[ * to avoid potential additional confusion – the title of this blog is sarcastic, not what I like to see around]
Recent IARC evaluation of mobile phone radiation potential to cause cancer and classification of it as a 2B carcinogen has caused a stir of pro and contra opinions among the scientists, industry and news media. Unfortunately, the only outcome of this broad attention leads to only one – confusion. Regular mobile phone user, whether highly or not so highly educated, can only be confused by this flurry of contradictory opinions and spin-statements.
The outcome of the IARC evaluation has been commented (as a complaint) by Peter Wideman in the “Hot Topic” session at the recent Bioelectromagnetics Society meeting in Halifax, Canada, as dependent on the composition of the evaluation group. He has indicated, at least I got this impression, that IARC has selected not sufficiently good group to evaluate RF effects on cancer and this had dare implications on the outcome. He is indeed correct that the group composition had impact on the outcome. However, as he has admitted, his expectation was that the RF will be classified at most in group 3 – non classifiable as carcinogenic agent. So, he was clearly strongly displeased that the IARC evaluation, using the same science, did not reach the same conclusion as ICNIRP. I am certain that there are many who share opinion of Peter Wideman.
But, at this point in time and with the scientific evidence at hand, who is more correct – IARC or ICNIRP? There is no slightest doubt in my mind that the IARC evaluation is more reliable because the group consisted of scientists with very different opinions, often contradictory. With some very rare exception, these scientists were able to reach pretty overwhelming consensus that the evidence of the effects cannot be just a coincidence and cannot be outright dismissed. ICNIRP has not such ability as the composition of this group is made by inviting to ICNIRP of scientists with the same opinions and apparently ICNIRP does not tolerate differing opinions… Of course this way is easier to reach consensus, but is it really reflecting the current status of science? In my opinion it is certainly not. But what is the result – differing opinions by ICNIRP and IARC cause – confusion.
Even more extreme opinion about the IARC evaluation was expressed in news media interview by the current President-Elect of the Bioelectromagnetics Society – David Black – a New Zealand scientist and, as he calls himself, an industry consultant (http://www.stuff.co.nz/technology/gadgets/5082798/Research-on-mobile-phone-risks-consistently-unclear):
“…Auckland University honorary senior lecturer David Black, who specialises in electromagnetic safety, said he believed the question of radiation exposure risks had been settled. “The whole idea of cancer and mobile handsets – there was never a good reason to think there was a problem in the first place.” Continued research was behind the continued questions, Black said. “There’s a lot of people in academic careers whose futures depend on there being a continued problem, so there’s a great deal of talking up of a continued problem.”…”
(DL comment: this opinion not only says that scientists are chasing ghosts but also clearly says that the scientists doing mobile phone research are misleading people in order to secure their positions at work. Well, it is not the comment any open-minded scientist would expect from the soon-to-be President of the scientific society. Rather open mind and embracing all research directions of the scientific society should be the attribute of good President. And, indirectly, from the opinion presented by David Black one can assume what he thinks about the majority of IARC Working Group scientists – we were just securing our own future…)
Such opinions are the reason why industry is so keen on consulting with David Black who admitted it in one of his recent news media interviews. But such opinions are extreme, unfair, biased and not based in reality of current RF science and as such they cause really bad confusion.
Industry tried to nullify the outcome of the IARC evaluation in different statements what causes confusion:
Michael Milligan from the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF) said:
“…After reviewing the available scientific evidence, it is significant that IARC has concluded that RF electromagnetic fields are not a definite nor a probable human carcinogen…”
(DL comment: it is a clear attempt to turn attention from what was achieved at the meeting by stating that the worst case scenario did not happen.)
Jack Rowley from GSM Association (GSMA) said:
“…The IARC classification suggests that a hazard is possible but not likely…”
(DL comment: reading this statement I wonder where from the “…not likely…” wording has come. There was nothing like this said in the IARC meeting and Jack knows it as well as I, since we both were there.)
Patrick Frostell from the Federation of Finnish Technology Industries (FFTI) said:
“…IARC’s classification is in line with the dominant interpretation of current research data, according to which radiofrequency electromagnetic fields are neither carcinogenic to humans nor probably carcinogenic to humans…”
(DL comment: similarly as MMF’s this statement is pointing that the worst case scenario did not materialize so – no problem at all)
In the context of the IARC evaluation, that has shown that mobile phone radiation is a possible carcinogen based on epidemiological studies where participants used actual mobile phones sold in shops, statements from the industry about the safety of mobile phones cause again confusion, to say the least. Where from this certainty that everyone is well protected including children? We do not know it since these gadgets seemed to cause increase in cancer in their users… So, are the current safety standards sufficient? I have serious doubts but the industry apparently does not have:
“…In understanding the implications of this assessment, it should be remembered that wireless communications equipment are designed to operate within international and national exposure limits which already have substantial safety margins built into them…” and “…Around the world, mobile phones are labelled with national regulatory approval marks – such as the EU’s ‘CE’ or the US’s FCC mark – to show they meet, amongst other things, relevant exposure standards…”
“…Over the past decade, more than 30 authoritative, independent expert scientific reviews undertaken around the world, including by the World Health Organisation, have concluded that present safety standards for mobile phones and base stations provide protection for all persons against all established health hazards…”
“…All approved, low-power, wireless data-transfer devices have been designed to comply with international and domestic safety-values. They have an inbuilt safety margin that takes account of all user groups, including children…”
How they can be so sure? No idea…
And to cause even more confusion here is selection of a variety of news media headlines:
Are mobiles a health risk? There’s no answer yet The Guardian – Jun 3, 2011
Death by cellphone? Put the fear industry on hold Globe and Mail – Jun 3, 2011
Do cellphones cause cancer? Unclear. But science proves they’re annoying. Washington Post – Jun 3, 2011
The Cellphone Panic Wall Street Journal – Jun 3, 2011
No, cell phones don’t cause cancer CNN – Jun 2, 2011
Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer? 13 Other Possible Carcinogens Huffington Post – Jun 2, 2011
Beware of your mobile phone, it can cause cancer: WHO International Business Times – Jun 4, 2011
Cellphone hysteria, thanks to WHO New York Post – Jun 4, 2011
Death by Cell Phone? Metropolitan News-Enterprise – Jun 3, 2011 (Los Angeles)
Cellphone ban at schools urged Taipei Times – Jun 3, 2011
Don’t panic over phone radiation JoongAng Daily – Jun 3, 2011
Cellphones may cause cancer, but so what? CanadianBusiness.com (blog) – Jun 2, 2011
Mobile Alert TIME – Jun 2, 2011
Editorial, 6/4: Don’t overreact on cell phones Lincoln Journal Star – Jun 3, 2011
And, of course, depending whether one likes to stress the “danger” or alleviate it, there are listed other 2B carcinogens. If one likes to be more “scary” then lists e.g. asbestos and if one likes to suggest that there is no problem at all then lists e.g. coffee or pickled vegetables.
More confusion and there is no end to it.
WHO has just updated the Fact Sheet #193 (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs193/en/index.html) on RF radiation and as the only outcome of the IARC evaluation (besides mentioning the 2B category) one can find information that the WHO will perform own evaluation of the health effects of RF radiation in 2012. So, the IARC and ICNIRP evaluations are not sufficient for the WHO. May be it is because they are so different in their conclusions. It will be interested how broad scope of views and opinions will represent WHO-selected review panel in 2012.
In any case, there will be still more confusion…
I think that it would be time to finally get consensus that the situation is indeed unclear, that better studies are needed to prove or to disprove potential health effect. Scientists participating in different review groups should stop having it both ways: putting in review text all what is uncertain and should be improved with the available scientific evidence but then, in the end, conclude that there is no risk at all and that it is unlikely. Conclusions, however brief, should reflect the status of the science and this is most often not the case. There is too much of “politics” in this research field and too little of quality science. Too easily positive results are dismissed as “unlikely” or “unreplicated” or something “not normal” and the negative results are readily embraced as the “correct ones” and “expected ones”. Both kind of studies should be scientifically scrutinized. It is possible to get positive result by error but it is as easy, if not easier, to get negative result by error too. This single-sided approach to scrutinize positive studies but embrace negative ones should change. This is the way to move science forward and to finally get sufficient evidence that will not be confusing – whatever it will be.
But, for now, VIVA Confusion!