The world’s most important study into the dangers of mobile-phone use raises serious worries, writes Geoffrey Lean.
It is as if the Pope were to advise us to disregard his past pronouncements as fatally fallible, Lord’s was to declare that umpiring decisions there had long been biased, or Gordon Brown were to confess that his 13 years of managing the economy were a disaster.
This week, the scientists who had completed one of the world’s biggest and most important health studies effectively admitted that it had wasted everyone’s time.
They didn’t put it quite like that, of course. But after 10 years of research and deliberation, the expenditure of £16.5 million, and comparing the health of many thousands of mobile phone users and non-users in 13 countries, the world’s biggest study into whether the phones cause brain cancer – published this week – admitted that its main finding was "implausible" and that its conclusions were undermined by "bias" and "error".
Not that this stopped the mobile phone industry and establishment scientists suggesting that the study has exonerated handsets. But it does no such thing: indeed, as The Daily Telegraph exclusively predicted back in October, it produces evidence that suggests that they pose a very serious threat indeed.
In sober truth, it is extraordinary that this evidence emerged. For the way the study, partly financed by the industry, was set up appears to militate against it. It covered only those aged between 30 and 59, omitting children, teenagers and young adults, who are most vulnerable to the radiation: one study shows that people who start using a mobile before the age of 20 increase their chances of getting the disease fivefold. It chose a ludicrously wide definition of "regular mobile phone users", including those who only made one call a week over six months – a negligible exposure that could not possibly cause harm.
Worst of all, it looked at people who had used their handsets for far too short a time for cancers to have developed. Tumours almost always take at least a decade – usually several – to emerge after the initial damage has been done. But, on average, the people examined for the research had only been using mobiles for just over two years, far too little time for even the most virulent cancer-causing agents to show an effect. As a commentary accompanying the publication of the paper in the International Journal of Epidemiology put it: "None of today’s established carcinogens, including tobacco, could have been firmly identified as increasing risk in the first 10 years or so since first exposure."
So the report’s much-quoted conclusion that "overall no increase in risk" had been found was not so much a scholarly discovery as a statement of the obvious, which could have been written before a single penny had been spent.
This conclusion, moreover, covered up an embarrassment. For the actual results showed that people who use mobile phones appeared to be less likely to get cancer than those who do not. The authors admit that this is "implausible" and "makes our results difficult to interpret" and suggest that "bias" and "error" is to blame. (Their critics say this proves their case.)
And yet, despite all this, one worrying finding did emerge. The heaviest users of mobile phones – on them for a total of 1,640 hours, equivalent to just half an hour a day over 10 years – were 40 per cent more likely to get glioma, the brain cancer that killed Ted Kennedy.
And they were fully twice as likely to develop it on the same side of the head as they held the handset.
The authors of the study dismissed this result, saying that – wait for it – "biases and error prevent a causal interpretation". But an appendix to the paper provides strong supporting evidence. It got around the cause of bias that most worried the researchers – that fewer people who did not use mobiles volunteered to be studied than those who did – by comparing light with heavier users. And this revealed consistent increases in glioma among those who had phoned most, and those who had used their handsets for 10 years or more.
These results, among the only people who could possibly be expected to develop the disease, are truly worrying.
For only the most powerful carcinogens show any effect after just a decade, suggesting that very many more people will fall victim after 20 or 30 years, or more. And even the heaviest users were relatively modest callers by today’s standards: many people, particularly the young, use them for an hour a day, often much more.
During the leisurely course of the research and reporting, the number of mobile users worldwide has doubled to four billion. Their ubiquity, especially among the young, means that if handsets do cause cancer, we could yet see an epidemic – one that this botched, biased and belated study will have done little to prevent.
(C) The Telgraph By Geoffrey Lean
Group London 2010