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Mobile phones still safe... probably

Pesky mathematical laws still deny certainty

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The UK's Health Protection Agency has examined the evidence for mobile phones causing cancer, and concluded that there isn't any, but left plenty of wriggle room for naysayers and doom merchants, not to mention headline writers.

The 348-page report (PDF, lots of blank pages but still long) didn't involve any new studies, only a careful examination of all the research to date. This included mechanisms by which cancer might be caused and the impact of different radio technologies – including ultra wideband (UWB), Terrestrial/Trans European Trunked Radio Access (TETRA) and radar – as well as traditional telephony. But while existing limits and controls were found to be sufficient for safety, the compilers stopped short of saying that mobile phones are are entirely safe on the basis that one can't prove a negative and therefore the existing advice that children should avoid "excessive use" continues to be given and nothing else changes.

Not that one would guess from the quality press, with The Times running a headline reading "Restrict your child’s mobile use, parents told", while The Telegraph (print edition) went even further with "Mobiles may cause cancer, says study", despite the fact that the study said nothing of the sort. Even more shocking is the balanced piece from the Daily Mail, which managed to find a real physicist to comment alongside Campaigners-Against-Stuff group MobileWise, which came off sounding just as paranoid as it is.

The problem is that it's almost impossible to prove mobile phones, or anything else for that matter, don't cause cancer, no matter how many studies are done and how often the research is examined. One works within probabilities, and the preponderance of evidence is that mobile phones do not cause cancer. We judge the probability based on that evidence, just as we did with cigarette smoking and using CRT VDUs while pregnant: the former turned out to be deadly, the latter is generally forgotten by those campaigning for more research.

We've already spent €20m (£16.4m) on the Interphone study, which established that moderate use of a mobile phone reduced the rate of cancer (though well within the margin of error), and we're committed to funding the COSMOS study over the next 25 years – just to make sure we're not melting our brains while updating Facebook from the train – not to mention meta-analysis such as the study published today, which has achieved so little in calming down the subject.

Proving a negative is almost impossible, which is why mobile phones will continue to be suspect until the next brain-melting technology comes along: I'm betting it will be dust particles generated by the 3D printing process, but I'm open to suggestions. ®

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