Hot Topic NBR Focus: GMO
Hot Topic NBR Focus: GMO
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Tuanz boss not worried by cellphone cancer study

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report suggests there may be some risk of cancer from using a mobile phone. Paul Brislen begs to differ. UPDATED with National Radiation Laboratory comment.

Chris Keall
Wed, 01 Jun 2011

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report released today says low-level radio frequency electromagnetic emissions should be reclassified as a possible human carcinogen.

The study, carried out by a WHO agency called the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), found that mobile phone use may increase the risk of glioma, a malignant brain cancer.

This led several media organisations to label cellphones as a possible cancer risk (read the Guardian's take here).

Telecommunications Users Association chief executive Paul Brislen begs to differ.

The Tuanz boss has been following the cellphone "radiation" debate for years, both in his current role, and past positions as a comms manager for Vodafone and editor of Computerworld. His general take - essayed on his personal blog here) - is that people are being alarmist or misinterpreting results.

After an initial scan of reports about the study released today, his view remains the same: "Cellphones do not give you cancer. I'm happy to stand by that."

Mr Brislen - a cancer survivor himself - pointed NBR to one paragraph in The Guardian's report that states:

In designating radio-frequency fields as "possibly carcinogenic", the WHO has put them on a par with around 240 other agents for which evidence of harm is uncertain, including low-level magnetic fields, talcum powder and working in a dry cleaners.

The report found no clear mechanism for the waves to cause brain tumours. Radiation from mobile phones is too weak to cause cancer by breaking DNA, leading scientists to suspect other, more indirect routes.

"That puts [cellphone emissions] on a par with talcum powder," Mr Brislen said.

"If that's the level we're talking about then I'm less concerned. Basically it's saying we must keep a watching brief and that's a sensible precaution for just about every product on the market."

The Tuanz boss noted that only a single substance made the WHO's "Group 4" rating - the agency's safest level - which means something is "Probably not carcinogenic to humans" (see table below).

"They're putting mobile phones on the same level as drinking coffee, and I'm happy with that. There are much bigger things to worry about."

THE IARC's risk table

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a subsidiary of the World Health Organisation, has classified mobile phones as a 2B cancer risk.

The IARC Groups are as follows, with some other exposures already classified (see the full list here):

  • Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans - 107 agents including asbestos, tobacco smoking, solar radiation
  • Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans - 59 agents including anabolic steroids, HPV 68, PCBs
  • Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans - 266 agents including lead, gasoline, mobile phone use
  • Group 3: Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans - 508 agents including fluorescent lighting, tea 
  • Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic to humans - 1 agent: caprolactam (a liquid associated with the manufacture of nylon)

Newer phones have lower emissions
Through the Science Media Centre, National Radiation Laboratory senior advisor Martin Gledhill commented that, "This conclusion is expected because IARC puts greater weight on the human data (epidemiology studies) some of which suggest the possibility of a small increased brain tumour risk for long term cellphone users. Nevertheless, this data is subject to a lot of uncertainty and it is acknowledged that biases in the data could be responsible for the apparent risk.

"It should be noted that the data on which this conclusion is based mostly arises from older technology phones. Newer technologies (3G/XT/CDMA) produce much lower exposures than these phones.

Simple steps to reduce exposure
Mr Gledhill said if If people are concerned there are simple steps people can take to reduce exposures:

  • Use the phone in places with a good signal strength, which allows the phone to transmit at reduced power.
  • Phones using the newer CDMA or 3G (UMTS) technologies usually provide greater reductions in power.
  • Minimise the length of time spent on calls. Use a conventional landline phone (ie, not cordless), or car kit with an external antenna

"Tests of hands-free kits have generally found that they reduce exposures to the head by up to 98%. To reduce exposure to all parts of the body, the phone should be placed away from the body when making a call," Mr Gledhill said.

Txting is another option for those worried about holding a cellphone close to their head.

Bluetooth earpieces are popular with some emission avoiders - but NBR does wonder (if harmful emissions are indeed being produced) if such people are saving their brains but - if their cellphone is one a belt or in a pocket - irradiating their crotch.

Consider technological benefits
Prof Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics & clinical engineering at Royal Berkshire Hospital, commented that, "It should also be stated that electromagnetic field exposure is not new - witness the regular usage of radio and other waves for many decades with no convincing health detriment at low powers. The social and technological benefits also need to be emphasised." 

Worth keeping an eye on, but could be no risk
Mary McBride, a clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia thought the 2b classification was appropriate, but underlined it did not necessarily mean mobile phones were a carcinogen:

 "Cellphone utilisation is widespread and increasing globally and the risk of brain tumours is not to be ignored. There have been isolated studies that show increased risk of cancer but it is useful to appreciate that the evidence is limited - some aspects of research suggest that lo-frequency radiation would not affect cancer risk at all." 

RAW DATA: WHO release: IARC classifies radio frequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (PDF)

Chris Keall
Wed, 01 Jun 2011
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Tuanz boss not worried by cellphone cancer study