Scaremongering About Cell Phones
Once again sensation click-bait headlines declare that a new study confirms that cell phones cause cancer, when the truth is nothing of the sort. This fearmongering journalism fails to actually inform readers, and instead tries to alarm them with misinformation.
Most of the headlines are some version of: “SHOCK STUDY: CELLPHONES CAN CAUSE CANCER,” in all caps to make sure you understand that you should be alarmed. None of the mainstream reporting I saw looked passed the press release.
Let’s take a look at the actual study: Oxidative mechanisms of biological activity of low-intensity radiofrequency radiation.
The first thing to note as that this is a review article. It does not present any new data. It is not an experiment or observational study. It’s not even a meta-analysis. It is just a group of researchers looking at the literature and proclaiming that it confirms what they already believed.
Review articles serve a legitimate purpose in science. They are a primary way that researchers communicate with each other and express their opinion. But they should not be presented as if they are new data, or as if they confirm one side in a debate. They can be abused, however, in a process called citation bias – packing the literature with reviews that support your side to make it seem like it is more robust than it actually is.
It also needs to be clear that this review does not look at studies which examine whether or not there is an actual increase in brain cancer or other illness associated with cell phone use. While there are still minority dissenters, there is a growing consensus among scientists that cell phone use does not cause brain cancer. Most reassuring is that, as cell phone use has skyrocketed over the last 20 years, the incidence of brain cancer has not budged.
The lead author of the current review (to avoid confusion it really shouldn’t be called a “study”), Igor Yakymenko, has published several articles arguing that low intensity radio-frequency radiation (RFR) can increase oxidative stress in tissues and this is a possible mechanism of increased disease risk. In his current review he argues that the published evidence supports this position.
While the evidence may support the notion that RFR can increase markers of oxidative activity in tissue, it does not establish that this increase is biologically important and can actually lead to specific diseases. It also does not establish that cell phone use causes any harm by this mechanism.
At this point Yakymenko’s hypothesis is still speculative, and there is no evidence to make claims for actual health effects. There is no problem with him publishing a review of the data and arguing for his hypothesis, but it is dubious behavior to send out a sensational press release declaring victory in a scientific debate because of your own review, and then linking your claims to scary health concerns.
The media, as I have noted, happily obliged Yakymenko by presented the press release without first consulting independent experts or conducting anything resembling actual journalism.