WHO: Cell Phones May Cause
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In a report issued today, the International Agency for
Research on Cancer (IARC), which is an arm of the WHO, said
it now lists mobile phone use in the same category as lead,
gasoline engine exhaust, and chloroform. Officially, cell
phone radiation is listed as a "carcinogenic hazard."
Until today, the WHO's IARC had said that there were no
adverse health effects from the use of cell phones. The
wireless industry, including the CTIA lobbying group, and
the Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Food and Drug
Administration have also long maintained that cell phones
The CTIA, the wireless industry trade association in the
U.S., was quick to point out that the WHO's IARC did not say
that cell phones definitely cause cancer.
"IARC conducts numerous reviews and in the past has given
the same score to, for example, pickled vegetables and
coffee," John Walls, vice president of public affairs for
CTIA, said in a statement. "This IARC classification does
not mean cell phones cause cancer. Under IARC rules, limited
evidence from statistical studies can be found even though
bias and other data flaws may be the basis for the results."
The group also emphasized that the IARC's determination was
based on reviewed published studies and was not the result
of new scientific research.
"The IARC working group did not conduct any new research,
but rather reviewed published studies," Walls continued.
"Based on previous assessments of the scientific evidence,
the Federal Communications Commission has concluded that '[t]here's
no scientific evidence that proves that wireless phone usage
can lead to cancer.' The Food and Drug Administration has
also stated that '[t]he weight of scientific evidence has
not linked cell phones with any health problems.'"
In response to Tuesday's news, an FCC spokesman said, "The
FCC currently requires cell phones to meet safety standards
based on the advice of federal health and safety agencies.
We support the IARC recommendation for more research to
clearly identify any potential health risks and, as
appropriate, consider whether further actions may be
The new determination from the WHO's IARC was established at
a meeting in France where a team of 31 scientists from 14
countries, including the United States, considered
peer-reviewed studies about the safety of cell phones. The
team said that it had found enough evidence to consider
exposure to cell phone radiation as "possibly carcinogenic
The scientists reiterated what many in the field have said
for years, which is that there are not enough long-term
studies to decisively say one way or another whether cell
phone radiation causes cancer. But there is enough data to
show connections between exposure and health risks for
consumers to be concerned.
Jonathan Samet, a medical doctor and professor from the
University of Southern California, and the overall Chairman
of the IARC's Working Group, which reviewed the studies,
said in a statement today 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."
The IARC has not yet published new guidelines for cell phone
use, but the director of the organization suggested that
concerned consumers take precautions to reduce exposure. He
also emphasized the need for more research.
"Given the potential consequences for public health of this
classification and findings, it is important that additional
research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of
mobile phones," IARC Director Christopher Wild said in a
statement. "Pending the availability of such information, it
is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure
such as hands?free devices or texting."
The IARC said in a statement that it considered hundreds of
scientific articles, including some recent articles that had
been published as a result of the 10-year Interphone study.
A 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 cell phones, will be published in the medical
journal, The Lancet Oncology in its July 1 issue. The IARC
also expects to publish the full report online in a few
A year ago, the IARC published some results from the
Interphone research project, an ambitious, decade-long study
that included data gathered by 21 scientists from around the
world to study 13,000 individuals in 13 different countries.
It was the largest research program to study the effects of
cell phone radiation to date, but many researchers conceded
that the results of the study were inconclusive.
Initially, the official word from the WHO's IARC was that
most cell phone use did not lead to an increased risk of
either meningioma, a common but typically benign form of
cancer, or glioma, a rare but more dangerous type of brain
cancer. But the group conceded that more research is needed,
especially since cell phone use has increased dramatically
since 2000, particularly among younger people.
"An increased risk of brain cancer is not established from
the data from Interphone," Wile, IARC's director, said in a
statement at the time that the report was issued. "However,
observations at the highest level of cumulative call time
and the changing patterns of mobile phone use since the
period studied by Interphone, particularly in young people,
mean that further investigation of mobile phone use and
brain cancer risk is merited."
Some experts have interpreted the results to suggest that
people who use a cell phone for at least an hour each day
over a 10-year period are at an increased risk of developing
some brain tumors. This research, these experts argue, also
suggests that these tumors are more likely to be on the side
of the head where the phone is most often used.
However, the authors of the epidemiological studies that
came to these conclusions have acknowledged that possible
biases and errors from those participating in the survey
meant that these results were not conclusive enough to
directly blame cell phone radiation for such tumors. For
example, critics of these studies say that subjects may have
recall bias. Subjects in the study diagnosed with brain
tumors may have better recall of how often they used their
cell phones and on which side of their heads they usually
placed their phones than the control groups that do not
suffer from these ailments.
Today's determination by the WHO's IARC that cell phone use
could cause cancer still does little to clear up the
confusion around whether cell phones present a significant
risk to human health. We simply still do not know. But to
date, the World Health Organization's warning is the most
significant one so far to suggest that people take
CNET has spent the past several months digging deeper into
this issue. And in a three-part special report that began
this morning, we take a look at the maddening state of cell
phone safety research. The first part of the report was
published today and takes a look at the confusing state of
the scientific evidence. Later this week, CNET will explain
how regulators came up with the safety standards and how
they test devices. Finally, we will look at what consumers
can do to protect themselves and discuss what some
communities are doing to make sense of this mess. CNET has
also published a Q&A with Devra Davis--an epidemiologist,
author, and founder of the Environmental Health Trust--about
her new book "Disconnect: The Truth about Cell Phone
Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide it and How to
Protect Your Family.
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