« Molly Dineen on Farming | Main | Well, that's True »

April 22, 2007

Cancer Clusters and Mobile Phone Masts

Oh, please, can we get over this sort of thing?

SEVEN clusters of cancer and other serious illnesses have been discovered around mobile phone masts, raising concerns over the technology’s potential impact on health.

Studies of the sites show high incidences of cancer, brain haemorrhages and high blood pressure within a radius of 400 yards of mobile phone masts.

One of the studies, in Warwickshire, showed a cluster of 31 cancers around a single street. A quarter of the 30 staff at a special school within sight of the 90ft high mast have developed tumours since 2000, while another quarter have suffered significant health problems.


There are about 47,000 masts in the UK.

Out of 47,000?


No, not 15%, not 1.5%, not 0.15%, but 0.015%.

Seriously, are we expected to give any credence to this number? There are others who are much more au fait with statistics than I am but isn't this well within the numbers for random chance? Simple bad luck?

April 22, 2007 in Idiotarians | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Cancer Clusters and Mobile Phone Masts:


There are a few points to note here.
The article doesn't lik to or mention where the data came from, other than to credit a Dr John Walker. A quick Google search doesn't offer much help, and so I am unable to comment on the study.
In general, as we don't know how many sites were surveyed, how the sites were chosen,who Dr Walker is, what his qualifications are, or how the data was processed, I think we can safely consign this newspaper report into the "scaremongering rubbish" file.

Posted by: far2old4this | Apr 22, 2007 12:42:00 PM

I'd refer you to Ben Goldacre's excellent piece on low-probability statistics:


Posted by: sanbikinoraion | Apr 22, 2007 1:26:46 PM

I blame ice cream vans. The music causes piles and lumbago.

I came to this conclusion following a study of my street.

Posted by: sortapundit | Apr 22, 2007 2:40:58 PM

There's more in the Indy:

"Recent research has linked radiation from mobiles to cancer and to brain damage. And many studies have found disturbing symptoms in people near masts.

"Professor Olle Johansson, of Sweden's prestigious Karolinska Institute, who is deeply concerned about the spread of Wi-Fi, says there are 'thousands' of articles in scientific l'terature demonstrating 'adverse health effects'. He adds: "Do we not know enough already to say, Stop!?"

"A recent authoritative Finnish study has found that people who have used mobiles for more than ten years are 40 per cent more likely to get a brain tumour on the same side of the head as they hold their handset; Swedish research suggests that the risk is almost four times as great. And further research from Sweden claims that the radiation kills off brain cells, which could lead to today's younger generation going senile in their forties and fifties.

"Professor Lawrie Challis, who heads the Government's official mobile safety research, this year said that the mobile could turn out to be 'the cigarette of the 21st century'."

Tim adds: That Finnish study actually shows that people who are already identified as having brain tumours claim that they have them on the same side of their head as they regularly report that they used they mobile.

Somthing really rather different.

Posted by: Bob B | Apr 22, 2007 4:02:49 PM

very hard to say without more data, and pace Goldacre, it is often very difficult indeed to say anything confidently about what "pure chance" might give you if you're drawing from an unknown distribution (note also that not all of those 47k masts will be sited near population centres). This debate about whether clusters were statistically significant or not has gone on for at least twenty years on the subject of child leukaemia and power lines, and the current state of thinking is that there is a statistically significant and small (but practically significant because it's a small effect that potentially effects a lot of people) effect - ie that there is more clustering than one can reasonably attribute to chance.

It's very early days for mobile phone masts, but if by "get over it" you mean "stop monitoring and collecting this data" then no, that would be a very bad idea. We know that mobile phone masts don't cause certain immediate death and have decent reason to believe that they aren't a big risk factor compared to things like smoking, but there's no excuse for complacency.

Tim adds: The powerlines thing was reported on recently. One possible case of childhoof leukemia preventable I seem to recall. Hell of a high cost for that child of course but not practically significant, no, not in hte context of the costs of not having or of moving the power lines.

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 22, 2007 6:19:07 PM

> Professor Olle Johansson



"Olle Johansson often speaks outside his area of expertise. Electromagnetic fields are clearly outside his field of competence. As an example, when Johansson talks about microwaves, he indicates that they are comparable with X-rays and gamma radiation, in spite of the fact that these different sorts of electromagnetic waves relate to entirely different physical phenomena. The important variables relating to electromagnetic fields are frequency and intensity. Unless these are given, deliberations about dangers are meaningless.

In addition, Olle Johansson's discussions of DNA strand breaks manifest grave lack of basic knowledge. "

Etc. Apparently ole Olle reckons mobile phones cause cow disease.

[wonderful link via Fark.com]

The Indie has a track record of this stuff, based almost entirely on information from the anti- camp.

FWIW microwaves - eg mobiles and wi-fi - are non-ionising radiation, which means they don't change chemical bonds. The only effect they can have on you is by heating, and for that you need massive exposure, just like light. So a laser will burn you in seconds, but being in the same room as a lightbulb won't harm you.

God, I'm tired of typing this stuff.

Posted by: Gary Marshall | Apr 22, 2007 8:19:53 PM

I claim absolutely no expertise about this.

What of the mention in the Indy of: "A recent authoritative Finnish study has found that people who have used mobiles for more than ten years are 40 per cent more likely to get a brain tumour on the same side of the head as they hold their handset" ?

Do you know about this study and can you please provide a citation (or link) if at all possible?

Tim adds: yorkshireranter.blogspot.com

Posted by: Bob B | Apr 22, 2007 8:59:51 PM

Oh balls, I typed a really long comment and then my browser crashed.

Bob, I've linked to the original study here:

Basically they found no link between phone use and tumours. What they did find, and what's been widely misreported, is that when they asked people who did have tumours and who'd been using phones for ten years, "which side of your head did you hold the phone to?" they generally said the side where the tumour was. A correlation.

Correlations are dangerous if reported badly, because they don't prove a link. Facetious example: the number of US high school shootings has soared since I became a journalist. I'm pretty sure that's not my fault.

More sensibly, one of the earliest and most publicised research into a possible link between leukaemia and power lines proved correlation but assumed causation. Scientifically it was a disaster, because it didn't take other significant factors into account. The poor sods with leukaemia did indeed live near power lines, but they also lived right next to main roads where lots of cars belched out lots of known carcinogens. They were also poor, which is known to to be bad for your health. Etc etc etc. The study didn't take any of that into account, so it's basically junk science.

To be fair, since then other studies *have* found a small link between powerlines and childhood cancers. You need to be very close and very unlucky, but there's a link nonetheless.

Another issue here is clustering. When you've got 47,000 masts in the country, you shouldn't expect a uniform distribution of illness or health around them. Rather, you'd expect a higher than average number at some locations, and a lower than average number at others. On that basis, you'd expect seven out of 47,000 masts to be the tip of the iceberg - but equally, many areas around masts should show people *less* likely to get cancer.

What worries me about the reporting of this stuff is that anecdote is being reported as evidence, that correlation is being reported as causation. When there's evidence of real danger - and lots of people are looking for it - I'll be the first to panic. But there simply isn't any such evidence yet, and there may never be.

Posted by: Gary Marshall | Apr 23, 2007 12:08:27 AM

[The powerlines thing was reported on recently. One possible case of childhoof leukemia preventable I seem to recall]

no, that was the absolute minimum that everyone, even those who dissented from the main report, agreed to. A majority of the working panel also believed that they were risk factors for a number of other conditions, in adults as well.

[More sensibly, one of the earliest and most publicised research into a possible link between leukaemia and power lines proved correlation but assumed causation. Scientifically it was a disaster, because it didn't take other significant factors into account.]

this is just wrong, Gary, there's been a hell of a lot of work carried out in this area over the last twenty years and the conclusion is that power lines are definitely statistically associated with childhood leukaemia as a separate risk factor. It might just possibly be that this is nevertheless a non-causal correlation but you're just wrong to say that obvious confounding factors like that have been ignored.

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 24, 2007 11:06:35 PM

is there any way to get update on this via email?


Posted by: permood | May 3, 2007 5:08:43 AM

I am dissapointed as ever that where there is concern about assertion of new technologies due to illness, discomfort and in some cases, death, the emphasis from the Scientific community is to disregard the public view. It is almost as if the Scientist has intellectually filtered his responsibility to the public out of the equation- rounding up or down the figures so that those niggling little tumours dont interrupt their maths.

It is also unfortunate that many of the Scientists who are involved in covering up the evidence are likely to be on the payroll of the companies who have the most to loose from litigation.

Any human being that has no questions in their mind about the safety of our wonderous new technologies does not deserve to hold office. To simply dismiss public concern as a nuisance should land the offenders with a hefty law suit in the near future. If you do not agree with any of the above, perhaps you are already guilty of over looking this as an issue. Maybe you should get ready to remortgage!! See you at a tribunal near you soon!!

Posted by: dan | May 7, 2007 12:56:18 PM

my eight year old son has leukaemia..I live on a small road of twenty houses, six people died this year of cancer,ok most of them were elderly but that doesnt mean they dont count. all were diagnosed in the past three years. i live less than 200yards from a phone mast and 300 yards from a power station, if there is a link surely all the chemo wont help if my son is still being bombarded from these masts..

Posted by: m thunder | Mar 24, 2009 6:43:22 PM