Recently, an Italian court made history with a ruling that established a link between cellphone use and brain cancer. The plaintiff, Roberto Romeo, alleged that excessive work-related cellphone use — three to four hours a day — caused the development of a brain tumor. The judge ruled in his favor after entertaining recent studies demonstrating the effects of cellphone radiation.
But does the radiation from cellphones really cause cancer? Or is it all just misinformation and media hype? Consider the formerly widespread belief that correlated vaccines with autism cases. This is thanks in part to gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, whose infamous study disseminated the myth in the first place.
Wakefield’s study has so many flaws that it’s now a textbook case in how not to conduct a scientific study. For starters, the test only had a sample size of 12 people — far too small to apply the results to a population as a whole. Second, the test had no control group, further muddling the results.
In the years since, scientists worldwide have refuted its findings, even beyond its retraction in 2010. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, plenty of people still believe that vaccines play a role in autism development.
We need to consider the lessons learned from this case, not only on the validation of scientific evidence, but also on how media sensationalism perpetuates misinformation.
The Newsweek article reporting the judge’s ruling concluded that cellphone use played a part in the plaintiff’s cancer diagnosis. However, Romeo’s experience does not prove a connection between cellphones and cancer. A wider range of people would need to be tested and studied in order to verify a clear correlation. Researchers assert that randomized experimentation is essential in validating a scientific study, and Romeo’s case is far too isolated.
The judge’s ruling goes on to cite a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health on rats as further evidence. In the study, rats exposed to cellphone radiation for nine hours per day, every day, for a little over two years had a higher incidence of tumors.
Reading through the study, the researchers did achieve some odd results with their findings. For example, the survival rate of the control group was lower than any of the groups exposed to radiation. It’s also worth noting that tumors are one of the most common health problems rats experience.
While it’s clear that the extreme exposure to radiation encouraged tumor growth, the findings of this particular study should be taken with a grain of salt. Some scientists note that animal models aren’t necessarily predictive of human ones. Simply put, while rats developed tumors due to high exposure, that doesn’t necessarily reflect how humans react to the small amount of radiation from cellphones over the course of a decade.
The American Cancer Society praised the NIH’s study, saying that it represents a “paradigm shift in our understanding of radiation and cancer risk.” They maintain that the relationship between cell phone radiation and cancer needs a solid scientific base, and this study provides a strong foundation.
They also praised the findings regarding the particular cancers associated with the radiation — malignant gliomas and schwannoma. These cancers are extremely rare in both animals and humans, and their appearance rate increased alongside the radiation dosage. This indicates that the correlation may just indicate causation.
Despite this glowing feedback, other organizations couldn’t help but express doubts. The New York Times, for example, pointed out that the female rats had extremely low instances of tumors — so low, they were almost identical to the control group. This unexplained difference calls the rest of the results into question.
Another interesting phenomena is that absolutely none of the control group had gliomas tumors. The Times noted that in previous studies, an average of two percent of the control rats developed tumors. Had the rats in the control developed gliomas tumors, the groups would have been nearly identical.
Even one of the reviewers — NIH’s Michael S. Lauer — was skeptical of the results. He was unable to accept the results, citing the low amount of rats used and the potential for false positives. While this study appears groundbreaking, it’s clearly too early to use it as a basis of establishing a cause-and-effect relationship between cellphone usage and cancer.
The final issue I’d like to look at is whether any of the facts reported in the article could have been stretched or misunderstood to make them fit the attention-grabbing title. For example, the article specifically states that Romeo developed brain cancer. However, a quote from Romeo in that same article states that the tumor was benign.
There are two classifications for tumors: benign and malignant. From a medical and scientific standpoint, benign tumors are not cancerous, since they do not spread to other parts of the body. There are numerous causes for benign tumors, including radiation, but it is incorrect to refer to them as if they were cancerous.
While the story has its merits, it misrepresents some of the information, either on purpose to generate traffic or by mistake due to lack of knowledge. In this case, the story does not prove that cellphone use causes malignant cancer. While it’s very possible that Romeo’s extreme case was the cause of the tumor, to say it gave him cancer is highly misleading.
When an article makes bold scientific claims, it always pays to take a deeper look into the issue, rather than taking the information at face value. So the next time you see an article such as this, do your own research before believing outrageous claims.
Kate Harveston is a freelance political writer and blogger for her site, Only Slightly Biased. Her writing mainly focuses on social justice issues, both in the United States and internationally.
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