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Does Interphone Report Spell Trouble for Mobile Streaming?
GSMA welcomes report saying link between mobile phones and brain cancer is "inconclusive," yet researcher admits potential flaws and calls for further study

The GSMA, the global body for GSM-based wireless phone manufacturers and wireless carriers that host GSM phone services, quickly put a positive spin on a decade-long study's findings about the potential causes of brain cancer from cell phone usage.

The report, from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), under the auspices of the World Health Organization, looked at malignancies of the nervous system, called gliomas (brain cell tumors) or meningiiomas (brain lining tumors). Overall brain cancer is rare, according to the GSMA, accounting for 175,000 cases worldwide annually, or less than 2% of all malignancies.

IARC released the report, dubbed Interphone, as a compilation of data collected as part of a thirteen-country study that spanned a decade, along with additional analysis.

Shortly afterwards, GSMA issued an embargoed release "welcoming" the report and providing its own analysis of Interphone that said, in part:

"The overall conclusion of no increased risk is in accordance with the large body of existing research and many expert reviews that consistently conclude that there is no established health risk from radio signals that comply with international safety recommendations," the release noted, quoting Dr. Jack Rowley, GSMA Director for Research and Sustainability. "The results reported today underscore the importance of utilizing complete and thorough data analysis before reaching conclusions."

GSMA, interestingly, appears to be ignoring the fact that the scientists themselves are saying there may be a link. The release was under strict embargo until 1:30 a.m. Paris time Tuesday, but major news organizations broke the news on Sunday under headlines that ranged from "Inconclusive" to more provocative titles.

"We can't just conclude that there is no effect," Elisabeth Cardis of the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona, Spain, who led the study, told Reuters. "There are indications of a possible increase. We're not sure that it is correct. It could be due to bias, but the indications are sufficiently strong ... to be concerned."

"An increased risk of brain cancer is not established from the data from Interphone," said Dr. Christopher Wild, director of IARC."However, observations at the highest level of cumulative call time and the changing patterns of mobile phone use since the period studied by Interphone, particularly in young people, mean that further investigation of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk is merited."

To address the changing patterns, as well as potential issues with the methodologies, scientists are launching an even bigger study, called a progressive study. 

The old study, which lasted a decade and covered participants in thirteen countries, was at a time of lower cell phone usage, especially among younger users. Given the advent of streaming video and other data-intensive mobile phone applications, plus the spike in talk time across all demographics, the new study aims to look at 250,000 participants in five European countries.

Even more interesting, the previous study required participants to recall their own cell phone usage, which left the study open to sizable statistical errors and questionable data integrity. The newer prospective study tracks cell phone usage in real time. The study may last up to 30 years, providing a longitudinal study unmatched in scope and size.

Still, GSMA is spinning hard to show that inconclusive data suggests no problem is apparent.

"The researchers warn against focussing on the extreme values and that interpretation should be based on the overall balance of the evidence," said GSMA's Rowley, adding that GSMA had both funded a portion of the study and also short-circuited potentially disruptive findings. "It is also important to note that the international safety recommendations for mobile phones were reviewed and confirmed in September 2009 as protective of all persons against established health risks."

So what does all of this have to do with streaming video?

At one level, the radiation studies are only concerned with extensive use of the mobile handset close to the head, which primarily occurs when a user is talking without a headset.

On the other hand, the new study is being undertaken to address extensive use of the mobile handset, to which streaming video is a large contributor. The unknown question is whether the mobile device generates more radiation as it works to bring in large data streams, and whether this radiation-even when used away from the head, as it would be for streaming video-has adverse effects with extended use.

"[Interphone study participants] were not heavy mobile phone users by today's standards," the report said, noting that most mobile phone users in the study only used the phone 2.5 hours per month, and the heaviest users only used the phone about 30 minutes per day.

"Today, mobile phone use has become much more prevalent," the report stated, "and it is not unusual for young people to use mobile phones for an hour or more a day."