What I think they mean…

Posted on April 6, 2012


I have been dubbing whether to call this post “Conspiracy theories” or “US vs. UK”, but decided in the end to call it “What I think they mean…”. Nonetheless, we are talking science with a dose of us vs. them and if you want to believe, conspiracy at international level as well – yes, we are talking mobile phones again!

A couple of weeks ago the following article was published in the Daily Mail: “Mums-to-be warned exposing babies in the womb to mobile phones ‘could give them behaviour problems’, report” (link). Yes, the Daily Mail is a gem when it comes to headlines (on par with the always amusing health section of Fox News in my opinion). But they did even better by adding the following two sub-headings:
1.    Yale expert says it would be ‘sensible’ for pregnant women to limit their baby’s exposure to mobile phones
2.    But British experts say it’s ‘irresponsible’ to speculate about human radiation risk from a study on mice
And we are on to a winner! Those Americans: always going for spectacular explosions. Luckily there are us sensible Brits to keep the nuances. Those Brits: I wonder what they are hiding or who is paying them. Luckily us Americans do our best to keep the general public as safe as we can.
The paper is based on a paper entitled “Fetal Radiofrequency Radiation Exposure From 800-1900 Mhz-Rated Cellular Telephones Affects Neurodevelopment and Behavior in Mice” published on March 15 in Scientific Reports (an online open access journal…grumble…but that’s for a later post). Nonetheless, being open access the complete paper can be read here (link). I won’t go into details here since if you are interested, you can read the whole paper yourself. However, in summary mice exposed in-utero to radiofrequency showed signs of being more hyperactive and of memory impairment which was, according to the investigators, due to dose-dependent altered neuronal developmental programming.

Generally speaking, scientists are a  bit more careful than journalists in presenting there results (and generally for good reason), and this is not different here. They conclude in the accompanying abstract (let’s face it, that’s what we read): “We present the first experimental evidence of neuropathology due to in-utero cellular telephone radiation. Further experiments are needed in humans or non-human primates to determine the risk of exposure during pregnancy.” To be fair, in the Discussion section of the paper they further list several limitations to their study (which is a good thing!) but then, in my personal opinion, take one step to far in interpreting their results by adding: “The rise in behavioral disorders in developed countries may be, at least in part, due to a contribution from fetal cellular telephone radiation exposure.” As they themselves concluded, this is the first experimental study looking into this and it does have some limitations. Nonetheless, I’d say these are interesting results. As with so many studies on potential adverse effects from EMF, things tend to show up…but why?
Right then, back to the Daily Mail article. Let’s skip most of their explanation of the study but for the first sentence: “Pregnant women who use mobile phones may be putting their babies at risk of developing behavioural problems, scientists have warned.” Mmm, well I think what they actually said with respect to pregnant women was: “Though it is difficult to translate these findings to human risks and vulnerability, we identify a novel potential contribution to the increased prevalence in hyperactive children, one that is easily prevented.” Note the difficult to translate to humans bit…

But the Brits don’t believe it!
As I understood from the article:
1.    It is impossible to compare between rodents and humans because mice are born after just 19 days with a brain that’s at a far earlier stage of development compared to human babies.
2.    There is to date only little evidence of an association,’ adding that no evidence from the latest mouse study supported the conjecture.
3.    The fact the exposed mice in the study were more active could not be translated to complex disorders such as ADHD
4.    The authors of this study acknowledge themselves that their work had certain limitations.
All of these seem true at face value, but seem to be generally part of the limitations of this study or are statements not directly related to this particular study but personal interpretations of a complete area of research.
To add some nuance, the EHHI is quoted as saying “limiting a foetus’ exposure to mobile phone radiation seemed warranted”. But let’s face it, they are Americans again…
The Brits on the other hand are unanimously quoted as calling this study Irresponsible, alarmist and unjustified. Now these are some harsh words. Now it can be irresponsible to conduct a certain experiment (for example the potential creation of black holes in CERN’s large hadron collider had been called irresponsible (link, oh and since we are still alive…), or closer to home exposing people to high amounts of carcinogens in a controlled trial is a bad idea), but this study certainly wasn’t. So presumably what they mean is that the interpretation of the results was irresponsible, alarmist and unjustified?As we have read above, the scientists themselves were, as they should, conservative, although they may have taken it one step to far by linking their findings to a rise in behavioral disorders (with some potentials and maybes thrown in). So who in this case is irresponsible, alarmist and unjustified? Presumably it went wrong when the paper was translated into a press release and subsequently being taken up by an overenthusiastic Daily Mail journalist. Maybe that is what the British quotes should have said…
So, what I think they mean…or what I think they should have said is that: “this is a very interesting study that demonstrates a link between radiofrequency exposure in-utero and certain behavioural effects. This is a study in mice with exposure somewhat different to that experienced by pregnant women, but there is a biological mechanism there that we do not really understand yet. It would be a good idea to try and figure out what this mechanism is so that we can check whether this may also happen in humans. Just in case… It is after all, fairly straightforward to reduce or eliminate exposure so no harm done. However, we think the way this study has been presented in or by the media is irresponsible and unjustified.” (alarmist is strange term I won’t be using…).

Or (credit to the Daily Mail in the end for getting this quote in) as a spokesman from the Health Protection Agency said:
The Health Protection Agency constantly monitors and reviews this scientific research and will consider this study, along with other peer reviewed research, as part of that process.

And that is how it should be…