BREAKING: A SHOCKING new study found that your cell phone is KILLING you. Or maybe not…. (More)

“The usual freak out”

Yes, there is a new National Toxicology Program study that found a link between cell phone signals and two kinds of tumors, in male rats, maybe. But most of the media ignored that “maybe,” as Mashable’s Jason Abbruzzese writes:

You are almost definitely slowly killing yourself.

Eating poorly, smoking, riding motorcycles, watching The Bachelor – they’re all statistically proven to shorten the average life span (except maybe that last one).

As for using your cellphone? Not so much. The World Health Organization has said that cellphone radiation is “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” putting it in the same category as drinking coffee. In other words, we have no proof of an established causal link, but we can’t rule it out either.

That kind delineation is quickly trampled when it comes to new studies, one of which came out Friday, resulting in the usual freak out.

Turns out it’s a huge “maybe”:

And here’s a summary from Mashable science editor Andrew Freedman: “The partial results show that exposing large doses of radiation over about two years to male rats can cause unusually high rates of two specific kinds of tumors. But the comparison to humans is a question mark and comparison even to the control group of rats is problematic because of abnormalities in that group. There are a lot of statistical oddities in the study.”

Oh, do tell….

“Yet no headlines blared that cell phones extend life”

I’ll let Incidental Economist blogger (and medical doctor) Aaron Carroll explain those statistical oddities:

They exposed pregnant rats to whole body CDMA- and GSM-modulated radiofrequency radiation, for 9 hours a day, seven days a week. Then they exposed 90 pups of each sex to each to three levels of each type of radiation for up to 2 years (12 groups of 90). They had controls (2 groups of 90).

The pregnant rats who were exposed to this had no differences in the percent of dams littering, the size of the litters, or the sex of the pups. It appears that pups born to the exposed rats were smaller, but no statistics are presented, so I can’t tell if the differences are significant. Early in lactation, though, these differences disappeared. No further weight differences were seen for the rest of the study.

At the end of the study, survival was lower in the control group of males than in all the exposed males. Survival was lower in the control group of females for two of the three exposed groups. Yet no headlines blared that cell phones extend life. Nor will mine. No statistics are presented on whether this is significant.

Carroll adds:

Cell phones are UBIQUITOUS in the United States. If they were causing cancer, we would expect to see rates of cancer going up, right? That’s not what we’re seeing. They’ve been decreasing since the late 1980’s. At least when we talk about vaccines and autism, the rates of the latter went up as we increased the former. With cell phones, there’s an inverse relationship. What’s going on?

What, indeed?

“Some head-scratching findings”

But wait, as advertisers often say, there’s more … courtesy of STAT’s Megan Thielking and Dylan Scott:

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.

So the cancer rate in rats exposed to the radiation was the same as previous researchers found in their non-exposed control groups … but not one of this study’s control group rats developed cancer. Hrmmm….

Okay, this may or may not fall into the category of “junk science.” But this Mother Jones howler – and this one in the Wall Street Journal, and this one in Gothamist – most definitely falls into the category of “junk journalism.”

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Photo Credit: Duane Hoffmann (msnbc.com)

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Good day and good nuts