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The evidence-base suggests mobile phone masts don't cause childhood cancer

Carl Heneghan
Last edited 14th September 2012

In the BMJ this week is a case control study on Mobile phone base stations and early childhood cancers. A case control study is an epidemiological study design in which persons with and without a disease, in this case cancer, are studied to identify factors (mobile phone masts) associated with the disease. The gold standard would be a prospective study (not a trial as this would be unethical); however, when the disease is rare it is too difficult, costly and would involve following millions of children to detect the cases.

Concerns has been raised due to there being a few clusters of cancers in people living nearby to mobile masts. Participants in a survey were concerned about or attributed adverse health effects to mobile phone base stations and those living within 500 m reported slightly more health complaints than others.

In the present study for two years (1999 to 2001) researchers obtained data on all registered cases of cancer in children aged 0 to 4 in Great Britain. From 1,926 cases, 1,397 (73%) were included. Four controls per case were obtained and matched by sex and date of birth.
Further to this mobile phone operators provided data on antennas to an accuracy of about 10m and the researchers estimated exposure in relation to the distance and the total power output across base stations within 700 m (the typical peak is not nearest the mast, but normally is 200 to 500 m from the base station). They also and used a model to compute power density (dBm) which was validated with data from two further surveys.

The results of the study showed the mean age at diagnosis of cancer was two years and the mean distance at birth from a base station was not different between the cases, 1107 m and the controls, 1073 m (P=0.31). Also there was no difference in terms of the mean total power output of base stations within 700 m (P=0.54) for both groups; and no difference in the mean modelled power density (P=0.41).

The evidence presented in this paper for lack of effect is backed up by the dramatic increase in the use of mobile telephones not giving rise to a subsequent increase in the incidence of brain tumours. The one major limitation of this study is that they were unable to account for movement of the mother during pregnancy, which could have reduced the ability of the study to detect any true excess in risk.

Overall this is a well done study and allows us to feel more certain about the evidence base that there is no association between risk of cancer in young children and exposure to mobile phone base stations. It seems we can all relax a little more about mobile phone masts, the radiofrequency exposures are extremely low and backs up the World Health Organization, view that cancer is unlikely to be caused by cellular phones or their base stations.

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