It’s the big stories I enjoy the most. “Suicides linked to phone masts” roared the Sunday Express front-page headline this week. “The spate of deaths among young people in Britain’s suicide capital could be linked to radio waves from dozens of mobile phone transmitter masts near the victims’ homes.”
Who is raising these concerns? “Dr Roger Coghill, who sits on a government advisory committee on mobile radiation, has discovered that all 22 youngsters who have killed themselves in Bridgend, South Wales, over the past 18 months lived far closer than average to a mast … Masts are placed on average 800 metres away from each home across the country. In Bridgend the victims lived on average only 356 metres away.”
These are extremely serious issues. There is reasonable evidence of a possible link between power lines and childhood leukaemia, being generous, and we may not yet know the long-term physical risks posed by phones to those who use them, since mobiles haven’t been around too long (do send me a better reference than this for the “latent period” in epidemiology if you have one).
I contacted Dr Coghill, since his work is now a matter of great public concern, and it is vital his evidence can be properly assessed. He was unable to give me the data. No paper has been published. He himself would not describe the work as a “study”. There are no statistics presented on it, and I cannot see the raw figures. In fact Dr Coghill tells me he has lost the figures. Despite its potentially massive public health importance, Dr Coghill is sadly unable to make his material assessable.
This – if he truly believes his results – is a bit off.
It also leads to obvious problems with interpretation: details are important, after all, like “what is your control group” or “which averages are you using”? Perhaps the average distance from a mast in any urban area is less than the average distance for the whole country, because masts tend to be clustered in urban areas, where the people are. Maybe densely populated poor areas with less political influence have more masts foisted upon them by planning committees, and maybe these poor areas also have more suicides. Or maybe he is on to something? Clusters on maps have been the beginning of several interesting stories in epidemiology, including the Broad Street Pump. I asked Dr Coghill which “averages” he meant, but he did not tell me.
Who is Dr Coghill? He says he doesn’t have a doctorate and that the Express made a mistake. Does he “sit on a government advisory committee on mobile radiation”? Sort of. Mr Coghill participates in something called Sage, a “stakeholder” group which discusses power cables (not mobile phones) and is run at the request of the Department of Health by RK Partnerships Ltd, who specialise in mediation, facilitation, and conflict resolution. People who campaign on stuff are rightly invited on to consultation panels run by the government, so that their concerns can be heard. Sadly, such participants seem to be misrepresented as government advisers with remarkable frequency.
As an example of the kind of discussion you might find at SAGE, here is Mr Coghill’s contribution to their last document [pdf], in the section where people who disagree with the group can state their own views. “Whilst this first interim assessment is a welcome step, it contains three important omissions… the powerfully electro-protective effect of exogenous melatonin supplementation, particularly among the UK’s 20 million elderly population, and the adverse effects of EMFs on melatonin synthesis within the body have not been addressed.” Mr Coghill recently received £125,000 of angel investment for his business selling Asphalia melatonin pills.
Readers worried by the front page story on Mr Coghill’s inaccessible research may have visited his website for more information. There they could buy his electromagnetic field protection equipment at competitive prices, and a £149 device called the Acousticom for “finding out if your home is being exposed to microwaves from e.g. cellphone masts”, as well as several other interesting products, including a magnet that makes wine taste nicer, and the “Mood Maker” treatment for impotence at just £22.32 including VAT (“the small unit discreetly attaches to your underwear… the Mood Maker will gently and gradually increase circulation in the pelvic area”). You might also enjoy his books, including Electrohealing, “using electric and magnetic fields for alleviative and curative ends”, and of course Atlantis: “a new look at the Plato legend with a grim conclusion re global warming and ozone depletion”.
It gets better.
Regular readers will know that someone’s ability to police their own enthusiasm can often be assessed using something called “the Aids test“. Here is the Express’s front page expert Mr Coghill on Aids: “The idea that Aids is caused by a virus is a well-protected fiction.” Is there another cause? “The possibility that immune deficits … can be acquired through over-exposure to non-ionising electromagnetic fields is, however, real, and proven in the laboratory.”
Because, remarkably, suicide is not the first problem Mr Coghill has attributed to electromagnetic waves, and he built his earlier hypothesis on the same evidence as his current one: “Aids cases seemed to correspond closely to the numbers of RF, VHF, and UHF station densities.” Mr Coghill discovered 11 of the 12 cities in America with the highest incidence of Aids also had the highest level of electromagnetic activity. A disease of dense urban areas, perhaps? He even had some exciting ideas about treatment. “One first step might be to demagnetise the haem in an attempt to improve the signal to noise ratio of the immune signal …”
We should be glad that there are individuals out there with such esoteric views. We should respect and admire their tenacity and self-belief, if not their ability to provide us with actual data. But from the front page of a national newspaper, we might be able to expect something a little more robust.
Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org