Thursday, 30 August 2007

Scare-stories R Us

Not that I would ever, ever admit to reading the Torygraph, but "a friend" read this story in this morning's edition. From said story:

Just five minutes of exposure to mobile phone emissions can trigger changes that
occur during cancer development, according to new research.

Read on, I thought, for this quality daily newspaper must only report genuine findings, objectively, in an appropriate context and without hyperbole. Err...

Firstly, the Telegraph appear to be re-hashing a similar story from New Scientist (apologies if you can't access this version, apart from the abstract it's subscription only but available from me if you'd like it by e-mail...). They in turn are talking about a peer-reviewed article published in a serious academic journal (again, if you have difficulties accessing the paper, read the abstract via PubMed). So far, so good.

The researchers tested rat cells and human cells in a tissue culture dish (NOTE: this isn't the same as testing actual rats and humans), by exposing them to radiation from a signal generator at a similar frequency (but lower intensity) to that used by a GSM mobile phone (NOTE: this is not necessarily the same as exposing it to radiation from an actual mobile phone). Five minutes after exposure to said radiation, the researchers found that a signalling molecule, known as ERK1/2, is modified (phosphorylated) into its active form.

Phosphorylated, or activated, ERK1/2 is found in many canncerous tumour cells, and blocking this activation even forms the basis of some anti-cancer drugs. So, the authors conclude, they have evidence that GSM-frequency radiation induces some of the molecular changes found in cancer, suggesting a possible mechanism by which mobiles could cause cancer. Err...

Not so fast... The modification of ERK1/2 was found to be transient, in that about half an hour after exposure to radiation the ERK1/2 was back to its inactive state. It is true that phosphorylated ERK1/2 can cause cells to eventually divide, but its also true that for this the ERK needs to be activated over a prolonged period, days, weeks, even months. This normally only happens when one of the molecules that activates ERK is mutated. All of these points are made in a comment article that accompanies the research paper in the same edition of the journal.

Worse, the authors show no evidence that this ERK activation actually leads to abnormal cell division - they don't even look at cell division. They did some neat experiments to show how the ERK could become acitvated in response to radiation, invoking free radical formation in the pathway - but at no point do they show that ERK activation following irradiation leads to any effects on the overall health of the cell.

Let's put it this way. Babies are made when a man's sperm fertilises a woman's egg (bear with me...). Before this happens, the man and woman often remove their clothes for a (sometimes) prolonged period. Men and women remove their clothes transiently in the gym changing room. Do gyms cause babies to be made? No. The removal of clothes is an intermediate step, common to many pathways (getting ready for bed, trying on a dress, making babies), and just because Person/Factor/Event X causes the removal of clothes, there's no need to buy Pampers and re-paint the spare room.


My point isn't that the authors of the publication drew the tenuous link between a transient, reversible molecular event in cell culture to the formation of cancer - that's what the discussion section of papers are for, to put you work in a context. My point is that New Scientist, the Telegraph, perhaps other publications, wrote scare-mongering headline-grabbing stories about how phones cause the same cellular changes as seen in cancer, therefore HANG UP NOW OR FACE CERTAIN DEATH (I paraphrase, but you get the picture).

This isn't the first badly reported science story ever. It isn't the most damaging either. But it just goes to show that if you want to push an angle (i.e. phones/wifi/mmr/cannabis causes cancer/autism/schizophrenia), you're more than entitled to take someone's findings and blow their conclusions way out of proportion to sell a few copies of your rag.



martin said...

There is in any case a strange phenomenon with all the mobile phone scare stories: nobody writing them ever takes the logical step of NOT HAVING A MOBILE PHONE. If I was writing a report summarising evidence that coffee was poisonous, and I was convinced, I would stop drinking coffee (until further evidence emerged). The jouranlists ought to have the courage of his apparent convictions and renounce his phone.

Shinga said...

Yes, Martin. It's a little like the MP in that ludicrous Jasper C piece who said something along the lines of (@ 06:15 in the timeline), "As a precaution, I never like to speak on the mobile phone for more than a couple of minutes". Didn't Jasper C make some asinine comment that justified his continuing use of the technology against which he was railing?


Sceptiphreniac said...

I covered a similar story in . The Daily Mail wrote a story about scientists "breaking the speed of light". Part of the problem is lack of fidelity to the original sources.

teekblog said...

thanks for the comments folks.

the pieces i blogged about are just examples of the sad neglect for science and reason in the press.

more soon...!