An announcement last week from the World Health Organization
/International Agency for Research on Cancer
(WHO/IARC) that they have classified radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields, such as those from mobile phones, as possibly cancer-causing in humans has garnered a lot of press and speculation as to what this classification actually means for mobile phone users. The answer: more research needs to be done to confirm or dispute the cancer connection.
Thirty-one scientists from 14 countries met in Lyon, France, to pore over hundreds of previous scientific articles to assess the potential carcinogenic hazards from exposure to RF electromagnetic fields. The IARC Monograph Working Group, as the researchers are called, discussed and evaluated the available literature and concluded that the data was inadequate to draw conclusions for cancers other than glioma, a rare malignant type of brain cancer that strikes three to five people per 100,000 in population.
For gliomas, however, the scientists found limited evidence of carcinogenicity, meaning that a positive association between mobile phone use and cancer had been found, but that chance and bias could not be ruled out for this connection. The scientists did not specify the level of risk, but one previous study of mobile phone use showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy mobile phone users (which was classified as 30 minutes per day of use over a 10-year period).
The scientists found these results to be compelling enough to give RF electromagnetic fields a 2B classification as an agent that might cause cancer.
“The evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion and 2B classification,” says Dr. Jonathan Samet, overall chairman of the Working Group. “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.”
But was does this classification actually mean? The IARC Monographs scale is as follows:
Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans
Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans
Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans
Group 3: Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans
Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic to humans
RF electromagnetic radiation falls into category 2B, the same category as such innocuous potential cancer-causing agents such as coffee, talcum powder, and pickled vegetables. But also in the 2B category are more threatening agents such as DDT and gasoline and its fumes. So is mobile phone use innocuous or threatening?
“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,” says IARC director Christopher Wild. “Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices or texting.”
Translation: we don’t know if mobile phone use causes cancer, but there's certainly a compelling case to go hands-free when possible.