Mobile phones are frying our brains – or at least, they seem to be when we write about them

This story is being widely reported in the mainstream media:

An international team of researchers has found new evidence that long-term use of a mobile phone may lead to the development of a brain tumor on the side of the head the phone is used. In a study which will appear in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Cancer, epidemiologists from five European countries report a nearly 40% increase in gliomas, a type of brain tumor, among those who had used a cell phone for ten or more years. The increase is statistically significant.

Here’s the research the above story refers to. Again, I’ve emphasised the salient points:

For more than 10 years of mobile phone use reported on the side of the head where the tumor was located, an increased OR of borderline statistical significance (OR = 1.39, 95% CI 1.01, 1.92, p trend 0.04) was found, whereas similar use on the opposite side of the head resulted in an OR of 0.98 (95% CI 0.71, 1.37).  Although our results overall do not indicate an increased risk of glioma in relation to mobile phone use, the possible risk in the most heavily exposed part of the brain with long-term use needs to be explored further before firm conclusions can be drawn.

Now, the “do not indicate an increased risk of glioma” bit seems pretty straightforward to me. Unfortunately I don’t have any grounding in stats (I’m barely numerate) so I’d like to ask for help here – can anyone put the odds ratio stuff in the study abstract into plain English? There seems to be a statistical difference between people claiming to have held their mobiles on one side of their head from the other – but I can barely count to ten, let alone translate ORs and confidence intervals.

(Thanks to David for the links)

5 thoughts on “Mobile phones are frying our brains – or at least, they seem to be when we write about them

  1. Gary says:

    From a post on Fark where they’re discussing the same story:

    What they did find is that in patients who already had cancer, the cancer was 39 percent more likely to be on the side of the brain that they held their phone up to… This study reaks of data mining. The results are not as shocking as the reporter claims, and the effect is small.

  2. Squander Two says:

    We’ve said this before, but the key thing with this research is that anyone who’s been using a mobile for more than ten years (like, er, me — eek) used one of the old super-powerful causes-birds-to-drop-out-of-the-sky-around-you analogue bricks. Even if they do uncover a link between using mobiles for ten years and getting head cancer, until they’ve done another ten years of research, there’s simply no way to tell whether the cause is using any mobile for ten years or using an analogue mobile ten years ago.

    Unless they find a significant number of people who gave up on mobiles when they switched to digital. Which seems unlikely.

  3. Gary says:

    Indeed.

    I think the findings are being reported arse-backwards here. It’s not saying that long term mobile phone users are 40% more likely to develop tumours; it’s saying that when you ask people who already have brain tumours, and who are also long-term mobile phone users, what side of their head they held the phone to, they’re 39% more likely to say they held their phone to the side of the head where the tumour is.

    Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions on anyone here, but if you asked what side of my head I hold a phone to, I’d say the right hand side – because I’m right handed. But if I think about it properly, it’s usually on the left hand side of my head, because I use my right hand for other things: holding a cigarette, or a pen, or a cooking pot, or a scrubbing brush, or a sandwich… depending on what I’m doing at the time and how important the call is, heh. But if I got a brain tumour in the right hand side of my brain, I suspect my immediate thought would be “holy shit! That’s the same side where I hold my mobile phone!”

    Am I missing something here?

  4. mupwangle says:

    Unless this is evidence to prove that right-handed people are more likely to get cancer. Or is that left? Or ambidextrous?

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