Do elevators cause breast cancer?

The comments sections of news articles and blogs have a deserved reputation for flame outs and nuttiness; but sometimes, the comment posted can be even more interesting than the article itself. Take Inside Higher Ed’s article on a cluster of cancer cases in the Literature Building at at the University of California at San Diego, which appeared earlier this year.

“Since 2000, eight professors and staff members have been diagnosed with breast cancer in the literature building at the University of California at San Diego, and two of the women have died…  Last year’s medical report did not identify any certain feature of the building that could be definitively tied to the cancer cases. But the report suggests changes in the way the elevators are set up — as key hydraulic elevator equipment is currently on the first floor and not in the basement, as would be common. The report noted that close exposure to surges associated with such equipment might add very modestly to the risk associated with breast cancer, and suggested changes in office locations — and future building set-ups with elevators — to minimize those risks.”

The article noted staff fury about the risks they were being subjected to, and that the University had commissioned a new study to investigate the possibility that electro magnetic fields from the elevators might have caused the cancers.

Now scroll to the end of the comments section, and there is a very long post by Geoffrey Kabat Ph.D, a cancer epidemiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who has researched the allegations that EMFs cause cancer and writes about the controversy in his recent book, Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life
and the Science of Epidemiology
.  He writes:

The conclusion of the [medical] report that EMF from the elevator in the Literature Building may have contributed to the cluster of 8 breast cancer cases is based on a selective and biased interpretation of the extensive epidemiological and experimental literature on EMF exposure and the risk of breast cancer. Rather than collecting all of the information relevant to describing the cluster, due to Professor Garland’s preconceived ideas about EMF, his investigation focused attention on EMF, thereby causing unnecessary alarm, distrust, and confusion in members of the UCSD community.

Kabat identifies eight significant flaws in the medical report – including the failure to account for the fact that only one person developed breast cancer in building in the preceding nine years, when the elevator was, presumably, elevating.

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