Immortal Rats Making Phone Calls

You've probably heard about the new study that provides a shocking link between exposure to mobile-phone signals and radiation!!!!! RIGHT?!?!?

It's not shocking. It's a pre-publication, not-yet-passed-peer-review release of incomplete data. The more correct headline on the coverage would have been, "Exposure to radiation leads to longer lives among male rats." You can read the study yourself; particularly focus on the first few pages and the reviewers' comments attached at the end. This hasn't been replicated, and many people are already challenging the statistical validity of cherrypicked data that the researchers chose to focus on in the study and in interviews.

The control group of 180 rats in the study died much younger than the six groups of 180 rats exposed to varying degrees of signal strength (at far higher levels, for longer periods, than almost anyone experiences using a phone). Female rats in the study (50% of all the rats) exposed to radiation had vastly lower levels of cancer than the male rats, for reasons the researchers can't explain…and are probably due to statistical variation. Due to the early mortality of so many in the control group who were isolated from signals, those rats didn't have time to develop cancers at the rate expected.

I've had cancer, I don't trust large companies to act in the best interests of any humans at this point (cf., latest news about Oxycontin), and scientific research can be all over the map because researchers are pressured to provide positive results (showing a thing expected) rather than negative ones (we didn't find a result). There's a growing movement to require all federally funded research to publish all results. You also see things like researchers not counting people who drop out of studies before a certain point, even if that produces a healthier control group, etc.; there, the issue is control group rats dying early, which biases the experiment. 

However, I've been reading studies about electromagnetic exposure and human health for over a decade and talking to researchers across that time. At the outset, I was highly concerned we'd find that cellular phone makers and carriers had suppressed data and it could wind up a huge health disaster—it's the usual pattern of things, unfortunately, whether it's cigarettes, a miracle drug (Vioxx), medical implants, magic pesticides, whatever. But then study after study (the peer-reviewed ones) showed a lack of association.

There are dozens of studies in which people who believe their (legitimate, real) symptoms of distress are caused by exposure to cellular radiation are put through tests. Some are double-blind experiments in which researcher and subject in a signal-isolated room are exposed to signals or not, and the subject indicates how they feel. The symptoms are real, measurable, and sometimes profound, but occurred at the same frequency whether or not a signal was present. (These real symptoms thus have another cause and tin-foil salespeople have misdirected people, rather than helping them find the cause.)

Likewise, researchers have done various longitudinal work in which they examine 100,000s of people's calling records and find the people and get health histories. And epidemiologists have been examining cancer rates related to those that would be expected to occur if there were an effect related to holding a phone near your head, and those rates haven't changed.

As I say, I don't trust industry to do right, and some studies were funded by affected groups. However, many have now been performed under government auspices around the world. It's a hard thing to suggest that reproducible studies are being coordinated in dozens of countries, each of which have different regulatory and safety regimes.

The New York Times promoted its story with a slightly over the top message, but the article itself is detailed and good. The Washington Post did a nice rundown of how to contextualize the study. And a roundup and explanation over at New York magazine.

(I should note for the sake of completeness that I’ve never been employed by any company related to the cellular world, I’ve written critically, sometimes very negatively, about consumer-facing and technology issues caused by and related to cellular handset makers and carriers for decades, and I think carriers currently charge an excessive amount in the U.S. for the services they provide.)