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Feb 17, 2016

Mobiles might not give you brain cancer, but Catalyst gives scientists a headache

Science experts have called last night's Catalyst on the link between mobile phones and cancer "complete clap-trap", "scientifically bankrupt" and "biased".

One of Australia’s leading experts on the causes of cancer has rubbished last night’s ABC Catalyst program on whether the wi-fi in mobile phones causes brain tumours as “biased” and perhaps even “deceptive”.

“My broad thoughts on the program is that it was scientifically bankrupt,” Professor Bernard Stewart told Crikey. “It was biased, and little short of misleading and deceptive.”

“My anxiety about this is that by even commenting on it, I’m giving it oxygen.”

Stewart is a co-editor of the World Cancer Report for the World Health Organisation and is the editor-in-chief of Cancer Forum, Australia’s leading journal on cancer research. He says the evidence on the potential cancer-causing properties of mobile phones and wi-fi necessitate vigilance, but not action. “Overall, the evidence available that mobile phones cause brain cancer — and there is no comparable evidence in respect to wi-fi — does not possibly warrant the level of concern that was indicated in the program. The evidence warrants continued investigation and monitoring, and that’s all.”

Simon Chapman, an emeritus professor in public health at the University of Sydney, is similarly scathing. He says he was approached to give comment to the program but declined because he believed it was an advocacy program interested in promoting the views of Dr Devra Davis, an American cancer epidemiologist visiting Australia. Dr Maryanne Demasi, the ABC journalist who did the program, tells Crikey that Stewart was similarly invited to be involved, but he declined. She says it’s “perplexing” that Chapman chose to critique the program on social media rather than on air, as he was invited to.

The program’s central theme — that it is too soon to know the full effects of wi-fi on our brains and that caution is warranted — goes against the mainstream scientific opinion in Australia, and against the position of government agencies on the issue.

The program relied heavily on the concerns of Davis, who was a member of a team of scientists that won the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007 for their work on climate change awareness. Davis says at the start of the program she initially laughed off concerns about the impact of wi-fi radiation on our brains. But the more she looked into the issue the more concerned she became.

Over half an hour, Davis raised numerous arguments as to why we should be more wary of the effect of mobile phones. She says studies show sperm samples exposed to wi-fi radiation are less healthy than those that are not. She says the legal warnings given by mobile phone manufacutrers themselves say we should limit exposure. She points to the role of lobbying and other pressure by mobile phone manufacturers in sweeping the issue under the rug. And while acknowledging there’s been no increase in brain cancer rates in the population at large, she says it can take 40 years for brain cancers to develop following initial exposure.

Davis and others in the program draw the parallel to the campaigns by tobacco companies to keep the effects of smoking unknown. But Chapman, who has devoted much of his life to countering the spin of tobacco companies, doesn’t put much stock in the analogy. The eternal scares over mobile phones, he says, are the domain of “essentially risk-phobic people”. Whole industries, he says, are built to cater to such fears.

“There are the people who make a living on praying on gullible people and coating their houses in special paint to stop radiation getting into the house, and selling you special mattresses and pillows and blankets. It’s complete clap-trap.”

Chapman also disputes Davis’ comments about brain tumours taking decades to appear, saying that although it may take decades for a peak in cases to appear, if there were problems with the wi-fi in mobile phones, we’d already be starting to see increased incidences of health problems.

Last night’s Catalyst episode clearly stated the view of people like Davis was a contrary opinion not shared by many of Australia’s peak health bodies. Davis is a respectable if relatively lonely voice.

Leigh Dayton, a veteran science reporter who worked at The Australian until 2012, tells Crikey science reporters do have a role in covering controversial positions in the scientific community, but the manner in which it is done matters. Scientific controversies, she says, can be presented as emerging issues, with appropriate weighting given to the various sides of an argument.

Dayton hadn’t watched the program, but when approached by Crikey to comment on the difficulties of reporting on such issues, she quotes Australian health researcher Peter Doherty, who said: “You don’t give equal time to Nazis”, implying that not all viewpoints are equally valid and deserving of equal weight.

There’s a long history and context around health scares concerning mobile phones, she adds, saying that any program on the issue surely has to delve into this.

“You have to be very clear that what you’re doing is taking a look at an area that’s controversial, and make a judgement beforehand on where you stand on it,” Dayton told Crikey. “It might have a significant impact on people’s lives.”

Demasi told Crikey this morning that the purpose of doing these type of stories was to encourage debate. “It’s the duty of scientists and science reporters to encourage critical thinking on issues which are not conclusive. Wireless technology is relatively new, and the science has not been fully explored. It’s in the interest of the public to be updated on the current debate.

“We cited the major case-controlled studies which have demonstrated a link between heavy use of wireless devices, mobile/cordless phones and glioma [malignant brain tumours]. It is not possible to perform randomised controlled trials in this area of science.”

Asked if there’s a role in science journalists reporting on areas of scientific disagreement, Stewart says there is. But he is wary of the cost.

“You can’t put a cash value on the stress and anxiety. You can, however, say that it should not be provoked unnecessarily.

“It is correct for parents to be anxious with respect to children’s safety … Anxiety in many cases is proper and justified. But there are matters where it’s not justified, and this is one of them.”

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19 comments

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19 thoughts on “Mobiles might not give you brain cancer, but Catalyst gives scientists a headache

  1. zut alors

    The bottom line is that nobody knows whether there will be long term consequences for using mobile & wi-fi technology.

    Both sides can argue their cases scientifically & eloquently but, ultimately, time will be the decider.

  2. Raaraa

    Can’t speak for mobile radiation, but I’ve read an article that mentioned that the amount of radiation produced by wi-fi is less than that from a blast of microwave on the oven (with the door closed). That is also still less than the background radiation we receive from around us.

  3. Keto Vodda

    One issue not raised in Catalyst was whether the Australian standards for exposure are for transient or long term exposure. Walking past a transmitter is quite different from working or sleeping not far away.

    In my own case multiple symptoms appeared shortly after mobile phone towers appeared on the building across the lane from my work – at the same height as my floor – outside my window.

    I moved to another building as I was not coping and the symptoms gradually diminished. Even now 4 years later, some of the symptoms will suddenly appear and I will look around and there will be a transmitter not far away in my direct line of sight.

    I take that sensitivity as a benefit. Now I have some means of monitoring my exposure.

  4. rhwombat

    Demasi has form: the debacle of her Catalyst report on statins. One attempt to generate controversy by a reporter is a mistake, twice is a job application for Faux News – though she may have to dye her hair blond..

  5. johnd

    Science is not a debating club. There is verifiable evidence, or there is not. That is the only criteria. It’s interesting that the proponents of wifi sensitivity and other such things are unable to produce such evidence, only anecdotes. And anecdotes are not evidence.

  6. paddy

    I’m with rhwombat. It’s a bloody sad state of affairs,
    when ABCTV’s premier(?) science program, has gone so tabloid that the real scientists won’t appear on it because they fear they’ll give it unwarranted credibility.

  7. Maureen Chuck

    Its not surprising that Prof Simon Chapman declined to participate in last night’s Catalyst. Demasi lost all credibility after Heart of the Matter. One of the prominent experts on that show Prof David Sullivan said he was edited in a way that distorted his views. National Heart Foundation complained that they were also misrepresented.

  8. Bill

    Catalyst cannot thought of as Australia’s premier science program.

    The Science Show holds that title easily. The TV show does not indulge in evidence based science in matters like radiation hazards.

  9. AR

    I think that I’ll abide by the actuarial axiom of “precautionary principle”.
    As with the first TVs & microwaves being dangerously over emitting, I’ll stick to infrequent use and earplug & mike.

  10. mikeb

    I’m with AR. You don’t stick you face in front of the microwave and use mobile phones as little as possible.