In a dramatic about-face, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified cell phone radiation as a possible cancer causer, saying the devices may be linked to an increased risk of glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer. For years, the WHO has maintained that there was no evidence of a link between cell phone radiation and cancer.
The adoption of the new position followed an 8-day review conducted by a panel of 31 scientists from 14 countries in Lyon, France last month. The panel, which was convened by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that cell phones are â€œpossibly carcinogenicâ€ to humans.
The scientists reviewed hundreds of studies – including the massive Interphone study published last year – before it reached its conclusion. The panel was swayed by two large epidemiologic studies that found an association between cell phone use and brain cancer, especially glioma, as well as a type of benign tumor known as acoustic neuroma, to change the classification for cell phone radiation. The group couldn’t reach a conclusion for other cancers.
â€œThe 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,â€ Jonathan M. Samet of the University of Southern California, chair of the panel, said in a statement issued by the IARC.
The panel did not quantitate the risk; however, one study of past cell phone use (up to the year 2004), showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users (reported average: 30 minutes per day over a 10â€year period).
The panel did note that the research they reviewed was limited, with much of it inconclusive. The scientists said more studies on cell phone radiation risks are urgently needed.
“Possibly carcinogenic” is WHO’s third highest cancer rating. Other common items included on the “possibly carcinogenic” list include talcum powder, low-frequency magnetic fields emitted by some appliances and power lines, DDT and gasoline engine exhaust.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 billion cell phones are in use. “The number of users is large and growing, particularly among young adults and children,” the IARC said in its press release. Children may face the greatest danger, as their skulls and scalps are thinner, which may allow cell phone radiation to more easily penetrate brain tissue.
Experts are advising that people concerned about the effects of cell phone radiation use landlines when possible, or use headsets with cords or speakerphone technology that keep the phone at a distance. Another option would be sending a text instead of making a call.
Most also agree that it could be decades before all of the health risks associated with cell phone use are known.