Suicide, phone masts and magnetic underpants

The Sunday Express is one of the UK’s biggest selling Sunday papers and today’s front page is spectacularly half-cocked, attempting to link suicides to phone masts based on an unpublished study, by a man who sells cranky radiation protection devices, and who seems to have only the feintest grasp of neurobiology.

Roger Coghill (incorrectly described as Dr Coghill in the article), is an independent researcher who argues that radiation from mobile phone masts and electricity cables causes cancer, kills children and, now, is a suicide risk.

The study isn’t published, is not available on his website, and may still turn out to be an interesting well controlled study of mobile phone mast proximity and suicide risk. I’ve requested a copy of the research report, so hopefully I’ll find out, but from the way it is described, I suspect it won’t be.

According to the article, the people who recently killed themselves in a spate of suicides centred around the South Wales town of Bridgend lived closer to a mobile phone mast than the average for each home across the country.

Now, it strikes me that the average distance from a mobile phone mast in any small town is going to be less than the national average because mobile phone masts tend to be clustered around where people live.

So you’d want to do two things. The first, is control for population density, the second is compare the correlation between suicide rate and mobile phone mast distance with other small towns, because you’d want to be sure that this wasn’t a spurious correlation. Neither are mentioned.

According to Mr Coghill, however:

What seems to be happening is that the electrical energy is having an effect on the chemistry of the brain, depleting serotonin levels. We know that in depression serotonin levels are low and that a standard treatment for depression is to give drugs to boost serotonin levels. As they begin to work, the patient’s depression lifts.

So what evidence is there that mobile phone mast radiation affects serotonin levels in the brain? None that I can find. Really, nothing at all. I’d be interested to hear otherwise.

In fact, the whole idea that serotonin, depression and suicide are linked so simply is highly suspect.

Studies that have looked at this association using measures of serotonin metabolites, transporter proteins, receptor density and binding, depletion studies and genetics show remarkably mixed results.

While, on average, there seems to be something up with serotonin neurotransmission in the brains of people diagnosed with depression, the evidence suggests that the ‘low serotonin = depression’ idea is so over-simplified to be virtually useless.

However, those of you who are keen to take precautions even without a good scientific basis may be interested in purchasing some ‘protective devices’ that also lack a good scientific basis.

Mr Coghill’s company also sells lots of useful devices to ‘shield’ you and your pet, and a number of other devices to harness the ‘healing power’ of magnets.

This includes a ‘small discrete unit that attaches to your underwear’ to boost your flagging libido.

This rather obvious conflict of interest is not mentioned in the article.

Anyway, I will await the mystery research report and see whether I need to be avoiding phone masts or putting magnets down my pants.

Link to shining example of how not to do science journalism.

3 thoughts on “Suicide, phone masts and magnetic underpants”

  1. I expect much, much more of this. Especially after a few more shoddy/cocked-up “studies” lend the patina of legitimacy to widespread panic. And perhaps some legitimate research on neurological effects of EM will be blown wildly out of proportion too, for good measure.
    However it is interesting to consider what this tells about mass panics and the public’s longstanding unease with the mysteriousness of electromagnetism. Don’t we all know someone who is primed and ready to receive the electromagnetic explanation of their maladies? Don’t we all have a nutty uncle who will soon be insisting not to be seated by wall, as the strong currents may aggravate his knee?
    I can foresee more and more flummoxed public officials, in labored, unintended debates over Maxwell’s laws with tin-hatted townsfolk.

  2. According to the Wikipedia, suicide rates are higher in urban areas than in rural ones. If that’s true, it is relevant here. Phone mast density is proportional to the number of different frequencies needed, which is proportional to population density. So one would expect suicide rates to be higher in areas of higher phone mast density even if there was no relationship between the two.

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