Lloyd Morgan's Column
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Industry-Funded versus Independently-Funded Cellphone Research: A Scatter
Plot Comparison of Outcomes
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scatter plots in a new window]
The facts are in. Cellphone exposure is clearly causing health issues, most
especially, the danger from brain tumors. As illustration, the latest
epidemiological study by a Swedish team found not only a 290% increase in the
risk of developing a high-grade astrocytoma (the nastiest type brain cancer)
from cellphone use (as opposed to non-users), but also found this risk after
only 10 or more years of exposure (30 years is the typical length of exposure
for tobacco users developing lung cancer).
So the question must be asked: Why do these facts continue to be hidden from
voice and view? And why do we continue to be lulled into complacency with
report after report assuring us of the unequivocal safety of cellphone use?
The answer is easy: the cellphone industry provides the bulk of the funding
for cellphone research, and the information distributed to the media concerning
cellphone health and safety. Added to this cellphone industry domination is an
inherent conflict-of-interest— because the very cellphone industry that
funds the research has an all too real economic stake in the research outcomes.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the domination of cellphone
industry generated research would have not only a profound impact on the
research, but also an impact on the public's knowledge concerning cellphone
health and safety.
Evidence: Impact of Funding Sources on Research
The best evidence of the cellphone industry's impact on cellphone research is
a side-by-side examination of the research outcomes of both cellphone
industry-funded and independently funded epidemiological research.
The cellphone industry funnels money into cellphone research via their
individual corporations and via their trade associations. They have
substantially funded the "Interphone" studies. The Interphone studies, using a
standard protocol (method), have performed studies in 13 countries. As of
late-July 2006, seven Interphone studies have been published on the risk of
brain tumors from cellphone use. It is interesting to note that, unlike the
independent researchers, the Interphone studies will not disclose their studies'
The independent researchers are from the Swedish Government's National
Institute for Working Life and from Örebro University in Örebro,
Sweden. The National Institute for Working Life is equivalent to the U.S.
Government's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or, NIOSH.
This "Swedish Team" has studied all brain tumors diagnosed in three regions of
Sweden between 1997 and 2003.
When the cellphone industry-financed Interphone studies are compared to the
independently-financed Swedish Team studies, three telling results come into
- Risk of Brain Tumors
The preponderance of the cellphone-industry funded research winds up in the
"null findings" (i.e., no risk) category for the risk of brain tumor from
cellphone use; in sharp contrast the preponderance of the
independently-funded research finds an alarming risk of brain tumors from
cellphone use with this risk being too early with respect to known latency
Surprisingly, for cellphone use of 10 or more years of use, the majority
of the cellphone industry-funded studies also show an excess risk of brain
- Reporting Issues
The cellphone-industry funded research—even the research that actually
finds causes for concern!—has been reported by the media, usually with
banner headlines, as further affirmation of cellphone safety. In contrast,
the independently-funded research that continues to find, with each updated
study, harmful outcomes from cellphone exposures receives, if any, scant
- Cellphone Exposure Protects the User from Brain Tumors
Six of the seven epidemiological research studies funded by the cellphone
industry actually present "statistically significant" findings so
out-of-whack to all other research that it quizzically implies that
cellphone exposure is actually protective for brain tumors! (Is this perhaps
an indication of some research bias or error in the Interphone studies?)
- The charts depict a comparison of the epidemiological research as of
late-July, 2006 from both the Interphone and Swedish Team studies.
- The 3 charts compare the epidemiological findings of cellphone exposures
and the increased risk of 3 types of brain tumors: brain cancer, acoustic
neuroma and meningioma.
- The epidemiological studies of the two compared research groups are
represented by the geometric shapes on the chart: red triangles indicate
individual findings from the cellphone industry-funded studies; red squares
indicate two findings at the same point on the charts from cellphone
industry-funded studies; dark diamonds indicate individual findings from
independently-funded studies. A black box on the chart indicates multiple
findings too close together to select individually. Clicking the box on the
chart will bring up every finding and its corresponding citation to the
research within the box.
- The numbers on the bottom of the chart (the horizontal axis) represent
the decreasing or increasing risk of developing a brain tumor-with the "0%"
in the middle representing the 50-50 chance of a coin toss, equivalent to no
When examining each chart, note whether the findings (red or black) are
about equally distributed to the left and right of the 0% midline of the
chart. If the distribution is to the left, it implies that the weight of the
findings indicates that use of a cellphone protects the user from brain
tumors. If the distribution is to the right, it implies that the weight of
the findings indicates that use of a cellphone is a risk for brain
- The vertical axis (with "% Confidence" on the left side of the chart)
indicates the statistical confidence of the finding. In terms of scientific
"weight" (or how seriously most scientists adjudge a study's findings), the
most important part of the chart is this left-hand column of numbers that
illustrates the "percentage confidence" (or its complement, the "p-value",
the probability of a chance finding) for the particular data point. These
numbers tell the story as to the strength of the finding (as opposed to what
percentage of chance one has) in the risk of developing a brain tumor. In
other words, the percentage confidence tells us the percentage of confidence
that a finding is a true result.
- The strength of the finding increases upwards from the bottom of the
chart (light yellow-green equals "no statistical meaning"; light pink equals
"possible statistical meaning"; light green equals "probable statistical
meaning") towards the green line that equals the "line of statistical
significance". This line crosses the chart at 95% confidence and is seen by
the scientific community as the point at which findings need to be taken
seriously.(However, it is important to note that within the public health
community some consider this too high a bar-kind of like legal "certainty"
rather than "preponderance of the evidence".)
- Findings in the gray area indicate studies that show an excess risk-but
a risk that is less than 100% in excess. Epidemiologists hold a certain
skepticism about these findings because they may be the result of study
flaws due to bias or confounding. An example of bias (recall bias) is the
case of studies whose results depend on the accuracy of the study's
subjects' memory of past events. An example of confounding can be found in
risk-of-heart-attacks-per-age studies that have failed to adjust for the
"confounding" effect that long-time smokers may have on the population
Reading the comparison scatter-plot charts, what emerges is the very picture
of why the public has so little knowledge concerning the hazards of cellphone
use. Consistently, the data points (findings) representing the research has the
Interphone studies' findings pretty much showing no harm or even protection (as
in the meningioma chart) or very little evidence of harm along with seeming
protection (as in the brain cancer and acoustic neuroma charts). In contrast,
the Swedish Team's studies show statistically strong evidence of an excess risk
of brain tumors (except perhaps in the case of meningiomas where there is weaker
evidence of an excess risk).
Yet, the majority of Interphone studies have also found an elevated risk of
brain tumors, when the study examines that risk after using a cellphone for 10
or more years (e.g., see the acoustic neuroma and brain cancer charts). However,
the substance of these results is not what is disseminated to the public.
Finally, as we view these charts, we are seeing before our eyes two distinct
tragedies being played out: the first tragedy is that of the trumping of
science for corporate economic needs. The second tragedy is much worse, and the
direct outcome of the first: when independent scientific inquiry is thusly
manipulated and marginalized, we all lose as humanity is deprived of a working
warning system to which attention must be paid. And, in the case of cellphone
exposure and human health, with the cellphone industry's increasing domination
in research funding matched by the shriveling (soon, non-existent) of
independent research funding—and early research findings as troubling as
early tobacco studies—we may already be too late to head off a health
avalanche coming our way.
Lloyd Morgan and Diana Bilovsky