As hazardous as lead, engine exhaust, chloroform

Confirming the worst fears of mobile phone users, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that radiation from cellphones is possibly cancerous. It has classified the 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.”

The number of mobile phone users globally is estimated to be 5 billion and over the past few years there had 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.

A study conducted by the WHO and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has placed cellphones on a par with the carcinogenic hazards category as lead, engine exhaust and chloroform. The findings of the study will be published in the British medical journal The Lancet Oncology in its July edition.

A team of 31 scientists from 14 countries, including the United States, arrived at the decision after reviewing peer-reviewed studies on cell phone safety. The team found enough evidence to categorise personal exposure as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

In simple terms they found some evidence of increase in glioma and acoustic neuroma brain cancer for mobile phone users, but have not been able to draw conclusions for other types of cancers.

Non-ionizing

The type of radiation coming out of a cellphone is called non-ionizing. It is not like an X-ray, but more like a very low-powered microwave oven.

Results from the largest international study on cell phones and cancer was released in 2010. It showed participants in the study who used a cell phone for 10 years or more had doubled the rate of glioma. To date, there have been no long-term studies on the effects of cellphone usage among children.

In February, a study by researchers at the National Institute of Health, revealed radiation emitted after just 50 minutes on a mobile phone increases the activity in brain cells. The effects of brain activity being artificially stimulated are still unknown.

Dr. Jonathan Samet (University of Southern California), overall Chairman of the Working Group that prepared the study, 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. “

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 in experimental animals.

An agent may be classified in this category solely on the basis of strong evidence from mechanistic and other relevant data.