Tag Archives: health

Scary Mobile Phones and Cancer

A friend on Facebook shared this:

Thermographic images of a headf before and after using mobile phone, from "GreenMedInfo" Facebook page

This was my comment in reply:

You’d get the same sort of thermographic image after drying your hair with a hair dryer: all it’s showing is that your head is a bit warmer! In the case of the mobile phone the warmth is probably mostly because you’ve had your hand (holding the phone) to your head preventing it from losing heat naturally: the phone itself doesn’t produce that much heat. As for the radiation it produces, it’s the same sort of radiation you get from a candle (but at a wavelength we can’t see, like the invisible infra-red warmth from a candle).

To get a risk of causing cancer we have to go to shorter wavelengths like the deep ultra-violet in sunlight that can cause skin cancer, and beyond to X-rays and gamma rays because at these wavelengths electromagnetic radiation has enough energy to break up molecules and damage cells in our bodies (which is why X-rays are used in radiotherapy to kill cancer cells).

There’s quite a good explanation of the various possible effects of radiation on our bodies in Sense About Science’s booklet at http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/resources/8/MSofRadiation.pdf

A few years ago the International Agency for Research into Cancer did classify mobile phone radiation as possibly causing cancers but Cancer Research UK point out that this means there is some evidence linking them but it is too weak to draw strong conclusions from and that “the vast majority of existing studies have not found a link between phones and cancer, and if such a link exists, it is unlikely to be a large one”.

Because people get cancers anyway, and we all do so many different things in our lives, if you do enough studies on anything you can probably find a correlation between that activity and cancer in some group of people you happen to choose even if the activity doesn’t actually cause cancer: this can be because there’s some other cause (e.g. with mobile phones it might be that mobile users tend to have more stressful lives and the stress could be a factor) or it could be pure chance. I bet if you did enough studies of hair-dryer users you’d find some who have more cancers than others!

Working to keep us well

Darrell Gale joined Wokingham Borough Council earlier this year as the new public health consultant. Yesterday he was quoted in the local press urging parents, as their children go back to school, to ensure they are immunised against potentially serious illnesses, mentioning MMR in particular.

It was sensible advice, and I emailed Darrell to thank him and his colleagues for their efforts (local MMR rates have been climbing steadily – see below), and also to express my satisfaction at the tone of the report.

Too often we see the scientific advice on MMR, and on vaccination generally, obscured in the media by misinformation and journalistic false balance. I am grateful that our local paper appears to report on these matters responsibly.

Darrell’s gracious reply included this gem:

As an evidence-based speciality, we in public health often get landed the sticky issues to deal with – such as immunisation and a whole raft of other health issues which our blessed media like to dissect before taking advice or evidence from the most misguided spokespeople they can. I’m pleased that our local paper has taken our advice and printed it without spin, and I hope they continue to do so. With that, we may still improve the health of those in our borough who most need it.

(Emphasis mine).

Darrell is absolutely right. It is not enough for journalists to show skepticism towards the powerful, to scrutinise what our politicians and officials are telling us, as vital as that is. They must also demonstrate the same skepticism to the opposite camp. For sometimes the powerless need help to raise their voice against the powerful; sometimes they can be dismissed as deluded deniers of evidence.

Vaccination rates amongst local children have risen massively in recent years, but there is still some way to go to achieve satisfactory levels for effective community immunity.


(Source: Wokingham Borough Council, Health & Wellbeing Board, Immunisation Update 15/8/13. PDF)

“A healthy bout of chickenpox”

There has been, and I hope there will continue to be, much written across new and old media about the risks of not vaccinating children and about the tide of misinformation about those risks.

Whilst reading the arguments and counter arguments, I often hear the suggestion that some of these childhood disease are “harmless”, such as in the recent book Melanie’s Marvellous Measles and in this passage from Jayne Donegan, the controversial GP and friend of Andrew Wakefield:

If you look carefully at children after they have been supportively nursed through an infectious disease, you will always see them do something new, depending upon their age and circumstances. An infant may produce a tooth; a toddler who kept banging into things will walk confidently; a six-year old who is not reading will suddenly start to read. It is rather like a snake that has to crack off the old skin before it can grow, children go through these crises of self cleaning before they can move on to the next step. I have often seen children with endless snot or lots of warts have both of these cleared by a healthy bout of chicken pox. Such infectious diseases do not improve the population, in the harsh Darwinian view of things, by killing off the weak and leaving only the strong ones to reproduce; they actually give each individual child the opportunity to strengthen their own individual immune system and make the best of what they have.

Whilst 16 weeks pregnant with my younger sister Jenny, my Mum caught chickenpox (I’d picked it up from a party and passed it on). Following Jenny’s birth it quickly became apparent to my parents that something wasn’t right. Over the next couple of years my parents spent countless hours in hospital waiting rooms and Jenny was subjected to test after test.

We now know that between 12 and 28 weeks of pregnancy there is a 1.4% chance that chickenpox in the mother would cause Fetal Variella Syndrome (FVS). That Jenny’s GP at the time was unaware of this and that Jenny’s problems took so long to be diagnosed caused much frustration and distress and are, perhaps, a separate issue.

Jenny at Cropredy
Jenny at Cropredy

The FVS had disrupted Jenny’s brain and eye development. She has large calcium deposits particularly in the left side of her brain. This has caused a myriad of issues, most notably a hemiplegia (basically cerebral palsy on one side of the body), severe learning difficulties, and she is has cortical blindness in her left eye and limited vision in her right.

Despite her problems she is basically a happy soul and her pure joy whilst dancing at a folk concert is a sight to behold. However, Jenny will never be an independent person, never get a job, or achieve the milestones that most of look forward to in our lives. She will never be able to make a decision for herself about her future.

The issues around deciding when, and where, vaccines are appropriate are complicated and I don’t write this as a call for any change to policy. Decisions in public health shouldn’t be made on the basis of testimonials, but I would strongly argue against dismissing these diseases as ‘harmless’ when they can, and do, cause death and severe disability. Complications from chickenpox are rare, deaths are thankfully even rarer, but for Jenny and my family the complication rate is 100%.

Jenny & me
Jenny & me

A letter to WHSmith

Dear WHSmith

I must express in the strongest terms my objections to your decision to continue to sell the magazine “What Doctors Don’t Tell You” (WDDTY). It appears from their responses that your company representatives have not understood the nature of the complaints made against this magazine.

To put it plainly, the advice given in the magazine is dangerous and, if followed by the magazine’s readers, your customers, it could result in serious harm. WHSmith has the opportunity to show itself to be a responsible retailer by removing this magazine from sale. To fail to do so shows a callous disregard for public health.

I have noted your previous responses to other complainants, in which you dismiss this issue as merely one of consumer choice. To Andy Lewis, your Customer Services Coordinator David Trollope wrote:

Our customers often have widely differing opinions about the products we sell, so we aim to strike the right balance to meet the needs of all our customers.

This is a grave mistake. I acknowledge that you must cater to customers’ various beliefs and political opinions. I am sure there are many animal rights supporters who would rather you did not stock The Field, or eco-warriors opposed to the sale of Fast Car. But this is not an matter of personal opinion. WDDTY contains factually incorrect articles that promote distrust of medical science.

One example: In covering the HPV vaccine that is to be provided by the NHS to teenage girls, with a view to saving 400 lives a year (NHS source), WDDTY says :

the UK has accepted a vaccine that has been rejected by India after an early trial, funded by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, led to the deaths of seven young girls and another 120 suffered debilitating side effects.

This is simply untrue. As Andy Lewis points out,

That trial in India did indeed report deaths after the vaccine was given, but What Doctors Don’t Tell You Don’t Tell You was that these deaths included a drowning, a snake bite and the effects of malaria.” (source)

In its “Corporate Responsibility” policy for business conduct, part 3iv, WHSmith promises to “provide products that are safe, fit for purpose, meet legal standards and are never described in a misleading manner.” If there is any doubt about the misleading claims in WDDTY, Ron Lewis has written a through analysis. (link)

David Trollope also wrote,

We work closely with the magazine publishers to ensure that their products meet the expectations of our customers

The results of this close collaboration with the publishers of WDDTY has fallen far below the expectations of this customer.

I would not expect, nor want, WHSmith to vet and censor every publication prior to sale. But when a threat to public health is brought to WHSmith’s attention then the company will be judged on its response.


Mike Agg

Update, 13/10:

I’ve been manically busy this past week but now I can finally post the woefully underwhelming response from Juliette Cavilla at WHSmith.

Thank you for contacting us regarding the magazine “What the doctors don’t tell you”.

As the UK’s leading retailer of stationery, books, magazines and newspapers, we aim to offer our customers a wide choice of products, whilst also respecting customer views. Our customers often have widely differing opinions about the products we sell, so we aim to strike the right balance to meet the needs of all our customers.

We work closely with the magazine publishers to ensure that their products meet the expectations of our customers. Where we receive customer complaints about a certain publication, WHSmith commits to raise these concerns directly with the publisher.

Customer feedback is extremely important to us and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to share your concerns.

Kind Regards

For fuck’s sake. They reply with the very same stock response that I wrote to them about!

So there you have it. WHSmith don’t even bother to read their customer’s complaints before responding.

This utter failure to listen to customer’s concerns, more than their decision to stock WDDTY, is indicative to me of a company with no sense of responsibility.


A Skeptic’s Guide to Science and Health Reporting

I’m a little late to this but I think it’s worth sharing. The Science Media Centre was asked by the Leveson Inquiry to come up with some Guidelines for Science and Media Reporting, and here is their submission:

The following guidelines, drawn up in consultation with scientists, science reporters, editors and sub editors, are intended for use by newsrooms to ensure that the reporting of science and health stories is balanced and accurate, They are not intended as a prescriptive checklist and of course shorter articles or NIBs will not be able to cover every point, Above and beyond specific guidelines, familiarity with the technicafities and common pitfalls in science and health reporting is invaluable and every newsroom should aim to employ specialist science and health correspondents, Wherever possible the advice and skills of these specialists should be sought and respected on major, relevant stories; the guidelines below will be especially useful for editors and general reporters who are less familiar with how science works,

  • State the source of the story – e.g. interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc. – ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
  • Specify the size and nature of the study – e.g. who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
  • When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
  • Give a sense of the stage of the research – e.g. cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic time-frame for any new treatment or technology.
  • On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper – i.e. if ’cupcakes double cancer risk’ state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
  • Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – e.g. does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
  • If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
  • Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
  • Remember patients” don’t call something a ’cure’ that is not a cure.
  • Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.

It strikes me that these guidelines are as useful to us consumers of the news as to its writers. If a health story in your newspaper doesn’t tick all of these boxes, it might be best to view the claims with some scepticism.

(Hat-tip to the estimable David Spiegelhalter)

Native Nutrition Nonsense

everything on the Earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence.

If I’d been born a hundred years ago I’d probably have thought this ‘Red Indian’ an inferior, less evolved, human being than white Europeans (and especially British) like me. I would also have regarded working class people as inferior, and upper class people as superior to middle-class me.

Growing up in the late 20th century I came across reverse snobbery: the idea that working class people are more authentically human than us effete middle classes. And these days there’s a vein of inverse racism that credits Native Americans like Ms Quintasket – and others of what my grandparents would have regarded as Inferior Races – with Superior Wisdom to ours.

And it’s just as much bollocks as straightforward racism and class prejudice.

There is, no doubt, a lot that Christal knew about the world she lived in that I don’t, and wouldn’t have if I were alive when she was. But there is a lot that she – and my compatriots 100 years ago – didn’t know, that we do now.

Thanks in no small measure to Richard Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene” far more of us now know what Darwin, Wallace and others were realising a few decades before Christal Quintasket was born: that the purpose of every living thing on the earth is to reproduce offspring bearing its genes as widely and vigorously as possible. For most plants an important part of staying alive and reproducing is not to get eaten by animals, and one way to do this is to poison those that try. To this end plants have evolved a variety of toxins which target the animals that would have them for lunch, according to their predators’ particular biochemistries.

Animals differ biologically and a substance toxic to one particular predator may have no effect on others; it may even be beneficial to some, but as long as it doesn’t turn the beneficiary into a predator there’s no reason for the plant to have evolved out such side-effects. So we find there are plants that produce substances we have found to be medicinal (not to mention recreational!) to us. Nowadays we understand that this is just a quirk of nature but people would once have assumed that such benefits must be the result of divine intention. In our own culture the Bible has God telling His people that He has given them “every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit“. Native Americans of Ms Quintasket’s time probably had no more clue that plants’ medicinal benefits were simply a happy accident of nature than most of their European contemporaries and would have put them down to similar deist or theist benevolence. Ascribing Superior Wisdom to her words because she was a Native American is as racist as ascribing inferior intelligence to her for the same reason. She was just a human being, genetically practically indistinguishable from you and me. She was part of a culture different from ours and lived at a time when we didn’t know much about how life on our planet came about and evolves. And her utterances on medicine and healing are as valid today as my grandmother’s were.

Jeffrey Rowland's 'Overcompensating'