Even for the identified subscribers, no information was collected pertaining to actual mobile phone usage. “Number of subscription years” was used as a surrogate, which the IARC monograph panel said could result in “considerable exposure misclassification” earlier in 2011.3 The paper contains no data on mobile phone subscribers since 1995 and no information about actual exposure.

    An even more damaging limitation is the exposure classification in the “non-subscriber” part of the cohort, which has been analysed as having no exposure to mobile phones. The proportion of the Danish population with a mobile phone subscription increased from 10% to 95% between 1995 and 2004 (from which the “non-exposed” group are drawn), many of whom will have used their phone for over 10 years. The size of this confounder makes meaningful comparisons in the data impossible.

    Finally, the authors made no effort to control for any other forms of radio frequency exposure. Frei et al previously showed that only about 30% of adult microwave exposure currently comes from use of mobile phone handsets,4 with around 30% from cordless phones and 40% from far field sources. This could be highly relevant because Hardell et al have shown increases in brain tumours associated with use of cordless phones,5 which have been in widespread use since 1995.

    • Art Tricque says:

      A letter to the editor does not repudiate the findings of any study. It can point out ways in which future research might be undertaken and / or improved. Very few studies can ever be considered perfect or conclusive for all time. What the Repacholi et al article does provide, as Steven Novella might say, is another piece of strong (in the sense of arising from large-scale, long-term research) evidence to reassure that EMF is not harmful.

  4. Meris says:

    Articles such as yours are misleading the public into believing that wireless technology is safe, when it is not. Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest re-insurance companies, has classified electromagnetic fields as the highest risk on their risk table – 27 on a scale of 1 to 33. Asbestos and mad cow disease were rated lower risks. I have watched my husband die of mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos. 100,000 persons die every year from asbestos-related diseases. How many persons will sicken and die from exposure to electromagnetic fields in future?

    • Daryl Vernon says:

      There are many such articles on all sorts of topics on “skeptic” sites. Since discovering this genre, I don’t bother with them unless it’s on this issue of surpassing gravity. The hardest of heart & head among “skeptics” do not care “How many persons will sicken and die”. They are trying to be true to a certain logic, which must be variously motivated. Check out for instance the truly odious depletedcranium.com archives on topic. I revisited there once recently after the Fukushima business, and true to expected form, I virtually got the main hardhead/hardheart there to admit that his support of nuclear energy had no bounds really, no matter how many lives it cost, and the stated justification was something about yearning for escape into outer space, a prerequisite for which would be forms of nuclear propulsion. While this guy is among the more odious of skeptos, impervious to fundamental self-criticism, yet obtaining esteem from narrow technical abilities, I think his stance exemplifies well that “skeptics” truly do not care about life down here. If EMFs are eventually proven even to a skepto as being, what, carcinogenic (they seem to pay little attention to myriad other ills, and turn away from incisive criticism — part of their training?– which is very suggestive of less than true skeptical qualities, but usurpation of names is the order of the day all over); once manmade EMFs even skeptos will see are & have been doing us in, there will be no regret for their stance. They will have been true to form, and that is what appears to count most. A simple-minded, feel-good kind of form, which, you are right, is “misleading the public”, esp. vulnerable younger people, which is why it is worth something to risk some time on their websites of dubious value.

      The very great shame is that there is a big need indeed for genuine thoroughgoing skepticism in the public square. But those who wear the usurped ‘skeptic’ label, have corrupted the square even further. The hope is that there are onlookers among them, who will sense, through skeptos’ handling of this major public controversy, that something is really amiss with this group’s outlook and approach, and will work to amend it or will bolt from the unrepentant crowd altogether, to apply real incisive unblinkered rationality for the public good.

  5. Composer99 says:

    Since this is the most recent post specifically related to wireless technology, I thought I’d share Orac’s “2012 edition” of dismantling WiFi-related paranoia (in this case spread by the OECTA)


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  • Michael Kruse

    Michael is an advanced-care paramedic in York Region, just north of Toronto, Ontario. A semi-retired theatrical lighting designer as well, he re-trained in 2005 as an EMT-PS at the University of Iowa and as an ACP at Durham College, and is currently working towards a B.Sc at the University of Toronto. Michael is a founder and the chair of the board of directors of Bad Science Watch. He is also the recipient of the first annual Barry Beyerstein Award for Skepticism. Follow Michael on twitter @anxiousmedic. Michael's musings are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or Bad Science Watch.