Cellphones A 'Possible'
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By MARIA CHENG
LONDON - A respected international panel of scientists says
cellphones are possible cancer-causing agents, putting them
in the same category as the pesticide DDT, gasoline engine
exhaust and coffee.
The classification was issued Tuesday in Lyon, France, by
the International Agency for Research on Cancer after a
review of dozens of published studies. The agency is an arm
of the World Health Organization and its assessment now goes
to WHO and national health agencies for possible guidance on
Classifying agents as "possibly carcinogenic" doesn't mean
they automatically cause cancer and some experts said the
ruling shouldn't change people's cellphone habits.
"Anything is a possible carcinogen," said Donald Berry, a
professor of biostatistics at the M.D. Anderson Cancer
Center at the University of Texas. He was not involved in
the WHO cancer group's assessment. "This is not something I
worry about and it will not in any way change how I use my
cellphone," he said - speaking from his cellphone.
The same cancer research agency lists alcoholic drinks as a
known carcinogen and night shift work as a probable
carcinogen. Anyone's risk for cancer depends on many
factors, from genetic makeup to the amount and length of
time of an exposure.
After a weeklong meeting on the type of electromagnetic
radiation found in cellphones, microwaves and radar, the
expert panel said there was limited evidence cellphone use
was linked to two types of brain tumors and inadequate
evidence to draw conclusions for other cancers.
"We found some threads of evidence telling us how cancers
might occur, but there were acknowledged gaps and
uncertainties," said Jonathan Samet of the University of
Southern California, the panel's chairman.
"The WHO's verdict means there is some evidence linking
mobile phones to cancer but it is too weak to draw strong
conclusions from," said Ed Yong, head of health information
at Cancer Research U.K. "If such a link exists, it is
unlikely to be a large one."
Last year, results of a large study found no clear link
between cellphones and cancer. But some advocacy groups
contend the study raised serious concerns because it showed
a hint of a possible connection between very heavy phone use
and glioma, a rare but often deadly form of brain tumor.
However, the numbers in that subgroup weren't sufficient to
make the case.
The study was controversial because it began with people who
already had cancer and asked them to recall how often they
used their cellphones more than a decade ago.
In about 30 other studies done in Europe, New Zealand and
the U.S., patients with brain tumors have not reported using
their cellphones more often than unaffected people.
Because cellphones are so popular, it may be impossible for
experts to compare cellphone users who develop brain tumors
with people who don't use the devices. According to a survey
last year, the number of cellphone subscribers worldwide has
hit 5 billion, or nearly three-quarters of the global
People's cellphone habits have also changed dramatically
since the first studies began years ago and it's unclear if
the results of previous research would still apply today.
Since many cancerous tumors take decades to develop, experts
say it's impossible to conclude cellphones have no long-term
health risks. The studies conducted so far haven't tracked
people for longer than about a decade.
Cellphones send signals to nearby towers via radio frequency
waves, a form of energy similar to FM radio waves and
microwaves. But the radiation produced by cellphones cannot
directly damage DNA and is different from stronger types of
radiation like X-rays or ultraviolet light. At very high
levels, radio frequency waves from cellphones can heat up
body tissue, but that is not believed to damage human cells.
Some experts recommended people use a headset or earpiece if
they are worried about the possible health dangers of
cellphones. "If there is a risk, most of it goes away with a
wireless earpiece," said Otis Brawley, chief medical officer
of the American Cancer Society.
Brawley said people should focus on the real health hazards
of cellphones. "Cellphones may cause brain tumors but they
kill far more people through automobile accidents," he said.
Brawley added it was also reasonable to limit children's use
of cellphones since their brains are still developing.
Earlier this year, a U.S. National Institutes of Health
study found that cellphone use can speed up brain activity,
but it is unknown whether that has any dangerous health
The cellphone industry trade group, CTIA-The Wireless
Association, pointed to two U.S. agencies that have found no
evidence cellphones are linked to cancer - the Food and Drug
Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.
The WHO's cancer research agency has reviewed more than 900
occupational exposures, chemicals and other agents since
1971, classifying their link to cancer by labeling them from
carcinogenic to probably not carcinogenic. The American
Cancer Society has estimated that only about 6 percent of
cancers are related to environmental causes and most of that
is on-the-job occupational exposure.
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