WHO Classifies Cell Phone Radiation as "Possibly Carcinogenic"


by Matthew L. Schafer

On Tuesday, with almost 91% of Americans now using cell phones, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as "possibly carcinogenic" to humans.  About 5 million people worldwide have cell phone subscriptions.

"[T]he evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a [the conclusion that cell phone use may cause cancer]," Dr. Jonathan Samet, Chairman of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, said in the report. "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."

According to the report, mobile phone use may increase the risk of developing glioma and acoustic neuroma.  Glioma is a type of cancer that attack the brain's glial cells, which normally act to protect the brains neurons.  Acoustic neuroma affects cells that are responsible for the protective the myelin sheath around nerves outside the brain.

Just last May, the WHO stated that "no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use."  It also noted that the results of the studies as of 2010 "have too many limitations to completely rule out an association."

"IARC conducts numerous reviews and in the past has given the same score to, for example, pickled vegetables and coffee," John Walls, Vice President of Public Affairs for the industry group The Wireless Association, said.  "This IARC classification does not mean cellphones cause cancer."

The IARC classified the electromagnetic frequency given off by cell phones as a "Group 2b" carcinogen.  Some other Group 2b carcinogens include: DDT (the controversal pesticide), lead, and gasoline.  Group 2b is the lowest level of confidence that the IARC uses when classifying something as carcinogenic, followed by Group 2a ("probably carcinogenic to humans"), and Group 1 ("carcinogenic to humans").

The IARC, which met from May 24-May 31, reviewed hundreds of previous studies to come to its conclusion of the possible link between cell phones and cancer.  It did not conduct any new research.  IARC has also been criticized in the past for its lack of transparency in classifying chemicals and other compounds as carcinogenic.

This recent classification adds to a growing swell of controversy surrounding cell phone use and cancer.  Just last June, the City of San Francisco passed its widely publicizedCell Phone Right to Know” ordinance. 

The ordinance required cell phone retailers to disclose the phone's "SAR" rating, which is short for specific absorbtion rate and measures how much radiation is absorbed by the body.  Just days after San Francisco passed the law, The Wireless Association filed a lawsuit claiming that the law would cause "consumer confusion."  Ironically, after the long controversy over the law, San Francisco finally gave up fighting the suit just three weeks ago, and discontinued the legislation. 

While it's still unclear whether cell phones do, in fact, cause cancer, it is clear that people likely won't stop using cell phones no matter the science.  As Maureen Dowd said of society's love affair with technology, “We don’t yet really know the physical and psychological impact of being slaves to technology...  We’re living in the cloud, in a force field, so afraid of being disconnected and plunged into a world of silence and stillness that even if scientists told us our computers would make our arms fall off, we’d probably keep typing.”


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