That’s why randomized controlled trials (RCTs) often yield fairly clear answers about the effectiveness of treatments compared to other study designs. (Fun fact: Scottish doctor James Lind, a clinical trial pioneer, figured out that citrus fruits seemed to have an effect on scurvy using one of the earliest RCTs.) RCTs can also be used to study whether something, like cellphone radiation, can cause disease.
The peer reviewers did have some quibbles with the study; some wished it could have lasted longer (the rodents were exposed to radiation for two years) to catch later-developing tumors, for example, but others on the panel noted that the longer a rodent lives, the more likely it is to develop tumors regardless of radiation, making it harder to find the signal in the noise. Others wanted the researchers to have dissected the rodent brains more than they did, to seek hard-to-find tumors. But they noted that science is an iterative process; the study wasn’t perfect, but it’s better than anything that’s been done so far.
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I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people speculate, joke, or jokingly speculate that their cellphone might be giving them cancer. It comes from a very reasonable place of discomfort — few people understand how radiation works, we put our phones right beside our brains all the time, and technology in general often feels like it ought to be causing some sort of societal ill.
In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a component of the World Health Organization, appointed an expert Working Group to review all available evidence on the use of cell phones. The Working Group classified cell phone use as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” based on limited evidence from human studies, limited evidence from studies of radiofrequency radiation and cancer in rodents, and inconsistent evidence from mechanistic studies (4).
Unfortunately, however, we’ll probably never have an RCT on cellphones and cancer in humans. It’d be too difficult and too expensive to randomly assign particular levels of cellphone use to thousands of people and have them stick with those plans for enough time (we’re talking at least five years) to figure out whether certain types of phones or phone use patterns cause cancer to develop. That’s not to mention the fact it’d be nearly impossible to find a group of people willing to not use cellphones and then make sure they actually stick to their promise.
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What are the health effects of mobile phones and wireless radiation? While Australia has led the world in safety standards, including compulsory seat-belt legislation, plain packaging on cigarettes, and product and food disclosure legislation, it falls behind in addressing the significant issues associated with mobile phone use. In this Dean’s Lecture, epidemiologist and electromagnetic radiation expert, Dr Devra Davis, will outline the evolution of the mobile phone and smartphone, and provide a background to the current 19 year old radiation safety standards (SAR), policy developments and international legislation. New global studies on the health consequences of mobile/wireless radiation will be presented, including children’s exposure and risks.
The frequency of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation ranges from 30 kilohertz (30 kHz, or 30,000 Hz) to 300 gigahertz (300 GHz, or 300 billion Hz). Electromagnetic fields in the radiofrequency range are used for telecommunications applications, including cell phones, televisions, and radio transmissions. The human body absorbs energy from devices that emit radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation. The dose of the absorbed energy is estimated using a measure called the specific absorption rate (SAR), which is expressed in watts per kilogram of body weight.