Resolving mobile phone health uncertainties

My Dad got a letter asking him to take part in a big epidemiological study on the risks of mobile phone use. I assume his name was randomly selected, rather than the result of a brainstorm that began, “wouldn’t it be fun to have…” . He passed it onto me, remembering that I used to bang on about such things. The study is being run by Paul Elliott at Imperial, who was one of the people I interviewed for my PhD. It’s a cohort study, which means it’s expensive. Cohort studies recruit people and follow them for a period of time during which they get data about their lifestyles (in this case, how they use a mobile phone) and their health (whether they get cancer or other things). Cheaper case-control studies find groups of people with an illness and compare them against a control sample. This study is costing more than £3 million, paid for by the Government and the mobile phone industry.

The letter recruiting participants states that,

“The current position on mobile phones and health is that in the short term (less than ten years) mobile phone use is not associated with an increase in brain cancers. However, there are still significant uncertainties that can only be resolved by the COSMOS study monitoring the health of a large group of mobile phone users over a long period of time.”

My research on the shaping of mobile phone risks found that it didn’t make sense to talk about uncertainties in purely scientific terms. How uncertain we are depends on what we choose to worry about. Interest in the risks of mobile phones waxes and wanes like many other public issues. I’ve written before about the fallacy of assuming uncertainties can be cleared up by science in politicised issues. The idea that this mobile phone study will resolve these uncertainties once and for all is ridiculous.

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About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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3 Responses to Resolving mobile phone health uncertainties

  1. Ed Yong says:

    The specific uncertainty they’re talking about is around long-term effects. Epidemiological studies (well, in aggregate, anyway) are very clear in showing that mobile phones do not increase the risk of cancer after around 10 years or so, but many brain cancers are slow-growing and people always throw back the “what about longer time frames?” canard. COSMOS is a 20-30 year cohort study; it’s designed to address that question.

    But yes, broadly, claiming that it will do away with that uncertainty is nonsense, especially if it finds – as other studies have – that there’s no increased risk.

    Also, COSMOS receives some funding from the mobile phone industry, although administered through independent agencies (I *think* I’m right on this) so people who maintain that mobile phones cause cancer can always leap upon that to discredit the whole thing.

    And one might argue COSMOS is essentially unnecessary. By the time the 20-30 years are up, we will have the starkest possible evidence about mobile phones and cancer just by looking at national incidence rates. By that point, we’ll be decades on from the exponential growth of mobile phone use worldwide – if cancer rates don’t go up concomitantly, there’s your answer. And to my mind, that brings much more certainty than anything this study will accomplish.

  2. Jack Stilgoe says:

    Thanks Ed. Really interesting. You’re right that the money is administered independently, via the MTHR. And, without doing too much of the history, the creation of the MTHR itself is the more interesting thing. As I describe in the paper I linked, it was created to address a new, publicly-ordained set of uncertainties about long term use and sensitive subpopulations. So the start of the research projects was interesting, even if the ends of them are going to be boring.

    (I also didn’t want to get into too much of the LeFanu-like epidemiology bashing).

  3. Pingback: The risks and uncertainty of Google Glass – what’s the big deal? « Governing Emerging Technologies

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