Mobile Phone Safety: An Interesting Graph

Incidence of Cancers of the Central Nervous System: This graph is featured at the head of an article about increases in brain tumours arising from the use of mobile phones.

I came across the graph at the head of the page while looking at an article which asserted that there was evidence that mobile phones do indeed cause cancer. I was at first shocked – I had searched for data of this kind and found only data showing no detectable trend.  And then I was angered – because the rise seen in this graph very obviously has nothing to do with mobile phones!

The offending page (The million dollar question: What is the risk of brain cancer from cell phone radiation?)is authored by one Dariusz Leszczynski and he comments on it thus:

The graph presented above, which has been generated by the Finnish Cancer Registry, shows a steady increase in brain and nervous system cancer cases among Finnish women and, to a lesser extent, among Finnish men. Therefore, the “urban legend” that there has been no increase in brain cancer cases in recent years should be put to rest.

The implication in this context is clear: that this rise is in someway connected with mobile phone use. Now Dariusz does go on to say…

…we should remain cautious and not jump to the easy conclusion that cell phone radiation is responsible. Cell phone radiation may be the cause for the increase, but there have been other changes to the way we live and our environment, and so it might not be.

My problem with this is that contrary his assertion, Cell phone radiation could not possibly be the cause of the rise.  Look at the dates! There is a clear rise in cancers of the brain and central nervous system starting in around 1960. Yes 1960. A quick browse of Wikipedia confirms that something called a ‘mobile phone’ did exist in the 1960’s, but it was rare and could not conceivably be the cause of the observed rise.

  • If a tiny number of phones in the 1960’s immediately caused an increase in cancer rates as shown, then the millions of phones we use now would cause the above graph to skyrocket.
  • Alternatively, if there was a latency period – as one would predict if mobile phone use did indeed cause cancer – then where is it? The data would be flat and then show rise after perhaps twenty years of use – that’s the typical latency between starting smoking and getting cancer.
  • Finally, notice that in the period since 1990 when mobile phone use has exploded, all that can be seen is exactly the same trend as seen in the 1960’s – but possibly flattening off.

So the the rise seen in the graph above cannot possibly be associated with mobile phone use. So what did cause it? Well, I don’t know, but I would suggest it arises as the product of improved healthcare resulting improved diagnosis, coupled with improved life expectancy – the graph below shows life expectancy for Finland using data from the wonderful  Gap Minder. The data are nominally age compensated but as this page explains, the compensation is complicated.

I am not saying that mobile phones do not cause cancer: I don’t know whether they do or they don’t. I feel sure that time will tell. However, having looked for evidence that they do cause harm, I have never found any evidence of harm. And indeed the graph shown at the head of the page is actually evidence that the exponential increase in mobile phone use was not the cause of the observed rise.

LIfe Expectancy in Finland: Data from Gapminder.org

4 Responses to “Mobile Phone Safety: An Interesting Graph”

  1. dariuszleszczynski Says:

    Also I did not say that cell phones are responsible for the increase of brain cancer in Finland. Graph was to illustrate that there is slow increase. There are recently published studies showing no increase of brain cancer in recent years. I did not impy that the graph shows effects of cell phones. Please, “do not put words in my mouth”. Thanks

  2. Michael Says:

    Dariusz, I have quoted you fairly, including your caveat.

    1. In the article you say “Cell phone radiation may be the cause for the increase, …” As I point out, that is just plain wrong. Cell phone radiation in the 1990’s could not possibly have caused a rise in brain tumours in the 1960’s.

    2. In your article you calculate a risk associated with using a cell phone. In fact there is no reason to suppose that there is >any< risk at all. Taking an aggressive stance as you have chosen, you should have stated that the risk could lie between zero and your estimates, but you chose not too.

    Sincerely

    Michael de Podesta

    • dariuszleszczynski Says:

      Michael, the sentence is taken out of larger context. The graph cannot be used as “proof” of no effect of cell phones. We do not know what causes brain cancer. The different environmental pollutants came and go. Some were around us before cell phones and some are not anymore. So, without discussing this possibility claim that the graph proves anything is not justified.
      As to the calculated potential risk, it was based on epidemiological studies and it was not presented as real risk but rather an estimate what it could be. Not to mention pointing out that the individual risk is small and remains small, if any,
      As to my stance it is very moderate, in the middle between thos who say that everything is known and there will not be any risk ever, and thos e saying the opposite. Read my other columns and discussions as well as my blog.
      Of course for those thinking that everything is clear and the risk is unlikely, my stance might be inconvenien and aggressive. But it is not. It is fair in the situation of scientific uncertainty.
      Unlike myself, you seem to be very certain that there is no problem. I do not know…

  3. Cell Phones Gallary Says:

    You’re so cool! I do not think I’ve read something like that before. So good to find someone with some unique thoughts on this subject. Seriously.. thanks for starting this up. This website is one thing that’s needed on the web, someone with a bit of originality!

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