Mobile phone: Brain tumour pandemic is imminent- Report

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Nnaemeka Meribe

If you are in the habit of making long calls with your mobile phone, you face a higher risk of developing brain tumour-especially when you carry on with it for many years. That is, if new claims by scientists are anything to go by.

Scientists in the United States warned last week that their latest findings raised the possibility of ‘a brain tumour pandemic.’ The findings definitely have implications for those Nigerians who spend long hours almost on a daily basis making free night calls offered by some telecom firms. That, however, is if they continue the practice for over 10 years.

Over 25 epidemiologic studies, along with experimental research, have tried to investigate the possible link between mobile phone use and the risk of brain and salivary gland tumours, but results have been inconclusive or even contradictory.

So contentious has the issue been that the World Health Organisation, through one of its agencies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, had to intervene by facilitating a study done by Interphone on the subject.

But the almost £20m decade-long investigation, said to be the largest study ever conducted on mobile phone use and cancer risk, seemed not to have helped matters as its findings were not conclusive.

The study, published online in May 2010 in the International Journal of Epidemiology, found that those who use their mobile phone the most over a 10-year period were more likely to be diagnosed with brain tumours than others, but added that “biases and error limit the strength of the conclusions we can draw from these analyses and prevent a causal interpretation.”

The researchers quizzed 5,000 people from 13 countries about how much they had used mobile phones in the past. A similar number of healthy people were also questioned, to see if their answers differed.

Overall, the study, which was partly funded by telecom companies, failed to find a link. If anything, using a mobile phone actually made people less susceptible to brain tumours, the International Journal of Epidemiology reported.

But the opposite was found to be true of ‘heavy’ users – those who used their phones for a least half an hour a day. They were 40 per cent more likely to develop glioma – a brain cancer than is often rapidly fatal, and had 15 per cent higher odds of meningioma, another common brain cancer.

Expectedly, the telecom industry welcomed the report with the director of research and sustainability at GSM Association, a global organisation of mobile operators and related companies, Dr. Jack Rowley, saying 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.”

However, the International Electromagnetic Field Collaborative, which has always faulted results of studies funded by the telecom industry, was less than enthusiastic about the results from the study, and in a release, stated that “the study’s design results in serious underestimation of risk of brain cancer.”

But after analysing six previous studies on safety of mobile phones, including the WHO-backed Interphone study, scientists in the US concluded last week that people who talk on mobile phones were even up to five times more likely to develop brain tumours than those who stick to landlines.

According to The Mail of London, the researchers said many previous studies into mobile phone safety ‘substantially underestimated’ the cancer risks and that tumours are much more common on the side of the head to which the mobile is held than on the other side.

According to them, the risk of these tumours was between 10 and 500 per cent higher with long-term mobile phone use.

Lead researcher Morgan warned that the findings raised the possibility of ‘a brain tumour pandemic’ unless people change their pattern of mobile phone use. Morgan, of the Environmental Health Trust, a US campaign group, spoke out after re-examining the figures from the previous studies.

These included a Swedish one which originally concluded that people who used mobile phones for at least 10 years were 3.9 times more likely to develop an acoustic neuinroma – a non-cancerous tumour – on a nerve near the ear to which they held their phone compared to those who rarely or never used the devices.

The analysis, designed to take into account flaws in the design of the study which could have skewed the results, put the increased risk at 4.9 times.

Another study had concluded that 10 years of mobile phone use raised the odds of ‘same side’ gliomas – aggressive brain tumours – by 60 per cent.

But if the new technique is applied, the risk is raised by 100 per cent, a scientific conference in Seoul, South Korea, was told last week.

The analysis of a third study concluded that every 100 hours of mobile phone use raises the odds of meningioma, another common brain cancer, by 24 per cent. The results of some of these studies were included in the Interphone study,

The British scientists involved in the Interphone study said the figures were flawed and urged people not to worry. They pointed out that some of those who took part claimed to have used their mobiles for more than 12 hours a day 10 years ago – something which was ‘incredibly implausible.’

In addition, they said, brain growths can affect memory, meaning some of those with tumours might have over-estimated how much they had used their phone.

Morgan’s team, however, crunched the same figures but tried to factor in the effect of various design flaws.

This showed the increased odds of ‘same side’ gliomas to be 51 per cent – more than twice as high as estimated in the Interphone study.

However, British cancer experts said predictions of a ‘brain tumour pandemic’ were overblown. Mr. Ed Yong of Cancer Research UK, said that even after the minor adjustments reported in the new analysis, the results from the overall Interphone study were still either not statistically significant, or right on the borderline.’

But commenting on the issue, the president of the National Association of Telecom Subscribers, Mr. Deolu Ogubanjo, said it had been a cause for concern for about a decade but lamented that all the studies had never come out with a definitive conclusion.

“It has been a major cause of concern and precisely in November 2009, NATS organised a seminar on the issue but the problem is that the conclusions of all available studies on the issue are never concrete,” he said. “And in court, you cannot quote the report of studies by these scientists. It is only reports from the World Health Organisation and other recognised bodies that can be quoted, but incidentally, these bodies have always said that there is no adverse effect from the use of cell phone.”


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