Wireless Industry Questions WHO Report on Mobile Phone Cancer Risk

By Brian T. Horowitz  |  Posted 2011-06-02

Wireless Industry Questions WHO Report on Mobile Phone Cancer Risk

After the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer issued a warning of a heightened risk of a type of brain cancer from heavy use of mobile phones, wireless industry experts have claimed that the research to date was not substantive enough to support the report's conclusion. 

From May 24 to 31, 31 scientists from 14 countries met in Lyon, France, to discuss non-ionizing radiation and the exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields, which mobile phones emit. In particular, the IARC examined whether cell phone use could be linked to the development of a form of brain tumors called gliomas.

"The evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion and the 2B classification," Dr. Jonathan Samet, from the University of Southern California and chairman of the WHO working group that met, said in a statement. "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."

An IARC 2B classification means that an item has been found to be "possibly carcinogenic to humans."

The IARC based its May 31 warning on hundreds of scientific articles and conducted no additional research. The full report will be published on the IARC's Monographs site. 

The scientific research used by the IARC as a basis for its report included the results of its Interphone project, an international study on the risk of cancer when using mobile phones. Interphone concluded that a risk of cancer did not exist among cell phone users despite the most intensive mobile users experiencing a possible slight increase in tumors.

Meanwhile, CTIA-The Wireless Association downplayed the IARC's warning. The results can be compared with the same scores given to "pickled vegetables and coffee," John Walls, vice president of public affairs for CTIA, said in a statement. "This IARC classification does not mean cell phones cause cancer," Walls said. "Under IARC rules, limited evidence from statistical studies can be found even though bias and other data flaws may be the basis for the results." 

In the past, both the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration have indicated that not enough information exists to link mobile phone usage with health problems.

On its Website, the FDA states that if a health hazard exists with cell phones, it would require manufacturers to "repair, replace or recall the phones so that the hazard no longer exists." 

The National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, described the IARC report as "neither new research nor at odds with previous findings." Still, like with IARC, NCI recommended continued monitoring of brain-cancer patterns, particularly for young users.

Meanwhile, The NTP (National Toxicology Program) at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has been conducting a study on mobile phone radio-frequency exposure using rodents. "The studies are designed to mimic human exposure and are based on the frequencies and modulations currently in use in the United States," NCI reports. 

Wireless Industry Questions WHO Report on Mobile Phone Cancer Risk

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More research will be needed before the relationship between cell phones and cancer is clear, according to tech industry experts. 

"They've drawn some conclusions based on some of the other studies that have been published, but clearly a lot more research needs to be done, not only on adults but on children as well," Gregg Malkary, founder and managing director of Spyglass Consulting Group, told eWEEK.

"First, folks need to realize that this study just shows there is a good reason to do additional studies; it isn't definitive, and that, to date, all of the definitive studies have shown no relationship to cancer," Rob Enderle, principal analyst for Enderle Group, wrote in an email to eWEEK. "They do indicate that the phones do change things in the brain but have been unable to explain what the repercussions of those changes are." 

If there were a hard link between brain cancer and mobile phones, the number of cancer cases would be "massive," Enderle noted. Because of a lack of related brain-cancer cases, the link either doesn't exist or more time is needed to study the connection, he said. 

Perhaps, a bigger health risk from mobile phones arises from using mobile phones while driving or even crossing the street. "There is actually a vastly bigger cell phone risk, and that comes from using the device while moving where the phones have caused accidents and death," Enderle said. 

"Right now, I think folks should monitor this and likely limit cell phone use by young children (for a lot of reasons), but otherwise shouldn't be too concerned with cancer risks from cell phone use as there is, as yet, no proof of a connection," he added.  

Although some mobile users may turn to Bluetooth headsets in the wake of the IARC report, most users won't change their mobile habits, according to experts. "If you're a high-powered user, you're a doctor, you're a salesperson, you're dependent on your phone," Malkary said.

"I don't believe it will make much of a difference," agreed Shahid Shah, CEO of IT consulting firm Netspective Communications and author of the Healthcare IT Guy blog, wrote in an email to eWEEK. "For one, many scientists disagree with the WHO report-there's a bit of scientific discrepancy, so we're not going to get enough agreement for it to drive significant behavior change in consumers." 

Innovation in the wireless industry will certainly continue as well, Malkary noted.

"I don't think this is going to slow down any of the innovations that are taking place today in terms of the use of communications in business or health care for that manner," he said. "That's a gravy train that continues to plow forward, particularly with the emergence of more unified-communications solutions to help improve communications and collaboration."


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