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Recall bias in the assessment of exposure to mobile phones

Abstract

Most studies of mobile phone use are case–control studies that rely on participants’ reports of past phone use for their exposure assessment. Differential errors in recalled phone use are a major concern in such studies. INTERPHONE, a multinational case–control study of brain tumour risk and mobile phone use, included validation studies to quantify such errors and evaluate the potential for recall bias. Mobile phone records of 212 cases and 296 controls were collected from network operators in three INTERPHONE countries over an average of 2 years, and compared with mobile phone use reported at interview. The ratio of reported to recorded phone use was analysed as measure of agreement. Mean ratios were virtually the same for cases and controls: both underestimated number of calls by a factor of 0.81 and overestimated call duration by a factor of 1.4. For cases, but not controls, ratios increased with increasing time before the interview; however, these trends were based on few subjects with long-term data. Ratios increased by level of use. Random recall errors were large. In conclusion, there was little evidence for differential recall errors overall or in recent time periods. However, apparent overestimation by cases in more distant time periods could cause positive bias in estimates of disease risk associated with mobile phone use.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the network operators in all countries and the subjects who kindly accepted to participate in the study. We also acknowledge study investigators and staff who made nonauthorship contributions to the validation study: Monika Moissonnier (IARC, Lyon, France), Enrichetta Barbieri and Cristiano Tesei (ISS, Rome), Louise Nadon (Montreal), Tracey McPhail (Melbourne), Matthew Carroll (Sydney). This study was conducted with funding from the European Fifth Framework Program, ‘‘Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources’’ (contract QLK4-CT-1999901563), and the International Union against Cancer (UICC). The UICC received funds for this purpose from the Mobile Manufacturers’ Forum and GSM Association. Provision of funds to the INTERPHONE study investigators via the UICC was governed by agreements that guaranteed INTERPHONE's complete scientific independence. The terms of these agreements are publicly available at http://www.iarc.fr/ENG/Units/RCAd.html/. The Australian Centre was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council (EME Grant 219129); Bruce K. Armstrong is supported by a University of Sydney Medical Foundation Program grant and Julianne Brown by an Australian Postgraduate Award. The Cancer Council NSW and The Cancer Council Victoria provided most of the infrastructure for the project in Australia. The Canada–Montréal data collection was funded by a grant (project MOP-42525) from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The other Canadian centres were supported by a university–industry partnership grant (project POP-200102UOP-UI-90605) from CIHR, the latter including partial support from the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. D. Krewski is the NSERC/SSHRC/McLaughlin Chair in Population Health Risk Assessment at the University of Ottawa.

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Correspondence to Martine Vrijheid.

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Vrijheid, M., Armstrong, B., Bédard, D. et al. Recall bias in the assessment of exposure to mobile phones. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 19, 369–381 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/jes.2008.27

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/jes.2008.27

Keywords

  • bias
  • recall
  • case–control studies
  • cellular phone
  • brain neoplasms

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