WHO: Cell Phones May Cause Cancer

Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, noted that there could be some risk with cell phone use, but the evidence is not strong enough to confirm the link, and needs to be researched further.

The WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) yesterday classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans, based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.

In a statement issued today, cell phone manufacturer Nokia said, "It is important to note that IARC has not classified RF fields as definitely nor even probably carcinogenic to humans. IARC has only concluded that, based on limited evidence, it may be possible that there could be some increased risk for certain cancer."

Sony Ericsson in its statement said, "The results are consistent with the vast majority of existing scientific research which shows no conclusive evidence of a connection between RF EMF exposure and cancer."

Otis W. Brawley, M.D., chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, commented that the report reached reasonable conclusions, and that its findings need to be interpreted with great care. Brawley noted the classification means that there could be some risk, but that the evidence is not strong enough to confirm the link, and needs to be researched further. "The bottom line is the evidence is enough to warrant concern, but it is not conclusive."

There are things people who are concerned about radiofrequency exposure can do to limit their exposure, including using an ear piece and limiting cell phone use, especially for children. “Given that the evidence remains uncertain, it is up to each individual to determine what changes they wish to make, if any, after weighing the potential benefits and risks of using a cell phone,” Brawley said.

During the last few years, there has been mounting concern about the possibility of adverse health effects resulting from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, such as those emitted by wireless communication devices. The number of mobile phone subscriptions is estimated at 5 billion globally.

From May 24-31, a working group of 31 scientists from 14 countries met at IARC in Lyon, France, to assess the potential carcinogenic hazards from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. The IARC Monograph Working Group discussed the possibility that these exposures might induce long-term health effects, in particular an increased risk for cancer. This has relevance for public health, particularly for users of mobile phones, as the number of users is large and growing, particularly among young adults and children.

The IARC Monograph Working Group discussed and evaluated the available literature on the following exposure categories involving radiofrequency electromagnetic fields:

  • occupational exposures to radar and to microwaves;
  • environmental exposures associated with transmission of signals for radio, television and wireless telecommunication; and
  • personal exposures associated with the use of wireless telephones.

The evidence was reviewed critically, and overall evaluated as being limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers. The evidence from the occupational and environmental exposures mentioned above was similarly judged inadequate. The Working Group did not quantitate the risk; however, one study of past cell phone use (up to the year 2004), showed a 40 percent increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users (reported average: 30 minutes per day over a 10-year period).

Jonathan Samet, overall chairman of the Working Group, indicated that "the evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion and the 2B classification. The conclusion means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk."

"Given the potential consequences for public health of this classification and findings, it is important that additional research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones,” said IARC Director Christopher Wild. “Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices or texting.”

The Group 2B category is used for agents for which there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and less than sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. It may also be used when there is inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity in humans but there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. In some instances, an agent for which there is inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and less than sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals together with supporting evidence from mechanistic and other relevant data may be placed in this group. An agent may be classified in this category solely on the basis of strong evidence from mechanistic and other relevant data.

A report summarizing the main conclusions of the IARC Working Group and the evaluations of the carcinogenic hazard from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (including the use of mobile telephones) will be published in the July 1 issue of The Lancet Oncology.

For more information, go to http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2011/pdfs/pr208_E.pdf.

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