Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Catalyst documentary on cellphone risks misleading at the very least

In another blow against science journalism, there has been an outcry against a program aired recently on ABC Catalyst (billed as "the only science show on primetime television in Australia"), on the subject of that old chestnut, the putative link between brain cancer and cellphones/wi-fi.
Provocatively entitled "Wi-Fried?", the program claims to be disseminating known links between brain cancer and now-ubiquitous radiofrequency electromagnetic fields like those from cellphones and wi-fi. The program, however, relies almost exclusively on a single US doctor, Devra Davis, who makes some devastating and apparently conclusive claims like: "Every single well-designed study ever conducted finds an increased risk of brain cancer with the heaviest users, and the range of the risk is between 50% to eightfold. That’s a fact."
Unfortunately, that's not a fact, and a number of high-profile doctors, researchers and scientists have criticised the Catalyst program for being misleading, and for ignoring the full range of evidence about brain cancers. Some, like the eminent Australian professor of public health, Simon Chapman, assert that the program should never have gone to air, and others have called parts of it "scaremongering".
In fact, there seems to be no compelling evidence of a significant increase in the rate of brain cancer per 100,000 in the population between 1982 and today, either in Australia or anywhere else, despite the huge increase in ambient radio waves. The Australian Cancer Council explicitly denies that cellphones cause brain cancer. It helps that there is actually extremely good data about the incidence of cancer in Australia, because all cancers are compulsorily reported there due to its status as a "notifiable disease".
Internationally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) has classified cellphones as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" since 2011, although it rather unhelpfully notes that "the observed associations could reflect chance, bias, or confounding rather than an underlying causal effect". The vast majority of other cancer research bodies, though - including the US National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Communications Commission, and the European Commission Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks - seem pretty united in asserting that the evidence available is not strong enough to be considered causal, and is definitely not conclusive or definitive. The Canadian Cancer Society, in true Canadian style, remains uncommitted either way.
So, in conclusions, it seems that a small number of studies have shown a link between cell phone use and cancer, but most research done so far does NOT show a link. Yes, more studies are needed, and clearly these are relatively early days for cellphone use, and particularly for wi-fi exposure.
I think the point is, though, that science journalism needs to be very careful when making contentious, controversial and incendiary claims of this kind. The Catalyst program has already been in trouble for a 2013 program on the popular heart medication collectively known as statins, which quoted questionable "experts", and which featured statistics that were later widely refuted. The program's conclusions were so dramatic and damning, though, that an estimated 60,000 Australian patients stopped taking their heart medications, possibly leading to an unknown number of fatal consequences.
Now, I don't want to suppress investigative journalism, in science or any other field. But reporting needs to be accurate and balanced, and overbold and flamboyant claims should be avoided unless absolutely proven in a scientific (and preferably peer-reviewed) manner.

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