Questionable Cause and the Nocebo Effect of Mobile Towers

Many years ago, epidemiological studies showed that those on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) had a reduced risk of coronary artery disease (CAD) [1]. However, subsequent randomized controlled studies showed an increased CAD risk of HRT. Researchers eventually figured out that those on HRT were typically from a higher socio-economic bracket, with better lifestyle risk control that partly offset the risk of CAD, thus giving rise to those earlier erroneous conclusions [1].

Things are not necessarily what they seem!

A search through Pubmed [2,3], the main repository of peer-reviewed, medical and scientific articles, throws up studies that show that many people living near mobile phone base stations (MPBS) have an increased incidence of headache, nausea, sleeplessness, etc. The logical conclusion would be to believe that electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from MPBS is the cause of their problems. But the search also reveals a sham study [4] where the participants were not told whether the MPBS were active (real) or inactive (sham). These studies found that there was an equal incidence of subjective psychosomatic symptoms irrespective of whether the MPBS were active or not thus suggesting that those who believe they will be affected by MPBS get affected irrespective of whether there is EMR or not. Other controlled studies and meta-analyses have shown a similar effect [5,6]. This is a nocebo effect [7], the opposite of the placebo effect.

The lifetime risk of cancer in the US is 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women [8]. That’s right – it’s that high. We don’t have reliable Indian statistics, but even if we reduce the numbers to let’s say 1 in 5 men and 1 in 6 women, it means that in a block of 20 adults, at least 3-4 men and women will get some form of cancer in their lifetime.

When we are diagnosed with cancer, we pass through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and sometimes, acceptance [9]. It is natural to want to blame someone or something for the cancer. MPBS these days are natural targets, given the hype in the newspapers and lack of adequate literature and understanding in the public domain.

There is no evidence that MPBS cause cancer. In fact, till date, 118 years from the day that the first X-ray machine was invented, there is no real evidence that exposure to diagnostic X-rays in adults causes cancer – there is circumstantial and computer simulation and regression based statistical evidence, but no concrete proof [10]. And given the high incidence and prevalence of cancer anyway, the cause of which may be linked to everything from the air we breathe to the water we drink, EMR or x-radiation based cancers, if at all they actually do occur, would be a minuscule drop in the ocean [11].

It is unfortunate that 4 people in a building in Vile Parle have developed cancer. The nidus of the anti-mobile tower movement was partly a cluster of cancers that occurred in a building on Carmichael Road 4-5 years ago that led people to blame mobile towers in adjacent buildings. It is funny that people started developing symptoms of headache, nausea, etc. only after newspapers started publicizing the so-called ill effects that may occur due to EMR from MPBS.

While there is no question, as with X-rays, that all use of radiation equipment should following the ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) principle, all stake-holders need to exercise caution and stick to known facts and data before jumping onto the anti-MPBS bandwagon that newspapers, celebrities and professors are quick to get onto these days for a variety of personal and professional reasons that are not necessarily altruistic.

A little more science and data and a little less hype and subjectivity will go a long way in helping us get better clarity on the MPBS issue! 

 

References:

  1. Correlation does not imply causation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_does_not_imply_causation.
  2. Bortkiewicz A, Gadzicka E, Szyjkowska A et al. Subjective complaints of people living near mobile phone base stations in Poland. Int J Occup Med Environ Health 2012;25:31-40 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22219055
  3. Shahbazi-Gahrouei D, Karbalae M, Moradi HA, Baradaran-Ghahfarokhi M. Health effects of living near mobile phone base receiver station antenna: a report from Isfahan, Iran. Electromagn Biol Med 2013 Jun 19 (epub ahead of print) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23781985
  4. Danker-Hopfe H, Dorn H, Bornkessel C, Sauter C. Do mobile phone base stations affect sleep of residents? Am J Hum Biol 2012;22:613-618 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20737608
  5. Johansson A, Nordin S, Heiden M, Sandstrom M. Symptoms, personality traits, and stress in people with mobile phone-related symptoms and electromagnetic hypersensitivity. J Psychosm Res 2010;68:37-45 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20004299
  6. Baliatsas C, van Kamp I, Kelfkens G et al. Non-specific physical symptoms in relation to actual and perceived proximity to mobile phone base stations and powerlines. BMC Public Health 2011;11:421 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21631930
  7. Nocebo. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocebo
  8. Cancer facts and figures 2012. http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@epidemiologysurveilance/documents/document/acspc-031941.pdf
  9. The experience of grief. http://cancer.stanford.edu/information/coping/grief.html
  10. Radiation risk in perspective. Position statement of the Health Physics Society. Revised 2010. http://hps.org/documents/risk_ps010-2.pdf
  11. American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) position statement on radiation risks from medical imaging procedures. http://www.aapm.org/org/policies/details.asp?id=318&type=PP

12 Comments

  • Bhavin: Very well written article which should possibly eradicate a bit of paranoia.
    I am academically impressed as you have quoted the article which you have used in your Congratulations. Warm regards: Sugata

  • Nikunj Shah wrote:

    Wow Bhavin a good article as always. Being a PhD student in Biology myself, I was so happily surprised to see you referring to Pubmed, the website we all scientists refer to get exciting new articles in our field.. you definetely have a chance if you want as a scientific writer in some newspaper 😉
    And i completely agree with your last sentence.. a little bit more awareness and less paranoia will help all of us a lot..
    cheers!
    Nikunj

  • sriganesh wrote:

    Superb article! I hope the media opens the area between its ears and uses this extensively.

  • dhairyasheel wrote:

    well said. we require a whipping horse and This was it. NO study is clear about a correlation. also with incidence of cancer rising most buildings in mumbai have some directly or indirectly related to cancer pts.Doesnt imply air in mumbai or mobile towers responsible. infact if they do disappear. then this sms also
    will be history

  • Well written and well thought out.It is difficult to point out the causes of cancer.It could be probably due to our life style and eating a lot of packed foods using preservatives and the tendency to adulterate foods and fruits, which are slow poisoners.

  • Lakshmi menon wrote:

    You may mean well to rid the world of fear and paronoia, but I am not convinced. All too often we find research studies sponsored by the industry (food, pharmacueticals, mobile phones, etc.)with the aim of arriving at conclusions in their favour. Now it seems like that a media columnist too has taken up the job of convincing the lay public.

  • Bhavin Jankharia wrote:

    Lakshmi. Seriously? Me? Paid to spin?

  • Completely agree with Ms Menon.

  • anand kamath wrote:

    I also fully agree with Ms Menon.

  • Ajay Bhonsle wrote:

    Given a choice all of us would NOT want a cell phone tower near our homes- why take a risk? The problem is almost all of us want to use a cell phone(some want to use two phones!) but NO one wants a tower near his or her OWN home!! And yes on the issue of being on the take, I am certain Bhavin does not belong to that category and I can imagine he is pretty hurt at the insinuation. I wish to assure him that a majority of his correspondents do not doubt his credentials. So Bhavin go ahead and rake up another issue next Friday!

  • […] Like, when we talk about super­sti­tion, we seem to focus only on cross­ing black cats and tantric behead­ings. But blam­ing a nearby cell­phone tower for one’s can­cer, given that most of the times, these muta­tions are truly ran­dom, is also a form of unsci­en­tific stu­pid­ity. Like, despite the lack of any kind of data, a few activists and one national news­pa­per, rep­re­sent­ing the grow­ing tribe of the edu­cated a-literate, have clam­bered onto this soft-target “social-cause” band­wagon, and man­aged to hold an entire indus­try hostage, along with, sur­pris­ingly, the nor­mally recal­ci­trant “babus” and min­is­ters. The Biggest Hog­Wash of 2013! […]

  • […] mileage. That spurred me to research the sub­ject, which even­tu­ally led me to write the piece “Ques­tion­able Cause and the Nocebo Effect of Mobile Tow­ers” in August […]

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