• 26 APR 06
    • 0

    ABC on Australian cell phone research: A case of sloppy journalism

    In reporting the latest on Australian cell phone research, journalist Alex Wilde from the ABC made an error in giving the impression that Professor Con Stough stated: Mobile phones were once thought to have a carcinogenic effect, but an international consensus found no support for this argument.

    I found it surprising that Professor Stough would make such a dismissive statement and assuming that it was a case of bad journalism, including no reference to where it originated. I contacted the editor of ABC on line. As it turns out Stough did NOT make that statement (call it journalistic licence) and I was not the only person to pick up the “spin”. The amended ABC article is below and on line at:



    Dear Don
    Thank you for contacting ABC Science Online and for your comments on the story. We have amended the story to clarify who said what and to include a reference to the WHO’s opinion. In a nutshell, the WHO says there is unsufficient evidence to say mobile phones cause cancer and studies are ongoing. This does not mean there is evidence for no link, just there isn’t enough to say there is a link, a nuance epidemiologists (and journalists) are very keen to distinguish. And further studies should give us more information.
    Many thanks

    Anna Evangeli
    News Editor
    ABC Science Online

    Mobile phones may slow your reactions

    Alex Wilde

    ABC Science Online, Tuesday, 25 April 2006

    Electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones may affect how fast you brake or turn while driving
    Electromagnetic radiation from your mobile phone may impair your ability to make snap decisions, say when driving a car, an Australian study shows.
    The study, which will be published in the journal Neuropsychologia, found evidence of slowed reactions, on both simple reactions and more complex reactions, such as choosing a response when there is more than one alternative.
    The researchers found these effects after people were exposed to electromagnetic radiation equivalent to spending 30 minutes on the phone.
    Lead researcher Professor Con Stough, director of the Brain Sciences Institute at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, says the reactions tested experimentally have real-life equivalents, such as making braking decisions when driving a car.

    “If you are driving a car and somebody runs out in front you, your simple reaction time is the time it takes to brake, while your choice reaction time could be the time it takes to decide between braking, turning left, turning right or hooting the horn to avoid the collision,” he says.

    The study’s 120 volunteers received either active or ‘sham’ radiation emissions for 30 minutes before swapping for a further 30 minutes. This meant a total active exposure of 30 minutes, equivalent to a long phone call. The researchers then tested the study participant’s reaction times and memory using a battery of neuropsychological tests. As well as the effect on reactions times, the study found that radiation from mobile phones seems to improve working memory, used for example when remembering a phone number long enough to dial it. But Stough says this memory finding should be interpreted with caution because the underlying biological mechanism is not known.

    A small effect

    Stough emphasises that while the study raises the possibility that short-term exposure of mobile phone emissions affect brain activity, the effect is small.

    “Further investigations such as functional magnetic resonance imaging are needed to confirm the neuropsychological changes associated with mobile phone emissions,” he says.

    “Whether the results will affect the way in which people make decisions about using mobile phones I don’t know. Mobile phones are such a part of how we operate these days that it is unlikely.”

    Researchers are still debating about whether mobile phones have a carcinogenic effect. But the World Health Organization says there is insufficient evidence to support this argument and studies are ongoing.

    Sleep studies, however, lend support that mobile phone emissions alter brain activity. Recent findings show that that electromagnetic radiation received after making a mobile phone call stimulates the brain during the early stages of sleep.

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