The first mobile phone in Australia was switched on in 1987. Since then, their use has grown to become almost universal among teenagers and adults for 15 years. There are millions of Australians who have used the phones many times daily since the mid 1990s (24 years). WiFi has been spreading massively in Australia since 2002 (17 years). If I look at the WiFi neighbourhood networks visible to my home computer, there are 13. If you do the same in a Hong Kong hotel room, pages and pages of network addresses point to a EMR bath you are living in.
If mobile phones really caused brain cancer, today we are in a very good position to test that hypothesis because of the massive numbers who have been exposed, the duration of that exposure and the very high reliability of the outcome endpoint: brain cancer incidence.
If you are diagnosed with any cancer (including brain cancer) in Australia (and many high income nations) your doctors have long been legally obliged to notify cancer registries of the fact. It is not like a diagnosis of back pain, a bad cold, or migraine where your medical records will contain that information, but only sampling studies of such records can be used to estimate national incidence.
In 2016, three colleagues and I published a study designed to test the proposition that the proliferation of mobile phones and transmitter towers since the late 1980s, as well as WiFi, cordless phones, Bluetooth and smart meters, may have been “causing” an increased incidence of brain cancer. Brain cancer is the usual focus of alarmist groups pointing the finger at the alleged risks of these devices.
We found no increases for any age group except the very oldest age group, and that increase commenced before mobile phones were even available in Australia, and so clearly could not be explained by their introduction. It was almost certainly due to the introduction of advanced medical diagnostic scanning equipment which likely saw some events once diagnosed as cerebrovascular, reclassified as brain cancers.
Where are all the bodies?
So the teensy-weensy problem-ette with mobile phone alarmists central claim is that there has been no increase in brain cancer incidence (ie: the age-adjusted rate of newly diagnosed cases per 100,000 population) in Australia since cancer registry records began being kept in 1982. This has now been the exclusive focus of two papers: ours plus a 2018 reworking of the same data to also consider sub-types of brain cancer. Similar results have been reported for England, the USA, the Nordic countries and New Zealand.
The most elementary test of the hypothesis that your mobile phone and other appliances may give you brain cancer has now repeatedly fallen at the first and most obvious hurdle. If they cause brain cancer, where are all the bodies?
When the 2018 paper was published, we saw some of the same usual suspects reprising their favourite arguments on social media. Several of these were thrown at out 2016 paper, which we rebutted here (reader warning: barely restrained academic bloodsport).
Mobile phone alarmists are a relentless (small) lobby group who are risk-phobic about almost every new form of communication. Every time there’s a new generation of cell phone or electronic technology, they crank out the same fear-mongering stuff. Cult-like, they wake every morning, to spread the word about the deadly rays they believe are being foisted on the world by the evil telecommunications industry. They follow in the hallowed footsteps of those in history who raised health alarms about railway travel, electric light, ordinary phones, radio, TV, electric blankets, computers, microwave ovens, wind turbines and solar roof cells etc. Some are also anti-vaccination (eg: this is one of their US queen bees).
The most amusing example was the terrifying prediction published in 2006, that by 2017, half of the entire world’s population would be struck down with “electrosensitivity” caused by exposure to electrical equipment and power lines.
They often are associated with formal sounding agencies or networks which are nothing but lobby groups of like-minded electrophobics.
The most common “yes, but…” card dealt by these people to studies showing no rise in brain cancer is that “it is too soon to know .. the tidal wave of brain cancer is a few years off yet.” They often use the 30-40 latency period between onset of smoking and lung cancer as an analogy. But this is simply a case of these people trying to walk on both sides of the street. As we wrote in our response:
” Further, we are perplexed that on the one hand, Bandara [one of our critics] argues that this association needs to be studied for “several decades until common use would accumulate decades of exposure comparable to long latency periods of brain tumours”, while in Morgan’s paper (written by 3 out of 4 authors affiliated with the Environmental Health Trust with which she [Bandara] is also affiliated) excess relative risks between mobile phone use and brain cancer are argued as occurring following exposures of as little as between 5 and 10 years of mobile phone use. Morgan et al. even suggest that the INTERPHONE study may suggest a “promotion effect” with use as few as 1–4 years (see their Table 2).”
With any cancer, we see latency periods between exposure onset and peak new incidence of the cancer of concern. But in the years and decades before that maximum incidence rate is reached, we see evidence of a slowly rising incidence.
For example, smoking prevalence grew rapidly from the late nineteenth century, following dramatic price falls when cigarette manufacturing became mechanised. In 1971, Alton Oschner. a renowned US surgeon, reflected on his first encounters with a lung cancer case in 1919 and the slow-burn rise in the incidence of the disease in the decades that followed.
“Bronchogenic carcinoma, which was an extremely rare disease until the mid 1930’s, is increasing faster than any other cancer in civilized countries. In 1919, its incidence was so rare that when I was a junior medical student in Washington University, the two senior classes were asked to witness the autopsy of a man having died of carcinoma of the lung because Dr. George Dock, Professor of Medicine, thought we might never see another such case as long as we lived. Being young and impressionable, this impressed me very much. It was not until 1936, 17 years later, that I saw my next case of bronchogenic cancer, and in a period of six months
I saw nine cases. Having been impressed with the rarity of the condition in 1919, this seemed indeed an epidemic. Because all the patients were men, heavy smokers, and had begun smoking at the beginning of the first World War, and after determining that the consumption of cigarettes was relatively low in the United States until the first World War, when there was a tremendous increase, I had the temerity to predict that cigarette smoking was responsible for the increased incidence.”
With the brain cancer-mobile phone claim, we are not seeing even an upward trickle in incidence despite many millions of person-years exposure.
As it dawns on these cultists that the evidence from whole population cancer incidence studies is not allowing them to win this argument, some start trying to blame all sorts of problems on the exposure using the fallacy “after, therefore because of”. Health problems that are increasing include autism and depression. And so is mobile phone use. Ergo, mobile phones are probably causing these problems, runs the next phase in their argument.
A recent determined emailer asked me, knowingly: “If someone repeated your study with respect to the incidence of depression since the introduction of mobile phones, instead of with respect to brain cancer, I wonder what they would find. The following graph suggests that depression is on the rise with ever higher rates at earlier ages in every new generation.”
When I was teaching in my university’s Master of Public Health program I used to set my more wide-eyed students a question to try and get them to understand the difference between association and causation: “95% of people involved in car crashes on the way to work are found to have eaten breakfast in the 90 minutes before. Eating breakfast causes car crashes. Discuss.” Mobile phone phobics might learn something from thinking about that question. But I doubt it.
Declaration: mobile phone opponents often ask if I have any competing interests in this issue (ie support from the mobile phone industry). In 1997 (22 years) ago, I had a small grant ($23,895) from the Australian Mobile Telephone Association (AMTA) to conduct a national survey of mobile phone use in emergency situations. None of that money benefited me or my co-author personally but paid for the conduct of the survey. We published this paper: Chapman S, Schofield WN. Lifesavers and samaritans: emergency use of cellular (mobile) phones in Australia. Accident Anal Prev 1998;30:815-9.
Most research grant agencies and journals have policies that competing interests extinguish after (typically) 3-5 years from the end of the grant. I have never received any support for my work on mobile phones and cancer, and could not name a single employee of AMTA or any telecommunications company.