Cellphones Are 'Possibly'
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01 June 2011 by Andy Coghlan
Cellphones have been classed as "possibly carcinogenic to
That is the conclusion issued yesterday by 31 experts
following a week-long meeting in Lyon, France, convened by
the World Health Organization's International Agency for
Research on Cancer (IARC).
They concluded that there is "limited" evidence suggesting
that mobile phones raise the risk of malignant brain tumours
by 40 per cent, but only in heavy users who have made calls
lasting 30 minutes per day for 10 years. There was also
limited evidence of increased risk for a type of brain
cancer called acoustic neuroma, but not for any other types
of brain cancer.
"There is some evidence for increased risk of glioma and
acoustic neuroma," says Kurt Straif, head of the IARC's
monographs programme in a press conference yesterday. "But
it is not clearly established that the use of mobile phones
does cause cancer in humans."
Acoustic neuromas are relatively rare, with an incidence of
one per 100,000 people. They account for about 6 to 10 per
cent of all brain tumours worldwide. Gliomas are much more
common, accounting for 60 per cent of all brain cancers in
Asked what consumers should do in the light of the new
findings, Straif said that texting and using of hands-free
phones "lowers exposure by at least an order of magnitude",
but that it is down to consumers to decide what
precautionary measures they should take.
He added that governments, not the working group, should
make recommendations on how to regulate mobile phones in the
light of the findings.
Robert Baan, the senior IARC scientist in charge of
publishing the findings, said that the conclusion of a "2B
classification" for mobile phone radiation ranked it
alongside 240 other possible carcinogens, including bathroom
talcum powder, low-frequency electromagnetic radiation from
power lines and a host of pesticides, herbicides, printing
and dry-cleaning chemicals.
Jonathan Samet of the University of Southern California, Los
Angeles, chairman of the working group, said that the key
evidence for the classification came from two major
international studies. The first, called Interphone,
identified the higher risk of glioma in heavy users, but
found otherwise that there was no risk of brain cancer in
users from 13 countries between 1997 and 2004.
The second, led by Lennart Hardell at Örebro University in
Sweden, found that the risk of acoustic neuromas quadrupled
in users of analogue cellphones. These types of phones were
phased out in 2000 in the UK and 2008 in the US.
Gaps and uncertainties
The search for a mechanism by which such low levels of
radiation could cause cancer has failed so far, not least
because the radiation is too weak to cause mutations by
breaking bonds in DNA. "We have found threads of evidence of
how cancer might occur, but there are gaps and
uncertainties," said Samet.
Responding to criticisms made last week that the IARC had
ignored important studies, Straif said that all available
studies were included in the review. "Several of the latest
analyses were made available to the IARC a week before the
meeting," he says, adding that all national analyses from
the Interphone study had been included too, as demanded by
"This is the first scientific evaluation of all the
literature on the subject of whether mobile phone radiation
causes cancer," says Straif. "It brings it to a new level of
Samet admitted that there were problems even with the
largest and most reliable studies, such as Interphone,
because people find it hard to remember how often they have
used their mobile phones in the past. Also, new, safer
methods of mobile phone use such as texting and hands-free
mean that we need updates on cancer risk. "The working group
was struck by the need for further research to fill in all
the gaps," he says.
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