This research (pdf) is simple.
Researchers exposed rats to two specific forms of cell phone radiation from gestation out to 106 weeks of life span. That means rats continuously “used cell phones” while in the womb until their natural life span ended. The rats were randomly assigned by sex in groups of 90 to: Control with no radiation, Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) radiation, or Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) radiation. Within the two radiation groups, (GSM and CDMA), rats were assigned to one of three different dosage levels (low, medium, and high). When the animals died, they were autopsied and tested for cancer in the brain or heart only.
The design is simple. There are 7 types of radiation exposure. One is the no exposure Control. The other 6 use either GSM or CDMA delivery of radiation at low, medium, and high rates. The exposure is also delivered in groups of rats separated by their sex, female and male. That means we have a 2 X 7 design. That makes 14 independent cells each with 90 rats. The count is a simple yes/no with cancer in the heart or brain. Here’s a table of results to illustrate.
This table shows the results for male rats and brain cancer. You see the 7 exposure groups (control to GSM levels to CDMA levels). The following rows show the yes/no counts for two types of brain cancer. The simplest way to grasp the result is to compare the control male rats, who had no brain cancers, to the worst cancer rate which is 3 out of 90. That is a 2 X 2 design. A chi-square test shows a value 3.051 with p < .08 and a w effect size of 0.13, a Small Windowpane. The result is not statistically significant even with the 45/55 difference and indicates that mere sampling error is as good an explanation for this outcome as is claiming radiation caused it. Now, the female results for brain cancer.
The results are also not statistically significant and the Windowpane is even smaller. So with neither male nor female rats, radiation exposure has no statistically significant effect on brain cancers even though no control rats had brain cancers while 2 or 3 radiation group rats did. The researchers report a similar pattern of findings for heart cancers. Males have more (statistically significant this time, and a Small+ Windowpane with a w of .186); females again show no effect for radiation.
In summary, then, male rats show a Small+ effect for radiation on brain cancer; female rats don’t. Neither male nor female rats show any radiation effects on heart cancers. Here’s how the researchers put it.
Under the conditions of these 2-year studies, the hyperplastic lesions and glial cell neoplasms of the heart and brain observed in male rats are considered likely the result of whole-body exposures to GSM- or CDMA-modulated RFR. There is higher confidence in the association between RFR exposure and the neoplastic lesions in the heart than in the brain. No biologically significant effects were observed in the brain or heart of female rats regardless of modulation.
The researchers look at the tables I just showed you and claim radiation from cell phones DOES cause cancer, if only in males. How can they assert this? Here.
The Poly-k test (Bailer and Portier, 1988; Portier and Bailer, 1989; Piegorsch and Bailer, 1997) was used to assess neoplasm prevalence. This test is a survival-adjusted quantal-response procedure that modifies the Cochran-Armitage linear trend test to take survival differences into account. More specifically, this method modifies the denominator in the quantal estimate of lesion incidence to approximate more closely the total number of animal years at risk. For analysis of lesion incidence at a given site, each animal is assigned a risk weight. This value is one if the animal had a lesion at that site or if it survived until terminal sacrifice; if the animal died prior to terminal sacrifice and did not have a lesion at that site, its risk weight is the fraction of the entire study time that it survived, raised to the kth power. This method yields a lesion prevalence rate that depends only upon the choice of a shape parameter, k, for a Weibull hazard function describing cumulative lesion incidence over time (Bailer and Portier, 1988). A further advantage of the Poly-k method is that it does not require lesion lethality assumptions.
Of course, you went Brooks on all this garbage and garbage it is. If you do the simple and direct analysis – who got cancer and how many – the results are null for female rats and inconsistent and small for male rats. However, if you adjust the analysis with the Poly-K test, suddenly you’re golden and can claim cell phones cause cancer . . . in people! The Poly-K test destroys the basic scientific strength of this research – the experimental design with random assignment to controlled conditions – and turns it into a Tooth Fairy Tale as the researchers play My Dear Aunt Sally games with the counts to make them more than they are.
But, wait there’s more. This study was conducted by government scientists with internal funding with the National Toxicology Program (NTP). Whenever government scientists do research, that work is usually given an early peer review before it is either sent out for journal peer review or else the government agency itself publishes the results. In this case, administrators at the NTP assembled two groups of external reviewers; one associated with the NTP, the other with the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
While much of the reviewing is technical, most of it raises questions and concerns about the analysis procedure. Most of the reviewers are considerably more tentative about the conclusion that GSM or CDMA radiation causes cancer and believe more research is needed. Here are examples from the peer reviews.
Using the NTP’s guide for levels of evidence for carcinogenic activity, I would consider the heart schwannomas as ‘Some Evidence’ of carcinogenic activity . . . I would consider the malignant gliomas as ‘Equivocal Evidence’ of carcinogenic activity.
But note, it is “considered likely” not “definitely is”.
Summary: I am unable to accept the authors’ conclusions.
I think additional experiments are needed to assess if the incidence of brain gliomas in male rats exposed to GSM-¬ or CDMA-modulated RFR is significantly higher than the control group or not.
Other than that, the experiment is conclusive. About something. Maybe about justifying $25 million in persuasive science. Good grief even pop press platforms see what’s going on with this. Under the headline, “Seriously, Stop With The Irresponsible Reporting On Cellphones And Cancer,” Vox looks at the research like an adult and seriously discounts it. Like this.
No. Please stop this. No one has established that cellphones cause cancer, particularly in humans. That headline and image combo is wildly misleading . . . But there are major caveats here: This is just one study (it may very well be flawed, as many studies are); the effects were only found in male rats (and may not translate to humans); and it needs to be weighed against other evidence that cellphones aren’t a big cancer risk in people. This is an important bit of research and deserves careful examination and follow-up. But it’s not an occasion for fear-mongering.
Or this pop platform.
The study had some head-scratching findings. For instance, it found that despite developing more tumors, male rats exposed to radiation for about nine hours every day also lived longer than a control group not exposed to radiation. In addition, it was unusual that no cancers occurred in the control group in this study. The incidence of malignant gliomas in male rats exposed to radiation — 2.2 to 3.3 percent — was within the range seen in nonexposed rats in previous studies, the authors said.
Good grief, none of these pop pressers are Professor Poopypants-grade propeller heads, yet they see all the persuasion behind the numbers. Even NBC News, vastly more concerned about the big audience, is skeptical.
Dr. Michael Lauer of the NIH disagrees and says there’s just not enough information to say whether the experiment shows the radiation caused the tumors.
“I suspect that this experiment is substantially underpowered and that the few positive results found reflect false positive findings. The higher survival with RFR, along with the prior epidemiological literature, leaves me even more skeptical of the authors’ claims,” he wrote in his review.
One British expert was also skeptical. “These partial findings don’t cause me any real concern about health risks from mobile phone use,” said Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at Britain’s Open University.
However, all these dismissive observations from me and everyone else are irrelevant. An administrator at the NTP and part of the study played the Expert Consensus Persuasion Play®™©. Here’s John Bucher, associate director at the NTP.
But Bucher said 70 to 80 percent of the experts who reviewed the report felt it did indicate there was an increased risk of cancer in the radiation-exposed rats.
I’m not sure how Bucher counts agreement, but most of the NIH and NTP external reviewers didn’t say that, as the quotes above indicate. And, of course, there are all those pop press experts who also disagree. I guess Bucher counts experts who are part of the $25 million research program as the only experts who count! Not like money would bias your position or anything.
Can you believe you spent $25 million on a few experiments on rats? Think about that. A $25 million investment on rats. And, to be fair, mice, too. The National Toxicology Program convinced Congress to give them $25 million for this. Rats and mice. While the NTP will release results from more rat and mice studies, this is one of the largest. They used 1260 rats.
I’m trying to chase down the contract information on this study since NTP used the services of a private contractor, IITRI, which is associated with the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, IL. But nothing is easily available online. This is the best source I’ve found so far, but it doesn’t list contract details, just a request for proposals.
The primary source of scientists who appear to believe this Tooth Fairy Tale are the ones making money from it, if only taxpayer money and not shares of their stock. Even before they complete all the rodent experiments and go through the Baroque fed checklist, many Other Guys disbelieve them because they read the research (!!!) and see no problem. Consider this as a comparison.
In 1964 the Surgeon General, a fed office holder, delivered a report on smoking. It remains to date the single most persuasive play in the history of changing tobacco use.
That information came from the federal government. Other Guys obviously believed it, in part because 1964 was a simpler time when everyone still trusted the government. They believed it because they had been burying their smoking family and friends much earlier than everyone else. Any fool could see for themselves in that living Local that a lotta Guys who smoked died young. The fed report pulled it all together into one large confirmation of their own direct experience.
You don’t see that kind of direct experience with cell phones and cancer. Other Guys are not burying their iGizmo addict family and friends faster or sooner. When they read the government information on cell phones (or distracted driving or salt or sugar or exercise or diet or climate change) they see the weaknesses and reject the attempt for what it is: Persuasive, not scientific.
I know I sound like I can only sing one note on this, but once again you see what happens when you bring persuasion to science. The feds at the NTP designed a program of research aimed at confirming their already determined beliefs about cell phones and dammit, they will make the numbers at least statistically significant if nothing else. Then they will reject the independent criticism from peer review and march on. Their jobs depend upon it. Their self concepts depend upon it.
Think about it. It’s very difficult to get any Other Guy to encourage anyone to smoke unless they work for Big Tobacco. You can’t even get an argument started. But with cell phones or distracted driving or salt or sugar or exercise or diet or climate change you can create roaring fights. Hey, when you’ve got Falling Apples as with the harms of tobacco, argument is just silly. But when you’ve got Fallen Apples, then you can take sides and shout into one another’s wind.
If you are in the generalizable knowledge business, you need to get off the sidelines because people in your business are killing your business with persuasion. If you are a toxicologist, for example, and you don’t see the public harm from this NTP program, you are fooling yourself. Your work is made to appear foolish and entirely self-serving.
Of course, that’s the Sincere side of this persuasion. If you are a Child of the Night, you’ve just found a hunting ground at the NTP. Realize that they are willing to spend $25 million on rodents and bad statistics. If you can make some change on that, you need to put on your Mickey Mouse ears.
P.S. To be fair, this NTP research has attracted some favorable pop press coverage that believes it.
It’s the moment we’ve all been dreading. Initial findings from a massive federal study, released on Thursday, suggest that radio-frequency (RF) radiation, the type emitted by cellphones, can cause cancer.
The findings from a $25 million study, conducted over two and a half years by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), showed that male rats exposed to two types of RF radiation were significantly more likely than unexposed rats to develop a type of brain cancer called a glioma, and also had a higher chance of developing the rare, malignant form of tumor known as a schwannoma of the heart. The effect was not seen in females.
This from Mother Jones, that well known reliable source of scientific reporting . . . at least from one side of the aisle.
As an aside, most of the pop press I’ve read, regardless of position, has characterized the NTP research as “massive” or “huge” or other such descriptor. I’m not sure why they think an experiment with 1200 rats is such a big deal.