WHO links excess mobile phone use to cancer; experts divided on health impact of radio frequencies
New cancer risk
For years the World Health Organization (WHO) maintained that radiation from cell phones is generally safe. But on May 31, it changed its stand and announced that cell phones pose a possible cancer risk.
A panel of 31 scientists at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of WHO, came to this conclusion after reviewing existing literature on effects of exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields, such as those around mobile phones.
Drawing on data from hundreds of studies, the scientists linked long-term use of mobile handsets to glioma, a malignant type of cancer of the brain and the spinal cord. The cancerous tumours originate in the glial cells that help in neuron function, and are difficult to remove surgically. One study of past cell phone use (up to 2004) showed 40 per cent increased risk for gliomas in people using mobile phones for an average 30 minutes per day over a 10-year period. The IARC assessment will be published in the July 1 issue of The Lancet Oncology. The assessment is a part of the IARC Monographs programme for publishing evaluations of scientific literature on the carcinogenic properties of various types of agents.
The IARC working group, comprising epidemiologists, toxicologists and exposure assessment scientists, was chaired by Jonathan Samet, professor in the department of preventive medicine at the University of South California. The panel has classified cell phones under 2B category of the IARC table, which includes lead and banned insecticide Mirex. Coffee, too, has been put in this category based on its weak association with urinary tract cancer. The table includes all those agents “possibly carcinogenic to humans”; agents categorised in group 1 are those with proven risk of cancer; 2A lists agents “probably carcinogenic to humans”, which are more strongly associated with cancer than agents in category 2B. WHO, in its press release on May 31, said the evidence is “limited”, meaning it is insufficient to prove a definite link between mobile phone use and cancer, and called on governments to conduct more studies to monitor the impact of radiation on human health and the environment.
Cell phones emit radio frequency electromagnetic waves in the range of 10 MHz to 300 GHz. These emissions are a type of non-ionising radiation, which cannot break molecules in the human body unlike the potent ionising radiation from X-rays and gamma rays. While low frequency electromagnetic fields from cell phones, radio and televisions are generally considered harmless, there has been growing concern about their ill-effects, especially with the growth of cell phone use. There are an estimated five million cell phone subscribers around the world at present.
Evidence inconclusive: industry Wireless and telecom operators underplay the risks from mobile phones, saying the WHO report does not give any definite conclusions. Michael Milligan, secretary general of Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF), an international association of telecommunications equipment manufacturers, says IARC has “only concluded that it may still be possible that radio frequency fields are carcinogenic and has identified areas for further research”. Rajan Mathews, director general of The Cellular Operators Association of India, says the new classification is only a call to international and government agencies to conduct more research in light of increased cell phone users, especially among the young, and increased cell phone density in the world.
Cause for worry
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