WHO: Cell phones may cause cancer

  • 1 Jun 2011
  • Reading time 7 mins
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Radiation from cell phones could possibly cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization. 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."

The convenience of mobile phones has led to a massive increase in the amount of time we spend on them. Increasingly, people are relying solely on mobile phones and not even getting regular telephone landlines fitted. They have become an essential accessory demanded by teenagers. But is there a real danger of overuse, especially at a young age? Although the frequency of the signal from a mobile phone is quite low, the strength of the signal and, most importantly, the fact that the source (the phone) is right next to your brain, has raised concerns about whether the energy is strong enough to generate free radicals and hence increase cancer risk.

Bad for mice

In the late 1990s, Australian research found a doubling of tumours in mice exposed to radiation at mobile phone frequencies. In research led by Professor Michael Repacholi (who headed the WHO programme studying the possible hazards of electromagnetic fields until his retirement in June 2006), the mice were exposed to pulsed radiation for one hour a day for nine to 18 months. At the end of the trial, the mice showed twice as many B-cell lymphomas as those not exposed for radiation. (B-cell effects are implicated in roughly 85% of all cancers.) Additional research by Lester Packer and colleagues has also linked electromagnetic fields to increases in cancer. Although mice are not human beings, these findings are worrying, because there is evidence of an increase in the incidence of brain cancer in correlation with the widespread use of mobile phones. Dr Andrew Davidson, at the Fremantle Hospital in Australia, analysed the incidence of brain cancer in Australia from 1982 to 1992. His survey showed a doubling in the number of cases. Brain cancer is also on the increase in Britain and the US for no apparent reason.

Safety levels around the world

Over four billion people around the world now use mobile phones. Many scientific experts believe that safety standards in the UK are inadequate, and that we must protect ourselves from exposure to radiation from all sources, especially mobile phones. A detailed summary of the science behind these concerns was compiled by 27 experts in the field and published, in 2007, in a report called the Bioinitiative Report. Among its many recommendations was one that the safe level of exposure to the kind of microwaves used in mobile phones should be 1,000 microwatts per square metre. In the UK the level, set a decade ago, is 10,000,000 microwatts. The safety level in Russia, China, Switzerland and Luxemburg is 100 times lower at 100,000 microwatts.

A five-fold increase in brain cancer in children

In September 2009, the Radiation Research Trust held a major conference in London where academics from both the safe and not-safe camps sat side-by-side for the first time. The most striking report came from a Swedish researcher, Dr Lennart Hardell, an oncologist at University Hospital in Orebro in Sweden, who had already found a connection with long-term mobile phone use and brain cancer in adults. Dr Hardell’s research has found that the brain cancer risk for children who regularly use a mobile phone before the age of 20 goes up five times. “Our study showed that children under 20 who regularly use a mobile phone have a four or five times greater risk of brain cancer than adults,” he told the conference.He went on to explain that the effect of mobile phone radiation is different in children’s brains from adult ones, as more of their brain is exposed to it and the cancer risk rises the earlier they start using it. What’s more, the risk showed up as the same whether they were using mobile phones or cordless household phones that transmit a signal back to the base station. This view was supported by a senior Russian academic, Professor Yuri Grigorie of the Russian Federal Medical Biophysical Centre.

What happened to the ‘precautionary approach’?

What is shocking about this increasing evidence of a risk to children is that it was first flagged up officially eight years ago in the UK, in what is known as the Stewart report. It made precisely the same point about children’s skulls being more vulnerable and advised taking a ‘precautionary approach’ that is still the basis of official policy today. So you might imagine that since then, government agencies such as the Health Protection Agency (HPA) would have made a serious effort to both warn parents of the possible dangers, and to set up research projects to prove or disprove them. In fact, very little has been done on either count. So what exactly is a ‘precautionary approach’? It is explained in a Department of Health leaflet, put out after the Stewart report, which recommended that children under 16 should only make mobile phone calls for essential purposes and that they should be kept short. But have you ever seen such a leaflet? If you blinked you could well have missed it, and since then, there has certainly been no attempt to reinforce it. And there are no warnings on mobile phone packaging or talks about the dangers in schools. When asked about the new brain cancer research at the London conference, an official with the HPA commented that the study only involved a small number of subjects and if people were concerned “they could take protective action if they want to”.

Mobile phone warnings

Many health authorities around the world, rather than relying on individuals taking precautions, are now warning about mobile phones in a more direct way: • Toronto Public Health in Canada asked parents to think twice before giving their children a mobile phone. It advised teens to limit their time on a phone and recommended that prepubescent children should only use landlines. • The French Health Ministry, at the beginning of 2008, gave even more specific advice, saying that children should avoid calling when reception is poor (which means the emitting signal has to be stronger) and should keep phones away from sensitive areas of their bodies with a hands-free kit. At the same time, a group of 19 French scientists concerned about mobile phone dangers, stated that parents should forbid all children under the age of 12 to use mobiles! This is supported by Dr Lennart Hardell, who advises that children under 12 should not use mobiles except in cases of emergency, and that teenagers should use hands-free devices or headsets and use texting instead of calls. • The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, a leading cancer centre in the States, has advised all employees to keep mobile use to a minimum because of the possible cancer risk. The director Dr Ronald B Herberman said he was basing his alarm on early unpublished data, saying: “It takes too long to get answers from science and I believe people should take action now, especially when it comes to children.” Until we know for sure, it would seem prudent to use your mobile phone infrequently or use them with earphones.

How safe is your mobile phone?

The current measure used to classify a mobile phone as ‘safe’ is called the specific absorption rating (SAR). The SAR level relates to the intensity of the signal, which is measured as watts per kilogram (W/kg). Although the current control on mobile phones is 2W/kg, the best phones on the market have a SAR of less than 0.5. To discover the SAR of your personal phone, visit the Mobile Manufacturer's Forum or click here. Failing that, contact your mobile phone company. The original iphones, for example, had a high SAR rating, but the newer ones are much better.