Friday, July 1, 2011
A World Health Organization panel has concluded that cellphones are “possibly carcinogenic,’’ putting the popular devices in the same category as certain dry cleaning chemicals and pesticides, as a potential threat to human health.
The finding, from the agency’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, adds to concerns among a small but growing group of experts about the health effects of low levels of radiation emitted by cellphones. The panel, which consisted of 31 scientists from 14 countries, was led by Dr. Jonathan M. Samet, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Southern California and a member of President Obama’s National Cancer Advisory Board.
The group didn’t conduct any new research but reviewed numerous existing studies that focused on the health effects of radio frequency magnetic fields, which are emitted by cellphones. During a news conference, Dr. Samet said the panel’s decision to classify cellphones as “possibly carcinogenic” was based largely on epidemiological data showing an increased risk among heavy cellphone users of a rare type of brain tumor called a glioma.
Last year, a 13-country study called Interphone, the largest and longest study of the link between cellphone use and brain tumors, found no overall increased risk, but reported that participants with the highest level of cellphone use had a 40 percent higher risk of glioma. (Even if the elevated risk is confirmed, gliomas are relatively rare and thus individual risk remains minimal.)
Most major medical groups, including the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, have said the existing data on cellphones and health has been reassuring. For years, concerns about the health effects of cellphones have been largely dismissed because the radio frequency waves emitted from the devices are believed to be benign. Cellphones emit nonionizing radiation, waves of energy that are too weak to break chemical bonds or to set off the DNA damage known to cause cancers. Scientists have said repeatedly that there is no known biological mechanism to explain how nonionizing radiation might lead to cancer or other health problems.
The W.H.O. panel ruled only that cellphones be classified as Category 2B, meaning they are possibly carcinogenic to humans, a designation the panel has given to 240 other agents, including the pesticide DDT, engine exhaust, lead and various industrial chemicals. Also on the list are two familiar foods, pickled vegetables and coffee, which the cellphone industry was quick to point out.
“This I.A.R.C. classification does not mean cellphones cause cancer,’’ John Walls, vice president for public affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry group, said in a statement. Mr. Walls noted that both the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration have concluded that the weight of the scientific evidence does not link cellphones with cancer or other health problems.
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