No, a Study Didn't Just Prove That Mobile Phones Cause Brain Cancer

By Ed Cara on at

Yet another study claiming to show a connection between cancer and mobile phones—this time from the UK—is making the rounds. But plenty of scientists are saying the new paper is misleading.

The authors, using data from the UK Office of National Statistics, tracked the incidence of all diagnosed brain cancer cases within England from 1995 to 2015. Like most other similar research, they found that rates of brain cancer overall had stayed the same. But one particular type of brain tumour, known as glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), seemingly did become more common in England over that time. In 1995, there were 953 cases of GBM diagnosed within the country, compared to 2,531 cases diagnosed in 2015. After adjusting for age, a statistical method used to balance the varying risks of getting cancer among different age groups (older people in general are more likely to develop cancer), they found the overall annual incidence had doubled.

This increase in GBMs, the most common and often most aggressive type of brain cancer, had likely been masked by the relative decrease of other brain cancers, they added.

The study’s findings, published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health, can’t offer any explanation about why the rate of GBMs increased. But that didn’t stop the researchers from speculating. And alongside factors like increased exposure to medical X-rays, CT scans, and air pollution, they theorised some of the possible blame could be laid on radio-frequency (RF) radiation emitted by cellphones.

“The paper itself is not about cellphones; it’s just about this change in the tumours ... but cellphones seem like really they’re the most likely cause,” lead author Alasdair Philips, a trustee of the charity Children with Cancer UK, told CNN.

The findings do mirror some similar results in the US, which found that certain GBMs have truly become more common (but other studies have found the opposite). But many scientists have since noted there’s nothing particularly new that this UK study brings to the table, and certainly nothing that would settle the contentious debate surrounding cellphones.

“The authors clearly demonstrate a rise in one type of brain cancer, which is of concern. The suggestion that mobile phone use is responsible cannot be substantiated as the rise is greatest in [people over 55] who use mobile phones much less and there was very little mobile phone use in 1995 when rates are already increasing,” said Keith Neal, an emeritus professor of epidemiology at University of Nottingham. Neal’s comments were included in a roundup of expert statements collected by the independent Science Media Centre in the UK.

The study follows similarly criticised research released this February by the National Toxicology Program that found an association between cellphone radiation and an increase of some types of tumours in male rats. Critics noted there was no clear reason why an actual increased risk would only be seen in male rats, but not female rats. And there was overall no major difference in the health outcomes and survival of rats exposed to cellphone radiation compared to control groups.

While some public health agencies, including the World Health Organisation (and the city of Berkeley, California), have erred on the side of caution and declared cellphones to be a possible carcinogen, many others haven’t. The Food and Drug Administration, for instance, declared that the “weight of scientific evidence does not show an association between exposure to radio frequency from cellphones and adverse health outcomes.”

This study shouldn’t change that equation in any major way. [Journal of Environmental and Public Health via CNN]


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