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Embargo break on cellphone-brain tumor study adds to controversy

May 17, 2010 | 10:45 am

Cellphone The controversial Interphone study-- the largest, longest study on whether cellphones increase the risk of brain tumors -- was due to be released Monday at 4:30 p.m. PDT, in the International Journal of Epidemiology. The embargo was broken over the weekend, however, and many fingers are pointing to the British media as the culprits. But it's obvious that stakeholders on both sides of the issue would like to shape the message from this confusing and problematic study.

The study showed no link to two types of brain tumors in adults but found a slightly increased risk of brain tumors among people who used wireless phones the most and the longest and who held their phones to the same side of their heads each time. The Mobile Manufacturers Forum, a wireless industry trade group, considers the study proof that cellphone technology is benign, saying in a news release that the study "provides significant further reassurance about the safety of mobile phones. The overall analysis is consistent with previous studies and the significant body of research, reporting no increased health risk from using mobile phones."

Janet Raloff, writing for Science News, notes that the manufacture's trade group provided some funding for the Interphone study -- one of the many criticisms of the Interphone study. Further, Raloff points out that the MMF's release doesn't exactly mirror the news coverage:

"This interpretation departs dramatically, however, from what several UK news organizations reported.
–  Says London’s Sunday Times online: 'People who use their mobile phones for at least 30 minutes a day for 10 years have a greater risk of developing brain cancer, a landmark study has found.' 
– The Telegraph noted in its story that 'The final results paper of the study, one quarter of which was funded by the mobile phone industry, has been delayed for four years while the authors argued over how to present the final conclusions . . .'
– A longer version of the above story by Mark Smith in the Scotsman leads off with: 'A major international study has found a link between mobile phone use and certain brain tumors.'

With such news accounts emerging, no wonder MMF wanted to put some calming interpretations out regarding the data."

The embargo break is unfortunate because it prevents news organizations, including The Times, from proceeding with a full accounting of the study from a variety of viewpoints. Critics of the study have also been clamoring for media attention. The Interphone study has many flaws, said Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health, School of Public Health, UC, Berkeley. In October, Moskowitz published a paper in the Journal of Clinical Oncology analyzing 23 studies on the link and finding that eight of the most scientifically rigorous of the studies showed a 10% to 30% increased risk of tumors among cellphone users compared with people who rarely or never used the phones.

The Interphone study, which was coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, reflects a much lower rate of cellphone usage than is common today, Moskowitz said in an interview Friday. Average cellphone users in the study used a wireless phone for an average of 2 to 2.5 hours a month -- compared with the average use presently of 21 minutes a day. Moreover, the study only examined adults, and data collected on two other types of tumors, on acoustic neuromas or salivary gland tumors, has not been released for unexplained reasons. The study also described people who used cordless phones but did not use cellphones as people who "never used" wireless technology. That could have also skewed the findings.

"We have known for some time that there were problems with methodology with this study," Moskowitz said. "Cellphone use has increased a great deal since this study has been done. The levels of use we're seeing today, the study doesn't bear on that. I think they really blew it."

A new study is set to begin, funded by the European Union, to investigate the risk of brain tumors among children and teens using cellphones. Cellphones may confer different risks on younger people, whose brains are still developing. However, many kids today text on cellphones more than talk.

Interphone leaves many questions unanswered. That makes it difficult for lawmakers in this country and elsewhere to weigh suggestions that cellphones carry health warning labels as a prudent step while further research on safety is conducted. An April report from the President's Cancer Panel, "Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk," lists as its No. 1 recommendation: "A precautionary, prevention-oriented approach should replace current reactionary approaches to environmental contaminates in which human harm must be proven before action is taken to reduce or eliminate exposures."

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Jagadeesh NV / EPA

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