Culling through the more than 1100 news headlines generated in the last few days, you would not be alone in wondering what the bottom line is from the 10-year, 13-country INTERPHONE study of cell phone use and brain tumors.
An interesting trend emerged over the course of 24 hours the day before the study was officially released. If you wondered how there could be so many opinions in the press days BEFORE its release, its because selected people got the report last week. Ignoring IARC pleas for a complete embargo on jumping the media gun, many did.
Science News Janet Raloff and the Los Angeles Times fairly ranted about having to observe IARC’s media embargo, while watching the not-so-compliant issuing torrents of opinion pieces.
Those who know the media cycle know you only have a few hours to get your work out there and covered, and these stories can heavily influence the message the public gets. You miss the 24-hour news cycle, and it is gone.
In the major UK news coverage as early as last Friday, headlines ran: “Landmark study set to show potential dangers of heavy phone use” (UK Telegraph) and “Heavy mobile users risk cancer” (UK Times). The Scotsman read “A major international study has found a link between mobile phone use and certain brain tumours.”
Then, a big shift. CNN’s television crawler at 7 am Monday morning said “study finds no risk of brain tumors with cell phone use.”
An avalanche of press quickly followed with the overriding message mostly saying “study finds no risk” or “no proof of mobile phone cancer link.”
By midday on Monday, May 16th, over 600 media stories were listed. Most were sketchy on detail, but seemed to be influenced by conservative views such as the Mobile Manufacturers Association (MMA), a European telecom lobby group. The majority at that hour had flipped the message from ‘yes, there is a risk’ to ‘no, there is no risk at all.’
MMFs press release said:
“The INTERPHONE project is the biggest study of its kind ever undertaken in this field and 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.”
By late afternoon, the emphasis clearly shifted back to headlines reflecting more moderate views and better interviews with key people (researchers, reviewers, knowledgeable public health people).
CNN replaced its “no worries” crawler with one reading “cell phone study inconclusive“, which is marginally better than the earlier assertion that the study found no risk at all.
Headlines released between about 4 pm and 8 pm PDT were mostly variations of “mobile phone cancer link inconclusive” and “calls for more cancer research.” One notable one was from MSNBC saying “No answer, just fuzz, from cell phone study.”
One of the best was Frank Jordans’s Associated Press coverage. His tempered headline read “Cancer from mobile phone use uncertain.” His story delved more deeply into the statistics and the meaning of early but significantly elevated glioma risks.
Much of the following press seems to have been influenced, at least in part, by this and a few other key media articles. Jordans quickly dismissed the view that the study established no risk, or reduced risk. He showed these findings were based on little exposure, short latency and other dilution factors. And he undercut the industry spin.
He first quoted the telecom industry’s Jack Rowley’s comment that:
“The overall conclusion of no increased risk is in accordance with the large body of existing research and many expert reviews that consistently conclude that there is no established health risk from radio signals that comply with international safety recommendations”
He undercut it by then quoting Elizabeth Cardis, the principal author of the study:
“The users in the study were light users compared to today,” said Prof. Elisabeth Cardis of World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, which organized the study. The highest risk found was for tumors on the same side of the head as users held their phone, particularly for tumors in the temporal lobe closest to the ear, Cardis told reporters in Geneva on Monday. This is the region of the head which receives the most exposure.”
She concluded that “Until stronger conclusions can be drawn one way or another, it may be reasonable to reduce one’s exposure,” said Cardis. One way to do this would be to make calls using a hands-free device.”
The debate on Larry King Live at 6 pm PDT showed remarkable agreement among what should have been the ‘bookends’ of opinion. Ron Herberman and Devra Davis argued the inconvenient and factual findings on increased risk, and gave good public health interpretations about what they may mean. Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, and Daniel Krewskiof the University of Ottawa and an INTERPHONE participant known to be on the ‘no worries’ side, seemed to be drug by the facts into suprisingly frank admissions that this study does, in fact, have some worrisome findings.
In the end, we are left wondering – the day after INTERPHONE – what kind of action this level of corroborating evidence warrants. There won’t be any more large studies of this kind for years. This is it for now.
The INTERPHONE final report is a major milestone. It finds risks for a deadly brain tumor that – even if you disagree on every other point in the study – is reported at 10 years and longer use – and even at this early date shows a 40-96% increased risk for healthy adults…and, if Louis Slesin and Michael Kundi are right, there is explosive data hidden from view in Appendix 2 that must come to light.
Either way, it should be more than enough evidence to justify some big changes.
The hard part now is deciding what to ask for. This column asks you to think about what we should ask for now. What is the right response by our government and our health agencies? What should we do next?
Please read Louis Slesin’s excellent coverage at www.microwavenews. You can also read the BioInitiative Working Group’s press release either at www.bioinitiative.org or at www.healthandenvironment.org. In Finland, Dariusz Leszczynski, a noted researcher, has a running blog with sensible if conservative views that are of value.