Romm Echoes Groundless Cell Phone/Cancer Fears

Joe Romm, deviating from his oeuvre, abandons science with this post. He begins:

Three years ago, Climate Progress published “Should you or your kids keep a cell phone pressed against your heads for hours?”  My answer back then was “no.”  It still is.

A year ago, I published, “Are cell phones safe? The verdict is still out.”  It still is.

Say it ain’t so, Joe! To buttress his “the verdict is still out” claim, Romm cites this WaPo story, which reports:

Cellphones are “possibly carcinogenic” to humans, according to the panel organized by the World Health Organization. But an exhaustive, eight-day review of hundreds of studies concluded that the existing evidence is insufficient to know for sure. And because cellphones are so popular, further research is urgently needed, the experts said.

(For a roundup of media coverage on the WHO panel report, see Charlie Petit’s post at the Science Tracker.)

Now let’s go to the indefatigable slayer of all quackery and dubious, science-free claims, who writes that,

the evidence supporting a link between cell phone radiation and cancer is so resoundingly nonexistent in epidemiology, preclinical science, and physics that it boggles the mind the WHO would come to even the tepid conclusion that cell phones should be added to Group 2B indicating that cell phone radiation might be carcinogenic.

Why is Romm, who regularly touts the accumulated body of climate science in his arguments for action on climate change, giving currency to irrational fears about a cell phone/brain cancer link that is not supported by scientific evidence? Here he is in the same post (my emphasis):

As I wrote three years ago, “You can choose to ignore the risks, of course, but from my perspective, I think the science is more than strong enough to raise concerns, and the measures needed to minimize risk are trivial.”

That is obviously even more true today.

No, it’s not. If anything, the science has shown exactly the opposite. Again, here is Orac:

There are a lot of problems with the claim that cell phones cause cancer, not the least of which is that the science and epidemiology just don’t support it. In particular, the INTERPHONE study, whose results were reported last year, showed no evidence of a link between cell phone use and glioblastoma or meningioma. In fact, to me the decision by WHO is exceedingly puzzling because, if anything, over the last several years the evidence has been trending more and more towards being inconsistent with with a link between cell phone use and brain cancer–or health problems of any kind, other than getting into car crashes because of texting or talking while driving.

If Romm wanted to be a credible voice on this matter and still be able to raise his concern in a responsible manner, he might have taken a page from Orac, who says near the end of his post:

I don’t dismiss on basic science grounds alone the possibility of a link between cell phone radiation and cancer. In other words, I do not consider such a link to be impossible. I do, however, consider such a link to be incredibly implausible and improbable based on basic science considerations alone. Add to that the essentially negative epidemiological evidence, and, for now, I consider the question of whether or not there is a link between cell phone radiation and cancer to be in essence a dead issue, the question having been answered provisionally (and strongly) in the negative.

Romm, citing only a Washington Post story, a CNN article, and this publication (which is edited by his cousin), gives undue credence to the cell phone/brain cancer link. For a guy who advertises himself as grounded in science, he sure has a poor way of showing it sometimes.

UPDATE: Here are some additional posts worth checking out. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy. Ed Yong at the UK Cancer Research site. Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing. And William Connolley. Of course, nothing beats a good cartoon, and Scott Stantis in the Chicago Tribune captures the fear meme here.


21 Responses to “Romm Echoes Groundless Cell Phone/Cancer Fears”

  1. NikFromNYC says:

    I was just IP banned (leads to Google, my ex-girlfriend’s web site) for posting this to the PR

    “I am neither a scientist nor a historian, and I have no intention in this book of jumping in to the actual science “debate.” ” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “I spend too much money on art, fine wine, skis, and high-end bicycle parts, and I am in recovery from my habit of buying luxury cars.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Few people want to give up their car or spend money retrofitting their their home heating system if they believe that scientists are still arguing over the truth of global warming.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Nobody wants to be the only person on the block who is spending money to repower their their heating system. No one wants to give up their car, change their diet, or limit their consumption if their efforts will be rendered irrelevant by the consumption patterns of those around them.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Someone who is highly trained in rhetoric can argue any question from any angle.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “In his 1928 book The Business of Propaganda, Bernays put into words something that every demagogue in history probably knew instinctively. He wrote, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels praised another of Bernay’s books, ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion,’ as having been helpful in crafting the campaign against German Jews.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “It might be worth contemplating the slippery slope that faces people in public relations who forget their duty to society – the Public Relations Society of America’s caution to practice “professionally, with truth, with accuracy, fairness, and responsibility to the public.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Boykoff and Boykoff telegraphed their point about the mainstream media in the title of their paper “Balance as Bias.” Journalists in the modern age find it all but impossible to stay up to speed on every issue, especially every issue of science. To protect themselves, they very frequently fall back on the notion of balance: they interview one person on one side of an issue and one person on the other. There is even a fairly common conceit in North American newsrooms that if both sides wind up angry about the coverage, the reporter in question probably got the story about right.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “I have never liked the term “spin doctor,” and I hate the definition – at least I hate that someone would propose “PR person” as a reasonable synonym.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Spin is to public relations what manipulation is to interpersonal communications.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Lies are darned handy when the truth is something you dare not admit.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “This is all excellent advice, especially appropriate if you are trying to recover your reputation after an unfortunate accident.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “In court (and before you conclude that I am lawyer-bashing, I learned all this in law school myself, there is a convention that every accused person deserves the best possible defense, and it is the lawyer’s duty to mount that defense to the best of his or her ability. We have even grown to accept the idea that it’s acceptable to construct a case that is entirely – almost deceptively – one-sided, knowing that the lawyer on the other side will bring equal vigor to the case.)” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “What you cannot see is any evidence that anyone, at any time, asked whether what they were doing was right – whether, for example, the messages they were testing could have been incorrect and ultimately harmful.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Don’t corporations have have a responsibility to communicate in a way that is fair, and in the public interest?” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Environmental skeptics are not, as they portray themselves, independent and objective analysts. Rather, they are predominantly agents of conservative think tanks, and their success in promoting skepticism about environmental problems stems from their affiliation with these politically powerful institutions.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “The next IPCC report should give people the final push that they need to to take action and we can’t have people undermining it.” – quoted by John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “There was 100% consensus that global warming was not caused by natural climate variations.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Denying it was wrong. Delaying action is dangerous. People who say otherwise should, at some point in the very near future, have to stand accountable for their recklessness.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “There is a greater than 90% chance that our spaceship is going to crash” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Cooper makes outrageous accusations, saying that scientists are faking climate change so they can fleece governments for additional research funding.’ – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Cooper himself has benefited financially in oily investment in disinformation.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “I want to scream at the television: That’s not true! If Benny Peiser can’t find a single peer-reviewed article in any reputable science journal any time in the last fifteen years, if Lawrence Solomon can’t find even one well-qualified “denier” who in point of fact *denies* the human contribution to potentially dangerous climate change, well, this alleged scientific controversy can only be dismissed for what it is – a carefully constructed ruse to keep people from supporting the kinds of actions that will compromise the profit potential of ExxonMobile, the Western Fuels Association, and the American automakers, whose fortunes were shattered after they bet their futures on the continued gullibility of the SUV-buying public.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “As chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, I am gratified that environmental organizations have credibility. But that only covers one of my volunteer commitments. As the owner of a public relations company whose work come mostly from corporations, I began to wonder, if the public doesn’t trust corporations, what do they think about public relations people?” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “We need to reduce our carbon output by something close to 80% by 2030.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “You will be consuming a steady diet stories that suggest that some aspects of climate science are still in doubt.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “You should be hypervigilant.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “Join the neighborhood watch of those who people who no longer stand for disinformation to be passed around your social circle.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

    “That’s what we need: vigilance. Eyes on the street.” – John Hoggan (“Climate Cover-Up”, 2009).

  2. NewYorkJ says:

    At present, the most persuasive evidence for cancer resulting from RF exposure is that there is a significantly increased risk of malignant glioma in individuals that have used a mobile phone for 10 or more years, with the risk being elevated only on the side of the head on which the phone is used regularly (ipsilateral use)
    [1,3,4,6″“8,18]. While the risk for adults after 10 or more years of use is reported to be more than doubled, there is some evidence beginning to appear that indicates that the risk is greater if the individual begins to use a mobile phone at younger ages. Hardell et al. [18] reported higher odds ratios in the 20″“29-year-old group than other age ranges after more than 5 years of use of either analog or cordless phones. Recently in a London symposium Hardell reported that after even just 1 or more years of use there is a 5.2-fold elevated risk in children who begin use of mobile phones before the age of 20 years, whereas for all ages the odds ratio was 1.4.

    I tend to agree the link here is still tenuous, given the full body of evidence.  It’s not something I’m worried about, but then again, I’m not on a cell phone for hours a day.  Seems there are many other reasons to avoid that. 

    Back to Kloor’s regularly-scheduled Romm-bashing program.

  3. Keith Kloor says:

    Stoat gets in a few whacks. Here’s an excerpt from his post:

    what does this remind you of? “This” being the desperate never-ending search for a link between mobiles (apparently called “cell phones” by our colonial cousins) and cancer, which continues despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Yes that’s right: it is just like the denialists’ eternal search for something, anything, that they can blame for global warming other than CO2.

  4. PDA says:

    Dunno. The future Mrs. A. is studying to be a pediatric neurologist, and she says the fears are far from “groundless,” though the evidence is clearly not conclusive. Your faithful correspondent is in the microwave telecommunications field, and – along with everyone who works regularly with transmitters above the microvolt level – stays the hell away from the feedhorn when they are operating.
    People in relevant fields feel the verdict really is out. I don’t know of a single authoritative source that supports the idea that you or your kids should keep a cell phone pressed against your heads for hours.

  5. Keith Kloor says:


    The future Mrs. A should give you some science in addition to pillow talk.

    The rest of your comment is argument by anecdote, except the last sentence, and yeah, similarly, I’m not aware of a single authoritative source that says excessive cell phone use causes brain cancer.

    Seriously, I don’t get that argument in your last line. Am I suggesting that excessive cell phone use is a healthy habit? Is anyone in this debate? Might I suggest other detriments than possible brain cancer? Absolutely.


  6. Gaythia says:

    @Keith @5 I think that NewYorkJ’s link @2 seems to be a reasonably authoritative reference.
    Although, obviously, holding a cell phone to your ear while also driving a car would be incredibly more dangerous than cell phone use alone.
    I don’t believe this is a case of “abandoning science”  but rather the significant issue is, given all the seriously serious health problems in the world, who at WHO decided to focus on this?

  7. Keith Kloor says:

    Some updates at bottom of the post, including a killer cartoon.

  8. Stu says:

    My GF is among those who consider the risk seriously. She even made me buy one of those long tube things which attach to the speaker end of your phone with the other end in your ear, to avoid putting the phone too close to your head. I hated it, and I couldn’t hear anyone properly with it- it reminded me of talking to people through milo cans and string. It’s in the bin now.

  9. Stu says:

    Someone in today’s paper is talking about this..

    The woman says in her interview that she is ‘very confident, there is no doubt that there is a link between the brain tumour and mobile phone use’.

  10. kdk33 says:

    And that’s why I don’t have a cell phone.  That, and I just see no need to be so available.

    ‘course I must say I’m skeptical 🙂

  11. PDA says:

    Romm’s point – excerpted in your post – is that excessive cell phone use is not a good idea, and that the science was still unclear: “the verdict is still out.” In support of this general statement, he offered a WHO panel’s report that said cellphones were “possibly carcinogenic” – an assessment that is also made of talcum powder – and that the science was still unsure. Specifically, they said “a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer” but that “chance, bias or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence.”
    So it’s not “groundless.” That’s my point. In the absence of definitive evidence but potentially harmful risk, prudence suggests caution. That’s Romm’s point. That’s his only point. I have a hard time seeing what you find so objectionable about it. He suggests some reasonable precautions. I use one of these.
    It just makes me wonder if you’d have even noticed the story had anyone other than Romm mentioned it.

  12. Keith Kloor says:

    No, that’s a mischaracterization of the science, which is what I was taking Romm to task for.
    Amazing, the contortions people will put themselves into when it comes to Romm.

  13. PDA says:

    What’s a mischaracterization of the science? What specifically? If you have an argument with the IARC monograph, you have an argument with a panel of people who know whereof they speak. Which doesn’t make them right and you wrong, it just makes your assertion that their concerns are “groundless” a bit harder to defend.
    All I know about Joe Romm is what I see here. I find Climate Progress mostly unreadable, style-wise. I haven’t found a lot to argue with substantively, but I haven’t spent a lot of my precious time reading his stuff, either.
    I spend my professional life bathing in 3.5 GHz, 4.9 GHz, 5.8 GHz and licensed microwave frequencies up to 23 GHz. I spend my private life with 5.8 GHz WiFi and UMTS 850/1900 MHz from my family’s growing pile of 3G iPhones and iPads. I don’t think we’re all going to get cancer, but I also don’t load those dice if I can avoid it, and I advise my family and friends to do the same.
    Does your vendetta against Joe Romm really have to extend to dismissing the findings of 31 scientists from 14 countries, calling them “groundless” just because Romm name-checks them in a post? Is it really worth so much to you?

  14. Keith Kloor says:

    Vendetta? Do I have a vendetta against Watts, who gets similar treatment from me?

    Why can’t Romm be held to the same standards as he holds others? He bills himself as Mr. Science, yet has a blind spot on this cell phone/cancer link. He’s taking it seriously while no one in their right mind is. You don’t see this, do you? It’s just so patently obvious that I question your ability (and Eli’s, if you look at the thread over at Stoat’s) to have a rational discussion about anything related to Romm.

    Are you looking at the whole picture, or just the part that confirms your thinking on this?

    Here’s Ed Yong over at Salon (in a round-up of perspectives worth reading):

    “The only health precaution I take with my phone is that I never use it while driving. Car accidents are the only health risk clearly linked to mobile phones.
    By contrast, the vast majority of studies have found that phones don’t increase the risk of cancer. It is hard to totally rule out a risk, but brain cancer rates have stayed level while phone use has skyrocketed. And there’s no good explanation for “how” phones could increase the risk of cancer.”

  15. grypo says:

    “The substantial interest in attributing extreme weather events to global warming seems rooted in the perceived need for some sort of a disaster to drive public opinion and the political process in the direction of taking action on climate change.”
    This statement should be put in a time capsule.  It is the essence of human folly.

  16. grypo says:

    damn it wrong thread again.  irony.  delete both if you can.

  17. Keith Kloor says:

    err, wrong thread, methinks.

  18. PDA says:

    He bills himself as Mr. Science, yet has a blind spot on this cell phone/cancer link. He’s taking it seriously while no one in their right mind is.
    Keith, WTF? The International Agency for Research on Cancer at the World Health Organization takes it seriously. Are you saying they are not in their right minds? 31 scientists from 14 countries take it seriously. Are you saying they are not in their right minds? If so, why?
    As I’ve said, I don’t think there’s a link between RF emissions and brain cancer. I just don’t think it’s “groundless” to wonder if there might be, and to urge caution. You’re the only one of me, Romm, and the IARC who’s sure about RF and brain cancer.
    It is hard to totally rule out a risk, but brain cancer rates have stayed level while phone use has skyrocketed.

    No foolin.

  19. Keith Kloor says:

    WTF, is about right. It’s ridiculous that you’re wasting your time trying to argue the seriousness of this thing. It’s BS. Here’s fellow science journalist Charlie Petit at the Science Tracker:

    The World Health Organization advisory panel didn’t say no, it said nobody knows.  A lot of medical reporters, one suspects, groaned on hearing the news that a link to  rare brain cancers and cell phone use ““ with the sender gadget rested on the head ““ cannot be rule out. The general thesis of possible peril from cellphones has been around for a decade or more. It has been pretty well knocked down. It keeps getting back up.

    It’s also a headscratcher as to why WHO has done this, as Charlie points out here:

    WHO classified cell phone on the same list as lead, automobile exhaust, and coffee as a possible but unproven carcinogen. The committee did not do any original research. It engaged in a sort of meta-analysis of existing papers. And while there’s little direct evidence of a mechanism, it is argued that because there are signs that such phone use does have impacts on neuron activity, it plausibly triggers shifts in hormones or neurotransmitters or something in the chemical broth of the brain that might lead to a glioma or a related type, acoustic neuroma. These are not common tumors. By arithmetic necessity, rare events are hard to chart for trends. Small number statistics, remember, is the least reliable kind.

  20. PDA says:

    You said “he’s taking it seriously while no one in their right mind is.” There are a bunch of people in their right minds taking it seriously. I showed that. I gave you a link showing their names and organizational affiliations.
    Again, for the third time, I’m not asserting a link. I’m saying – and showing – that it’s not “groundless” to suggest one may be possible. You have to show that the judgment of 31 scientists at the WHO is not a “ground.” And I invite you to do so.

  21. Gaythia says:

    One thing that is not clear to me is whether or not WHO highlighted cell phones over other things on their list or if that was done when picked up by the media.   As far as I can tell from their website, WHO has been busy celebrating World No Tobacco Day:

    “30 May 2011 — For World No Tobacco Day (31 May), WHO praises success against tobacco use and urges full compliance with the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The Convention compels parties to protect people from exposure to tobacco smoke, to ban tobacco advertising and sales to minors, to put health warnings on tobacco packages, among other measures.”

    Are cell phones a side show? 
    Did the fuss about cell phones drown out more serious stuff, and if so, whose fault is that?

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