The back and forth brawl between studies suggesting that cell phones do and don't cause cancer just took a bold step toward the former camp today, with the World Health Organisation classifying cellphones as potential links to brain cancer.
The study, conducted by the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer, stops far short of saying phones cause cancer. Rather, the agency's grouped regular cellphone usage (defined as 30 minutes of talk-time per day) as a "possible" cause of glioma, a malignant form of brain cancer—up to a 40% increased chance, according to one cited study. As one researcher puts it, "There could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk." This might sound insignificant—the study says chance, as opposed to causation, can't be ruled out—but it's unprecedented. The WHO is a global authority on medicine, and its findings mark the most comprehensive statement on cellular radiation danger. By classifying cellphone usage as a possible, or "Class 2B" carcinogen, your iPhone or Android's now on the same list as DDT, burning coal, herpes, and working in a print factory (among hundreds of other potential carcinogens).
The IARC defines 2B classification—the zone between a definitive cancer cause and inconclusive murk—thusly:
This 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.
So it's not a definitive danger. But cellphone use is officially a risk. Luckily, we're decreasingly using them to actually talk into—smartphones might be helping us dodge brain cancer. [via Telegraph, Photo: Shutterstock/Aleksandr Markin]
The IARC's release can be read in full below:
IARC CLASSIFIES RADIOFREQUENCY ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS AS POSSIBLY CARCINOGENIC TO HUMANS
Lyon, France, May 31, 2011 ‐‐ The WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer1, associated with wireless phone use.
Over 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 2011, a Working Group of 31 scientists from 14 countries has been meeting at IARC in Lyon, France, to assess the potential carcinogenic hazards from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. These assessments will be published as Volume 102 of the IARC Monographs, which will be the fifth volume in this series to focus on physical agents, after Volume 55 (Solar Radiation), Volume 75 and Volume 78 on ionizing radiation (X‐rays, gamma‐rays, neutrons, radio‐nuclides), and Volume 80 on non‐ionizing radiation (extremely low‐frequency 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.
International experts shared the complex task of tackling the exposure data, the studies of cancer in humans, the studies of cancer in experimental animals, and the mechanistic and other relevant data.
The evidence was reviewed critically, and overall evaluated as being limited2 among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate3 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% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users (reported average: 30 minutes per day over a 10‐year period).
Dr Jonathan Samet (University of Southern California, USA), 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," said IARC Director Christopher Wild, "it is important that additional research be conducted into the long‐ term, heavy use of mobile phones. Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands‐free devices or texting. "
The Working Group considered hundreds of scientific articles; the complete list will be published in the Monograph. It is noteworthy to mention that several recent in‐press scientific articles4 resulting from the Interphone study were made available to the working group shortly before it was due to convene, reflecting their acceptance for publication at that time, and were included in the evaluation.
A concise 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 Lancet Oncology in its July 1 issue, and in a few days online.
For more information, please contact Dr Kurt Straif, IARC Monographs Section, at +33 472 738 511, or firstname.lastname@example.org; Dr Robert Baan, IARC Monographs Section, at +33 472 738 659, or email@example.com; or Nicolas Gaudin, IARC Communications Group, at firstname.lastname@example.org (+33 472 738 478)
Link to the audio file posted shortly after the briefing: http://terrance.who.int/mediacentre/audio/press_briefings/