ScienceSkepticism

This Week’s Irony: Having the Cancer Center in Your Five

Here’s a story I wanted to comment on late last week, but I decided to play beach volleyball in the 100+ degree heat here in Houston instead. The summer heat, especially during the dog days, has kicked my ass for the last 20 years, but I keep going back for more.

Sheesh! Just more proof that my issues are indeed many and varied.

At any rate, it seems Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, warned his faculty and staff last week to limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer.

Yes, when I read that, I thought I had been transported back to 1998, too. As you no doubt suspect, the move is contrary to numerous studies from years past that did not find a link between cancer and cell phone use, yet the good doctor is adamant about being duly cautious with cell phones.

In his memo, he wrote:

“Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use.”

It’s alarming to me that a person in his position would draw conclusions or make decisions based on “controversial” evidence, but the most disturbing thing about this story may be Dr. Herberman’s mindset about science and how to approach unknowns. First of all, he is apparently basing his concerns on some unpublished data, saying surprisingly that it takes too long to get answers from science. And, since those answers are slow in coming — at least in his view — he believes people should take action now.

He states in the article:

“Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later.”

Now, erring on the side of safety is one thing. Except for me stubbornly risking heat stroke on the volleyball court every July and August, we all no doubt put that notion into practice to some degree on a daily basis. But completely ignoring previous studies, being too impatient, and taking a “might as well” approach is something else entirely. It does a disservice to science and the scientists doing the work, doesn’t it?

To his credit, Herberman cites a massive ongoing research project known as Interphone, which involves scientists in 13 nations, mostly in Europe. Plus, it’s conceivable that being in his position has caused him to find cancer even more vile than those of us on the outside. However, results already published in peer-reviewed journals from Interphone aren’t all that alarming, showing little correlation and definitely no causation.

Also, the National Research Council in the U.S., which isn’t participating in the Interphone project, reported in January that the brain tumor research had “selection bias,” because it relied on people with cancer to remember how often they used their cell phones. And as you know, this is not considered the most accurate research approach.

So Herberman issued his memo based on a study with findings that so far aren’t very alarming, and that may very well be flawed.

Another driving force behind the memo was the director of the university’s center for environmental oncology, a woman called Devra Lee Davis. Davis says:

“The question is do you want to play Russian roulette with your brain? I don’t know that cell phones are dangerous. But I don’t know that they are safe.”

Really??

I had a litany of hilarious analogies all loaded up to crap all over that statement, but the stupidity of it just sucked the life right out of me. I mean, Jesus Christ, how many things could we substitute for “cell phones” in that quote? A hundred? A thousand? A million?

In any case, we’re going to have to write a shitload of memos.

The short of it is, Herberman and Davis may be simply extra cautious when it comes to cancer because it’s a foul beast they have to deal with every day. But for those of us somewhat removed from the issue, their approach seems a little too reactionary, especially for a group of scientists.

Thoughts?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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33 Comments

  1. how many things could we substitute for “cell phones” in that quote?

    That right there is the problem. People in industrialized nations live such incredibly safe lives, but there is a culture of fear foisted upon us. I came to this realization when my second child was born, and they had changed a few of their recommendations regarding sleep positions, carseats, feeding, etc., in the three years since my first child was born. I really didn’t think there could possibly have been enough time for solid scientific research to have completely reversed the things I was supposed to be afraid of in 1999, so that I now had to be afraid of the opposite thing in 2002.

    At which point I realized what most parents do — your kid is probably going to be fine no matter what you do, and even if something does happen to your kid, there’s a damn good chance it wasn’t your fault.

    Once I got attuned to that, though, I saw it everywhere. Fear sells. It sells safety products, it sells medicine and vitamins, it sells organic/alternative products, it sells whatever food is being touted this month as “cancer-preventative”, and it makes for much more interesting news stories — meaning it sells advertising spots, too.

    After a while, I find myself being skeptical of virtually everything that someone else tells me I should be afraid of. I talk on my cell phone. I feed my children processed snacks, and sometimes I even make them Kraft macaroni and cheese. I listen to both NIN and the Beethoven symphonies at window-vibrating volumes. I just got a pit bull mix, and she hasn’t eaten me yet.

    This weekend I went to a concert by an African drum troupe which is made up entirely of Rwandan and Ugandan young men who were children in the genocides of 1994 in that part of the world. One man (just past boyhood) calmly told of children from his village taking refuge in the local Catholic church, but having to avoid certain rooms because they were full of dead bodies that had not yet been cleared out and buried.

    Sorry … I hear something like that and it’s a little hard to get worked up over a freakin’ CELL PHONE.

  2. A couple years ago, a coworker forwarded me one of those damned urban legends e-mails. In this one, there was a link between diet pop that contained aspartame, and Gulf War Syndrome. In this story, apparently, having drinks containing aspartame exposed to the hot desert sun caused the aspartame to become a neurotoxin, and warned that people drinking diet pop on hot summer days should be sure to keep it cold, and out of the sun.

    So, I did what I usually do in situations like this. I forwarded her a link to the Snopes article saying that it was total bunk.

    And she said “Well, still, better safe than sorry, right?”

    And I replied “Yeah, if you want to live your life in complete ignorance and paranoia of every stinkin’ product on the market!”

    Same story. Different circumstances. “Better safe than sorry”, “err on the side of caution”, all good advice, but hardly an excuse for needless panic.

  3. I don’t know why but this reminds me of the comic book scare of the 1950’s and Dr. Wortham’s book “Seduction of the innocent.” His entire book is based on the fact that many boys in juvy also read comic books. He skipped the fact that many of them drink water, sleep at night, eat food and breath. I think more time should be spent on understanding the scientific process. It is really weird when a person works in science but doesn’t seem to understand the process that allows science to be such a powerful tool. This guy is just a tool.

  4. I was going to write along comment on comic books, satanism, Dungeons & Dragons, rock music, backwards masking, Reefer Madness, stranger danger, handguns, and pillow-top matresses; but I’m lazy.

    Instead, I’ll just say that Improbable Bee is right.

  5. Life: It MIGHT kill you.

    I’m with Improbable Bee. I almost never believe recommendations on the news unless I’ve seen a few knowledgable sources vetting the information or, in those cases where I can understand them, have read the studies themselves.

    Months back, when the FDA said that cloned meat was safe to eat, I had a lengthy series of arguments with a co-worker. First, he took the tactic that argued that because the FDA is corrupt (due to their approval of Vioxx and aspartame and because Dick Cheney once had something to do with someone there or something), therefore this study was unreliable.

    So I went into the paper in slightly more detail, read the abstract and a bit of the rest of it, and showed him both the conclusions as noted in the document and the evidence used. This moved him OFF of the FDA thing, and instead he started talking about the fact that the paper said beef from adult cows was likely safe, but that veal required more study.

    He kept asking me “Why isn’t the baby cow safe, hmm? Why not veal?” When I said that the reason veal required more study was NOT (at least, to my knowledge) in the paper, and that it could literally be ANYTHING (including botched experiments, corrupted data, or even error bars that were too large to say anything conclusive)…he insisted that it meant EVIL.

    He fell back on the “better safe than sorry” attitude that Peregrine noted… saying (in essence) that because veal wasn’t thoroughly vetted, no cloned meat was safe. I eventually stopped arguing when his goalpost moving and other innumerable fallacies almost made my brains leak out of my ears.

  6. At the end of 2004, my grandmother died of inoperable brain cancer. She was 77 years old, and had used a cell phone maybe three times in her life.

    Anecdotal evidence? Yeah. But it’s the same level of evidence available right now today that suggests that cell phones cause deadly cancer. These days, nearly everything one does or consumes can be a cause of cancer, and until people can come up with conclusive studies, there should be less fear-mongering from those who should know better.

    Not to mention that it strikes me (and full disclosure, I’m a humanities person) as not particularly sound science to conduct a study with just people who already have cancer instead of a full spectrum of the population.

  7. I wrote about this a few days ago on Hyphoid Logic and had people throwing all sorts of bizarre things at me. Papers about microwave towers (because we all know that the 1/10 Watt power of a cell phone equals the megawattage of a broadcast tower), links to bizarre “consumer safety” groups that reminded me very much of anti-vaccinationist nonsense, and even one “you’re not credentialed to evaluate a scientific assertion” argument.

    When someone proposes a testable hypothesis as to how RF of around 900 MHz can cause cancer, I’ll start getting worried. As far as I know from having studied physics, organic chemistry and molecular bio, electromagnetic radiation at the frequency would burn your face off if you absorbed enough of it… but it’s non-ionizing and doesn’t cause the kind of disruption of DNA necessary to cause cancer.

  8. Great post, great comments — the whole culture of fear that drives the sale and/or boycott of products without legitimately studying whether the concerns raised are valid is also a huge pet peeve of mine.

    Is there going to have to be a resurgence of polio in the US to stop the anti-vaccine hysteria?

  9. I don’t know if anyone has read her book “The Secret History of the War on Cancer.”

    I haven’t read it. In fact, I had not even heard of it until now.

    wet blanket, can you give us a little more insight into her thinking regarding cancer and the treatment thereof?

  10. So, I did what I usually do in situations like this. I forwarded her a link to the Snopes article saying that it was total bunk.

    I do the same thing. I have a friend that used to frequently send me health-scare crap like that. I would always send the Snopes link, along with my favorite rule of thumb in these matters: If the email ends with the advice “Send this to everyone on your address list,” chances are good that it’s just a hoax.

    Either she stopped forwarding those sort of things, or she took me off her forward list after the whole Canola/rapeseed oil fiasco.

  11. From what I remember, she believes that most cancers are caused by environmental “toxins”, like pesticides, pollution, and synthetics.

    Since her book focuses on how “Industry” has conspired with the Government to influence the way cancer is studied and treated, but never prevented, she believes that most cancers can be traced to environmental poisoning in the name of profit. So the best treatment would be to ban pesticides, pollutants, and synthetics.

    I was ambivalent about the book because I thought there was some good information and research involved, but there was also this appeal to emotion, and fear mongering; IE aspartame and cell phones will kill you.

    Here’s a Salon interview with her

    http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2007/10/08/cancer_q_a/print.html#

  12. Anthony: Yeah… last year when I was getting my MA over in England, I took a couple of day trips to Salisbury and Bath. We drove past tons of fields full of these bright yellow flowers blowing in the wind.

    I asked the tour guide, “What are those flowers?” and he said “That’s rape.” I replied “Sheesh, I was just asking.” :-P

  13. @Anthony
    I was driving on some back-roads in Arkansas one time, passing field after field of bright green. I asked my friend what it was.

    “Rape”

    “Wow. Sure is a lot of it.”

    “Yep. This part of Arkansas is filled with rape.”

    Its funny because it is true.

    postscript: I am allowed to make this joke because I grew up in Arkansas. The rest of you have to treat the state with respect and deference to avoid being called a “state-ist”.

  14. @Anthony: Heh, understandable mistake. The name Canola is a re-branding of a particular variety of rapeseed oil. This is actually what the whole health-scare I referred to was based on. Some sort of conspiracy theory about the government/industry trying to deceive us by selling a dangerous product under a different name. I’m sure it’s still up on Snopes if you want to read up on it.

  15. Pretend for a moment that can actually prove cause. The “smoking gun” is found, a risk factor is created and they can say something to the effect of “1 hour of cellphone use” takes .01 second off of your life.” Even then, its still meaningless. Risk factors that small aren’t statistically significant. They disappear into the backgroud of much greater risks that we accept every day, like driving to work.

    I don’t believe in 99.9% percent of conspiracy theories, but honestly, sometimes magical thinking rears its ugly head I am tempted to believe that bullshit like this is “bread and circuses” to keep us from noticing little things like growing imperialism, genocide, and the industrialized worlds shittiest health care system.

  16. HA. Rapeseed oil.

    I’m pretty sure that most things have a POSSIBILITY of causing cancer…but really, what is the use of getting worked up over it? I learn quite a bit about Cancer genetics in my Genetics class…and I’m seriously considering making a career out of it. It’s interesting as hell.

    …and btw, Hell is pretty damn interesting. I’m sure you people have seen the final exam where the professor asks whether Hell is exothermic or endothermic?

  17. I got that Pittsburgh memo from someone in my company who has access to the distribution list. He sent it out as if it were official. I was a bit frustrated abou tit. Truth determined by access to the distribution list.

  18. My husband always says that life is a terminal disease.

    I also wonder if these people who want to be safe than sorry smoke, drink, and have sodium packed fatty diets. Best to worry about the things that have been scientifically proven to shorten your life. Besides how am I going to order my double pepperoni pizza without my cell phone?

  19. I use my cell phone all the time, in various positions on my body. Perhaps I need to start checking for hand cancer since I hold my CrackBerry in my hand while I text, e-mail, and browse the internet. I might also be developing tumors in my left leg, since I have been carrying a cell phone in that pocket for 4 years, and now have a BlackBerry holstered in the same general area. Heck, sometimes when I lay down, I put my phone on my chest so I can feel it vibrate if I fall asleep, maybe I better watch out for lung cancer. I highly doubt any of those cancers could be caused by something else of course. I must blame the thing I see the most of.
    Maybe I should stop wearing headphones when I want to listen to music, I bet those emit all sorts of evil electromagnetic waves of death…

    PS. I had to register an account just so I could rant on this subject. Maybe you will see some more of me in the future!

  20. PS. I had to register an account just so I could rant on this subject. Maybe you will see some more of me in the future!

    Welcome to the world of Skepchick commenting, Saiyaman156. Hope you stick around.

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