Posted tagged ‘cell phones’

Cell phones are not causing teens to grow horns: WaPo blows it

June 22, 2019

The Pediatric Insider

© 2019 Roy Benaroch, MD

Last week the Washington Post (“Democracy Dies in Darkness”) ran this headline: “’Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.”

The headline is entirely correct except for a few minor points:

  • They’re not horns, which point up from the forehead. They’re more like little ½ inch nubs protruding downwards from the back of the skull.
  • They’re not new. There’s no comparison group to show that these are more or less common than they used to be.
  • They’re not “growing” on people’s skulls. There was no follow-up to show that they’re getting larger. They’re just “there”, and may always have been there.
  • Phone use isn’t to blame. Phone use habits weren’t even recorded, and no comparison between phone users and non-users was possible.
  • No research has suggested that any of the headline is accurate.

The article stems from two studies performed in 2018 by a chiropractor and a specialist in biomechanics, both from Australia. One study was on four teenagers whose parents brought them into a chiropractor to address their poor posture. Lumps were noted on their skull x-rays (Why were skull x-rays are needed to assess posture? Who knows. At least there wasn’t something important like a brain being irradiated for no reason. But I digress.) The authors speculated that perhaps the bony lumps appeared as a result of biomechanical stress from the teens’ leaning forward to look at their phones. It’s not an entirely outlandish idea – bones can and do remodel in response to mechanical stress. But it was only an idea, and an entirely untested idea at that. No one had asked the teens if they had used cell phones, or for how many hours; and there was no mention of any symptoms or problems the teens had (other than that their posture was upsetting to their parents.) And there was no comparison between phone users and non-users to help establish that phone use could be correlated with those bone lumps.

Later in 2018, the same authors reviewed 1200 x-rays from patients seen at chiropractic clinics. They found that 33% had these prominent boney lumps on the back of their heads—prominent meaning more than 10 mm, or about ½ an inch. There was no mention of cell phone use; there was no comparison group; and there was no correlation with any symptoms whatsoever. And certainly – I can’t stress this enough – the boney lump nub things did not look like horns.

I think the WaPo editor just like the idea of a headline including the words Horns, Growing, Skulls, Phone, and Blame. That’s a magical combination. Really: put those words in any order, and it’s a winner. But that doesn’t make it an accurate headline.

Don’t get me wrong: when you look around, you do see people hunching forward, clutching their phones. That can’t be good for posture. And I could see that contributing to neck and back pain. But to go from there to “Phones are to blame for head horns” is, well, ridiculous. WaPo, you really should have done better.

Hey! D’ya looking critically at media stories of health issues, maybe poking a little fun, and sometimes finding real gems of good reporting? Learn how to read studies and media reports with a skeptic’s eye, and how to find good, reliable health info in the news. Check out my 5-star course, A Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. You can buy it or stream it, or get the audio-only from Audible. It’s fabulous!

BONUS mix -n- match headline section! Combine the words Horns, Growing, Skulls, Phone, and Blame to make your own Washington Post Style Headline! Put your favorites in the comments! I’ll start:

  • Blame Phone Skulls for Horn Growing
  • Horny Teen Blames Growing Phone Skull
  • Skull Growing? Blame Phone Horn

 

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Protect yourself from cell phone radiation journalists

May 31, 2016

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

The media is agog over a new study, one tailor made for clickbaiting. Staid, boring old Wall Street Journal proclaimed “Cellphone-cancer link found in government study.” Mother Jones called the study “Game Changing”, and NaturalNews’s headline screams “Massive government study concludes cell phone radiation causes brain cancer.” (They also say “On all of these issues, Natural News has always been right!” Google it if you want. I’m not providing a link.)

The new data is from a preliminary release of data from 2,500 rats and mice. It hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, or scheduled for publication. We have no idea what happened to the mice involved in this study – they weren’t mentioned. Maybe they were busy.

The rats were kept in an underground bunker (which protected them from the sun, a much larger source of radiation exposure.) Special enclosures exposed the experimental rat volunteers to cell phone radiowaves starting at gestation, through the first two years of their lives. Intense radiowaves bathed their entire bodies for 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off, 18 hours a day. For two years. Extrapolating from rat lifespans, that’s equivalent to about 50 human years. Think about that exposure: 50 years, starting before birth, using cell phones mashed up against your entire body for 9 hours a day. I get it, they want to use an absolutely maximal exposure to find even a small signal of increased risk. But does that sound remotely realistic?

Compared to the control rats, male (but not female) exposed rats had small numbers of cancers in their brains and hearts – in most groups, 1 or 2 out of 90. The control rats had zero across all of the subgroups, which is itself a surprise – these were lab rats bred to develop cancers, so cancer-causing exposures could be studied. The control (unexposed) rats also had a weirdly high early death rate (remember, this group didn’t have cell phones. They were bored to death, maybe.) In all seriousness, that seems to be a big flaw. Since cancer takes time to develop, rats in a shortened-lifespan group would almost certainly have fewer cancers at autopsy. Still – zero? Were they looking hard enough?

The new study certainly raises some good questions. How could radiowaves contribute to cancer? There’s no established plausible mechanism at these levels. Why were the results only seen in male rats? What about the mice, were they similarly affected? Why did the non-exposed rats die off early, and could that explain the effect? How do these exposures compare to a typical human way of using a cell phone, holding it in your hand to text or use an app? These are good questions. Too bad journalists covering the study didn’t try to answer them.

Ironically, just a few days earlier, a much larger study (of 45,000 people) showed exactly the opposite. What, you didn’t hear about the huge Australian study that showed no increased risk of brain cancers since the introduction of cell phones 29 years ago? Perhaps the science media is more concerned about rats than Aussies. They’re certainly more eager to get your clicks than to provide accurate or useful information.

A rat.

Scary Rays from the Sky

April 30, 2010

The Pediatric Insider

© 2010 Roy Benaroch, MD

From Katie: “Any thoughts on cell phone towers being placed on an elementary school’s property?”

Radiation. Powerful enough to turn Dr. Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby) into The Incredible Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), or meek Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) into The Amazing Spider-Man (still Tobey Maguire, but more buff and spandexed). It also obliterated two cities in Japan, and continues to contribute to cancers near Chernobyl. It’s sciency, strong, and scary. No wonder it creates so much apprehension.

We’re all living every day surrounded by radiation sources, and bathed in radioactive rays. Cosmic rays are a significant and unavoidable source of radiation from above, and naturally occurring forms of radon, carbon, and many other elements in the earth’s crust bombard us with radiation from below.

Not all radiation is the same. The more-powerful, cell-damaging kind is called “ionizing radiation,” and we know that can strip atoms apart and disrupt DNA. This kind of radiation occurs in cosmic rays and diagnostic x-rays, and that’s why radiology technicians wear lead overcoats. It is a bad idea to be exposed to excessive ionizing radiation, though even that risk should be put in perspective, since you can’t possibly avoid it entirely. For comparison, a single chest x-ray exposes an adult to about the same ionizing radiation that you’d get in three days of living on the earth at sea level. Three days, that doesn’t sound so bad. But an abdominal CT scan? That’s about three extra years. Diagnostic radiology is a wonderful tool, but it should be used carefully.

The other kind of radiation is called “non-ionizing.” You’re swimming in that, too. All light is a form of non-ionizing radiation, as are radio waves and microwaves. Though at very intense, high exposures these kinds of radiation can damage tissue (think about a microwave oven, or spending a day in the sun), the process of damage is by the transfer of heat, not the destruction of DNA or other molecules directly. And it only takes a very thin layer of shielding to protect from even intense non-ionizing radiation. You can get a sunburn, yes, but you won’t burn through a thin piece of clothing or a layer of sunscreen, and a little piece of darkened plastic can make squinting unnecessary even on a bright day. Non-ionizing radiation doesn’t penetrate tissue well, and that’s one reason it’s thought of as generally safe.

Cell phones themselves use non-ionizing radio waves to communicate with their towers, and that radiation can barely penetrate the topmost payer of your skin. The most recent research has found no link between cell phone use and cancer, though good studies of more than ten years exposure have not been done. Certainly, if there is a risk, it’s very small; a large risk effect would be easy to spot in demographic and population trends, and it just isn’t there.

Cell phone towers transmit in both radio waves and microwaves, though the microwaves are directed to travel along lines of sight to the next tower– they don’t point down towards the ground at all. There is no credible evidence that they cause any direct harm. At least not from their radiation.

The real risk, of course, is automobile accidents. Car wrecks kill about 45,000 people in the USA every year. How many of these are caused by drivers distracted by a cell phone?

For a while, high-voltage electric transmission lines, which also emit electromagnetic radiation, were implicated as a cause of cancer and other bad things. After decades of research failed to find real evidence of any harm, the anti-power line crowd seems to have moved on to cell phones as the latest health boogeyman. (For more about the story of epidemiology and the rise and fall of the hysteria over health risks from power lines, read Geoffrey Kabat’s Hyping Health Risks.)

Don’t fall for the hysteria over cell towers. Careful studies have so far been able to rule out any large effect; though tiny effects are still possible, good research is being done to see what the extent of that might be. In the meantime, if you want to be safe around cell phones, don’t use them when you’re driving. That’s a much, much bigger health risk than could possibly be associated from the Scary Rays from The Sky.