Mobile Phone Radiation Is A
Possible Cancer Risk, Warns WHO
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Radiation from mobile phones has been classified as a
possible cancer risk by the World Health Organisation after
a major review of the effects of electromagnetic waves on
The declaration was based on evidence in published studies
that intensive use of mobile phones might lead to an
increased risk of glioma, a malignant form of brain cancer.
The conclusion by the WHO's International Agency for
Research on Cancer (IARC) applies to radio-frequency
electromagnetic radiation in general, though most research
in the area has centred on wireless phones.
The findings are the culmination of an IARC meeting during
which 31 scientists from 14 countries assessed hundreds of
published studies into the potential cancer risks posed by
electromagnetic fields. The UK was represented by Simon Mann
from the Health Protection Agency's Centre for Radiation,
Chemicals and Environmental Hazards in Oxfordshire.
Jonathan Samet, a scientist at the University of Southern
California, who chaired the group, said: "The conclusion
means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need
to keep a close watch for a link between cellphones and
In designating radio-frequency fields as "possibly
carcinogenic", the WHO has put them on a par with around 240
other agents for which evidence of harm is uncertain,
including low-level magnetic fields, talcum powder and
working in a dry cleaners.
The report found no clear mechanism for the waves to cause
brain tumours. Radiation from mobile phones is too weak to
cause cancer by breaking DNA, leading scientists to suspect
other, more indirect routes.
"We found some threads of evidence telling us how cancers
might occur but there are acknowledged gaps and
uncertainties," Samet said.
Christopher Wild, director of the IARC, said that in view of
the potential implications for public health, there should
be more research on 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," he said.
There are around 5bn mobile phone subscriptions globally,
according to the International Telecommunication Union, a UN
agency for information and communication technologies.
The IARC group reviewed research investigating potential
health risks from electromagnetic fields associated with
technologies such as radio, television, wireless
communications and mobile phones.
The committee decided the fields were possibly carcinogenic
to humans, a finding that will feed through to national
health agencies in support of their efforts to minimise
exposure to cancer-causing factors.
The IARC has evaluated nearly 950 chemicals, physical and
biological agents, occupational exposures and lifestyle
factors where there is either evidence or suspicion that
they may cause cancer.
The report on radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation
comes a year after the WHO published its much-delayed
Interphone study, which found no solid evidence that mobile
phones increase the risk of brain tumours, but pointed to a
slightly higher risk among those who used mobile phones the
most. The report was held up for several years because
scientists failed to agree on its findings and whether to
issue a warning about excessive use.
Exposure from a mobile phone base station is typically much
lower than from a handset held to the ear, but concerns over
the possible health effects of electromagnetic waves have
extended to base stations and wireless computer networks,
particularly in relation to schools.
According to the British Educational Communications and
Technology Agency, half of all primary schools and 82% of
secondary schools make use of wireless computer networks.
Wi-fi equipment is restricted to a maximum output of 100
milliwatts in Europe at the most popular frequency of 2.4
gigahertz. At that level, exposure to radiowaves should not
exceed guideline levels drawn up by the International
Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation and adopted in the UK.
A Health Protection Agency study led by Mann in 2009 found
that exposure to radiowaves from wi-fi equipment was well
within these guideline levels.
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