Can mobile phones cause brain cancer?

1 Jun 2011

With the number of mobile phone subscriptions in the world now reaching 5bn, it is no doubt worrying that the World Health Organisation has classified radio frequency magnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans.

A new report from WHO scientists has classified mobile devices as possibly carcinogenic to humans based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant form of brain cancer associated with mobile phone use.

A working group of 31 scientists from 14 countries have been meeting at the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, to discuss the potential carcinogenic hazards from exposure to radio frequency magnetic fields.

The evidence was reviewed critically, and overall evaluated as being limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers. The evidence from the occupational and environmental exposures mentioned above was similarly judged inadequate.

Increased risk of glioma in heavy users of mobile devices?

The working group did not quantitate the risk; however, one study of past mobile phone use (up to the year 2004), showed a 40pc increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users (reported average: 30 minutes per day over a 10-year period).

Dr Jonathan Samet of the University of Southern California and overall chairman of the working group indicated that “the evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion and the 2B classification as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ to humans.

The conclusion means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between mobile phones and cancer risk.

“Given the potential consequences for public health of this classification and findings,” said IARC director Christopher Wild, “it is important that additional research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones.

“Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure, such as hands-free devices or texting.”

The working group considered hundreds of scientific articles; the complete list will be published in The Monograph.

A concise report summarising the main conclusions of the IARC working group and the evaluations of the carcinogenic hazard from radio frequency electromagnetic fields (including the use of mobile telephones) will be published in The Lancet Oncology in its July 1 issue, and in a few days online.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years