Keep using your mobiles – the latest study on phone radiation is far from conclusive

    31 May 2016

    A new report by US government scientists claims that radiation emitted by mobile phones can increase the risk of two types of cancer – in rats.

    During the study, by the National Toxicology Program, researchers exposed rodents to radiation levels similar to those experienced by people with ‘heavy’ mobile phone usage.

    They found that two types of tumours – brain gilomas and heart neuromas – were more common in the subjects that were exposed to radiation.

    They also found that cancer was only discovered in male rats, and that rats exposed in utero had lower birth weights.

    Instant analysis

    The NTP has sought to determine toxicology and carcinogenesis for Radiofrequency Radiation (RF) at frequencies and modulations used in the US Telecommunications industry.

    The agenda for this seems unclear, considering so far there has been no data conclusively suggesting that this is the case – that RF radiation is carcinogenic, or even that it causes damage.

    If you look at European work into RF, you see that there is nothing of any conclusion suggesting a link between cancer and RF radiation. There have been observations of in vitro effects seen on cells, but how this translates to humans is not clear, or definite.

    Even the WHO has weighed into the argument on ‘nil effect’ with a nice synopsis here.

    Recently, a publication in the Independent piqued my interest in the subject – writing that ‘groundbreaking’ evidence of a link between mobile phones and cancer had just been published.

    I sought to pull apart the nonsense from the truth. The NTP study, to begin with, is provisional, and these are partial findings from the NTP Program in Sprague Dawley Rats. They focussed on two individual tumours seen in these SD rats – Schwannoma of the Heart, and malignant Gliomas in the brain. Both of these tumours are incredibly rare in either population.

    It is informed by a limited amount of case control studies, and one cohort study on gliomas of the brain; most of which are outside of the evolution in modern mobile technology to have any meaningful link. The cohort study in particular suggested a number of 257 cases of glioma among 420,095 subscribers of a Danish mobile company between 1982 and 1995. The researchers happily admit in their monograph on RF radiation and cancer, that this is around the same as the background rate for glioma.

    They accept that their association is based on ‘limited evidence’, most of which is open to a lot of scepticism and scrutiny. What is also not mentioned here is that the type of radiation and the manner in which the phones would have worked would have been vastly different in these times – in 1982 City yuppies had their comedy sized phones attached to a briefcase, which contained a battery, and the phone would emit *analogue* data – not digital. 

    The methodology of this new study is intriguing in itself, exposing the rats, in utero to RF Radiation, and then continuing to do so for their entire lifetime. 

    The study had three objectives: to prove that RF radiation did not increase the temperature of the rats; to establish whether toxicology existed over 28 days; and over the longer 2 year duration.

    The rats were exposed to whole body doses of RF radiation for 2 years, way above what would be expected for a ‘normal usage’ to be. These were also adjusted according to body weight in order to ensure the dose was as expected. The pups in pregnant rats were also exposed to these doses from around 11-14 weeks in gestational age; and these were subsequently removed from their parent and continued to be exposed. Each exposure lasted for 18 hours per day, with a 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off schedule – or approximately 9 hrs/day for 7 days a week. These are hardly ‘real life conditions’. 

    Oddly, at the end of the study, the survival in the control groups of pups was lower than that of the RF exposure group. The study also noted a ‘low incidence’ of gliomas and ‘glial cell hyperplasia’ (for which they interpret this as precancerous change, but this is not definite – just a radiological observation on imaging). Considering the weighting of control group to exposure group, I think this result is particularly misleading. The control group had zero incidences of malignant glioma or glial cell hyperplasia (note the number of control pups being 90); but the exposure group had 8 in 270 and 3 in 270 for the alternative type of phone (CDMA vs GSM). For glial cell hyperplasia, again 0 in the control group of 90; versus 6 in 270 in the GSM group and 4 in 270 for the CDMA phone type. A lower rate in the RF exposure group exists for females. 

    What is important is the information which suggests that the background rate of these tumours is around 11 in 550, or 2% in NTP studies, or a range of 0-8% – i.e. that the rat model has a background incidence of tumours of anything up to 8% – even in controls. 

    In essence, this provisional data is another example of a PR Klaxon going off without any pause to consider what has actually occurred, which has found its way into a UK newspaper without any real interpretation of the results, and yet another sensationalist headline. 

    There is a huge amount of work that precedes this small study, all of which has not found any conclusive evidence to date. Looking at the way the data has been presented in this paper, I would argue again, that the data is inconclusive, and that the methodology of the study is open to scrutiny.

    In the meantime, I will continue to use my phone as I have done previously. 

    Research score: 1.5/5.