Bad news about good news
The Australian

THERE'S a very pertinent old British press nostrum that begins: "There's no cause to bribe or twist

When public relations isn't clearly separated from reporting it's not a matter of bribery anyway; the dividing line between news and propaganda becomes blurred. In fact, the sub-title of this column should be: "Why buy Internet stock for millions when you can buy a press agency for peanuts?"

Newspapers around the world have been carrying a good-news story this week that has made the cell phone industry break out the champagne. The story was reported in one Australian paper under the headline: The Good News on Mobile Phones. The lead paragraph says: "Mobile phones are unlikely to cause cancer, damage the brain or cause memory loss. The findings are a relief for the half a billion phone users worldwide."

The Australian on the same day (April 9) headlined its version under the banner, Think Fast: Mobiles Ring a Bell. "Contrary to fears that mobile telephones cause memory loss or even cancer," it announced breathlessly, "new research shows that they do not damage memory and have an unexpected effect; faster brain reactions."

What triggered this rush of electronic exuberance is a study by Dr Alan Preece at Bristol University, which showed that cell phones against the head had no effect on simple memory tasks but appeared to improve reaction times by 4 per cent. I've had a full copy of the report for some time, but considered it too inconsequential to bother writing about.

The subjects were given computer-based memory and reaction tasks over a total exposure time of about 25 minutes – equivalent to one long phone call. Preece experimented on two groups of 18 university students and they generally showed slightly improved responses in the hit-the-button test. This is about the level of improvement people get from coffee.

But look at the global newspaper reporting! It all follows a predictable pattern.

First they announce that this is good news, when clearly it is not. Good news would be that cell phones had no effect at all on brain functions. In fact, I find evidence of possible direct influences on the neurones of my grey matter seriously disturbing. The cell phone
industry has been telling us for years that no such direct action is possible.

The possible stimulation of response times also should be viewed with alarm, given the well-known stimulatory effects of low-levels of arsenic and digitalis. These also kill you with high doses, and we have no idea what happens with regular low doses of digitalis taken over a lifetime. I, for one, am not inclined to find out.

Thirdly, they announce that this research has established cell phone safety. I've now seen dozens of newspaper and magazine reports (most notably, New Scientist and the UK Independent) that all make the same claim. The statements generally say the Preece study, in some undefined way, proves that cell phones are unlikely to cause cancer.

It does no such thing. Preece wasn't even looking at cancer causation or promotion. His whole study was carried out on a couple of dozen students in a few days, so these no-cancer claims are simply ridiculous and demonstrate the profound ignorance of whoever wrote them.

I'm not going to get into a biological discussion here, but I am interested in the pattern of reporting. Many of these newspaper articles were rewrites of a New Scientist piece circulated by the press agencies. Unfortunately, New Scientist believes it is a White Knight crusading against the proliferation of junk science, and it has a disturbing habit of rewriting submitted copy to make it conform to the house ideology.

The original article (and many of the rewrites) managed to interweave news about the Preece report with another study of nematode worms conducted at the University of Nottingham by Dr de Pomerai, which "found that larvae exposed to microwaves grew more but wriggled less, leading scientists to conclude that the emissions were speeding up cell division".

In the original New Scientist article the next paragraph says: "The researchers now intend to examine mammalian cells to see if they divide more rapidly when exposed to microwaves; a finding that would raise fears about cancer."

This is entirely justified, since cancer is just another name for sped-up cell division. But what intrigues me is how the hell did AAP and other journalists managed to interpret this statement as proving that mobile phones are unlikely to cause cancer?

New Scientist hosed down public panic by reporting de Pomerai as saying: "As a proportion of life span, exposing a nematode worm to microwaves overnight is like exposing a human continuously for an entire decade."

This is not true; cells are cells; but apparently it never occurred to the New Scientist editors that humans might use cell phones for an entire decade. But I do agree that there's no need to panic. By God, however, there's an urgent need for further research, and certainly no further excuse for the media peddling spurious claims
of proven safety.

This isn't just an isolated example of reporters' stupidity, or of the systematic worldwide distribution of misleading information about the status of cell phone and power line research. I've got a file full of fallacious information circulated around the world by the press agencies. Let me quote another published by newspapers around the world in May 1997.

Reuters headlined this: "Mobiles Safe, Study Finds, But They Do Heat Brain." It began: "A Finnish study partly funded by the telecommunications industry has found mobile phones pose no health threat to phone users, although they do transmit heat to people's
brains, researchers said Thursday.

"The study by four Finnish institutes examined the effect of radio frequencies used by mobile phones on the brains of 19 people and found no health hazards. The results are so consistent that the tests are completely sufficient, Maila Hietanen, researcher at the state-funded Occupational Health Institute told a news conference."

I contacted Dr Maila Hietanen to ask how a Nokia-funded study on 19 university students could be completely sufficient to prove cell phones were safe. It transpired that she had only checked for brain-waves changes (using an EEG) when a cell phone was switched on in the near vicinity.

This was only one of half a dozen similar brain-waves studies done around the world, and about half claim to detect slight radio frequency effects – which the Preece study tends to confirm. Hietanen was genuinely embarrassed that misinterpretations of her work had been circulated globally.

Power lines are also a parallel and related concern here. Within a month of the Finnish EEG study, another "good news" story was circulated by the press agencies, supposedly proving that power lines were safe. This epidemiological research was done by Martha Linet for the US National Cancer Institute.

Linet created a list of 634 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and matched them to a similar number of kids without the disease. She and her staff then systematically measured the magnetic fields in all the homes to see if there was a statistical relationship between high magnetic levels and the disease.

This was one of about 20 similar statistical studies done in the past decade, mainly in Scandinavia and the US, and the vast majority have reported a slight but significant link between EMF levels and the disease. However, the wire stories declared the Linet study to be the definitive one, ignoring all others – and they claimed she had proved once and for all that power lines were safe. The New England Journal of Medicine then took up the cry and called for governments so stop funding power line health research – a rare event, indeed.

When Linet's published report reached the scientists, however, it took about 10 minutes to find holes in the methodology. Linet had arbitrarily applied a cut-off point of 0.2 microTesla on the magnetic field levels, and decided that any children exposed at higher levels were statistically insignificant.

Normally in this kind of research, a cut-off of 0.3T is applied, and when Linet's dismissed statistics were added back into the findings, it transpired that the NCI study confirmed the conclusion reached by most of the other studies.

In fact, the evidence supporting this position is now so compelling that the US government's National Institute of Health (NIH) spent a million dollars in 1997, both on research and on funding a working group (called the NIEHS Working Group) to report on the matter.

The 29 scientists and engineers came to the conclusion that power line exposures should be classified as a Group 2B carcinogen. In the language of cancer research, this classification groups low-level magnetic fields along with DDT as "a possible cause of human cancers".

How was that reported around the world, I hear you ask?

Quite simply, it wasn't.

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