Interphone’s data on cell phones and cancer: The spin begins

Reports offer heavy clues to findings, although data remain formally embargoed a while longer

A May 16 news release by the cell phone industry reports that “The International Journal of Epidemiology today published a combined data analysis from a multi national population-based case-control study of glioma and meningioma, the most common types of brain tumour.” In fact, the journal hasn’t. Yet. But the industry group was anxious to put its spin on the paper’s findings after a handful of UK newspapers reported on this Interphone study – well in advance of the scheduled lifting of a news embargo on its data.

The news release identifies as its source the Mobile Manufacturers Forum, an association of telecommunications equipment manufacturers “with an interest in mobile or wireless communications.” This group provided some funds to the International Union Against Cancer, a nongovernmental cancer-prevention and –control group, to help finance IUAC’s share of support for the Interphone project.

The new study “provides significant further reassurance about the safety of mobile phones. The overall analysis is consistent with previous studies and the significant body of research, reporting no increased health risk from using mobile phones,” according to Michael Milligan, MMF’s Secretary General.

This interpretation departs dramatically, however, from what several UK news organizations reported.

–  Says London’s Sunday Times online: “People who use their mobile phones for at least 30 minutes a day for 10 years have a greater risk of developing brain cancer, a landmark study has found.” 
The Telegraph noted in its story that “The final results paper of the study, one quarter of which was funded by the mobile phone industry, has been delayed for four years while the authors argued over how to present the final conclusions . . .”
A longer version of the above story by Mark Smith in the Scotsman leads off with: “A major international study has found a link between mobile phone use and certain brain tumours.”

With such news accounts emerging, no wonder MMF wanted to put some calming interpretations out regarding the data.

People like answers that are black or white. I’ve seen the study, having been provided an embargoed copy of it last week by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, in Lyon, France. And suffice it say, the news bites above don’t come close to suggesting the oh-so-gray nature of the study’s data.

Interphone is essentially IARC’s brainchild, although other national and industry groups ultimately funded this 10-year investigation of potential cancer risks attributable to cell-phone use. Data were collected from16 research centers in 13 countries outside of the United States (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom). Preliminary data from national segments of the massive trial have been published. But the new report will be the first to describe cumulative, integrated data.

A mid-day email from IARC acknowledged: “Some UK Sunday newspapers have today published stories on the outcome of the Interphone study.” But those stories “do not include details from the embargoed press release or from the manuscript,” according to the head of IARC’s communications office. The news accounts certainly do contain broad-brush characterizations of the findings – as does the MMF release.

So which interpretation is correct – or at least most reasonable? It’s something many reporters will struggle to determine in the next day or so. I’m not trying to be coy, just to comply with IARC’s request that journalists not share details of the data until the the journal lifts its embargo.

MAY17 UPDATE: That embargo was due to lift at 7:30 PM Eastern daylight time today. However, at 6:30 EDT today, IARC informed reporters that the journal had decided to lift its embargo, effective immediately.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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