“Mast killers – do you live near a deadly mast?”

The headline comes from yesterday’s News of the World which, along with various other Sundays, decided to scare its readers about mobile phone masts. The story begins:

SIX neighbours from the same floor of a block of flats have all been hit by cancer after two phone masts were installed on the building now dubbed The Tower of Doom.

Now, I have absolutely no idea whether mobile phone masts are dangerous – the evidence so far suggests they aren’t, although there’s still a need for further study – but a few things about this piece ring alarm bells (yes, I know the NotW is hardly famed for responsible reporting, but it’s pretty representative of the way tabloids cover this issue).

All the cases have occurred since the Vodafone and Orange masts were put up 10 years ago…and two women neighbours have already fallen victim to the killer on the roof.

Barbara Wood, who lived at No 42, died two years ago, in her 70s, from breast cancer that spread to her stomach. Two years previously a Mrs Davies, of No 47, died of the same disease.

Two more residents—Bernice Mitchell, 68, and 62-year-old Hazel Frape— have both had breast cancer. An 89-year-old woman moved out after she contracted the same disease.

And 63-year-old John Llewellin, from No 48, is battling bowel cancer.

The story doesn’t say how old the second “victim”, Mrs Davies, actually was, but I’m betting she was in her sixties, seventies or eighties too. That’s important for this story because age is a key factor in cancer diagnosis: according to a paper published in 1999 by the British Geriatrics Society, “about 55% of cancers are diagnosed in patients over 65, and 60% of cancer-related deaths occur in this age group”. The average age for diagnosis of bowel cancer is 65 and it’s relatively rare among younger people; breast cancer is also relatively rare in the under-50s and the highest risk group is the over-60s.

I’m also assuming that the tower block in question isn’t in the nicest area (judging by the photo – I’m not familiar with the area in question). I’m no health expert, but a quick Google uncovers lots of data showing that cancer rates are higher in poorer areas (due to lifestyle, diet, smoking and alcohol consumption, lack of screening, the usual factors that mean richer people tend to live longer).

Does that mean the cancers weren’t caused by the mast? Not at all. But in its rush to show that this tower block is the “tower of doom”, the NotW is ignoring some pretty important stuff. If the mast wasn’t on the roof and the same people had contracted the same cancers, would the newspapers have given a shit?