Topic of cancer

June 2, 2009

Tom Whipple
295 words
26 September 2008
The Times
Times2 7
English
(c) 2008 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

Five is a big number, 0.0005 per cent is a small number, and 5 x 0.0005 is still a small number – at least in the context of cancer.

The Radiation Research Trust, a pressure group campaigning against mobile phone masts and wi-fi, held a conference last week at which Dr Lennart Hardell, a Swedish researcher, claimed that mobile phones raise the risk of contracting certain brain cancers by five times. This was serious: as all the national papers that reported it pointed out, the conference was at the Royal Society. We had a credible expert, we had a big risk and we should be worried.

The study has not been published yet, but when contacted Hardell is happy to talk about his research. It seems to show that 20 to 30-year-olds who have used a mobile phone for ten years have a fivefold greater risk of developing glioma, a fatal brain cancer.

How many 20 to 30-year-olds develop glioma in Britain? About five in every million – seven times as many die from accidental poisoning. Any deaths are troubling, but multiply a small number by five and you still have a small number: 25 in a million. We are not, as some papers implied, heading for an epidemic. There is another problem. The rarer an event, the larger the sample needed to be sure of what is happening. As Hardell freely admits, his numbers are low – the research is at best cause for further investigation.

And the Royal Society? I phone its spokeswoman, who says: “We operate as a conference centre, as well as being the Royal Society. This organisation just hired one of our rooms.”

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